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Recent ‘Chemical Incidents’ in France and Taiwan

Gp Capt Ajey Lele (Retd.) is a Consultant at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • June 30, 2015

    Two unrelated events during the last week of June 2015 require special attention. On June 26, three terror attacks took place in different parts of the world; the attacks in Tunisia and Kuwait caused more than 60 deaths while one person was beheaded in the attack in France. A day later, on June 27, nearly 500 people were injured at a water park in Taiwan when an accidental explosion at a musical event caused a raging fire.

    A common ‘thread’ could be found in the events in France and Taiwan. The commonality is restricted to one aspect and that is the connection with chemicals. It needs to be mentioned at the outset that these events are not cases of chemical terrorism in a classical sense. But they still could be analysed against the backdrop of a ‘chemical incident’.

    The attack in France involved the beheading carried out by a 35 year old person named Yassine Salhi. He beheaded his boss and probably also took a selfie with the dead body. Salhi, a driver with a US-owned chemical warehouse operating in France, succeeded in causing a huge blast by ramming his van onto the factory gate of a warehouse containing canisters of acetone, liquid air and gas. In the Taiwan incident, some green powder was shot out from the stage over the audience and this powder got quickly ignited and the fire spread to envelope the crowd.

    The Taiwan accident does not look appear to be an intentional act of using chemicals to cause harm. The accidental fire in the Taiwanese park is an indirect demonstration about how fast a specific chemical could ignite and spread the fire and what could be the severity of its impact in a crowded place.

    The jury is not yet out with regard to the exact intention behind the attack on the factory in Saint-Quentin-Fallavier, about 30 kilometres outside of Lyon, France. The factory is known to deal with chemicals like acetone and few others. Acetone is a colourless, volatile, flammable liquid. Historically, compounds like Acetone peroxide, Bromoacetone, Chloroacetone, etc. have been used as chemical weapons. Video surveillance footage from the factory shows that the perpetrator was also trying to open canisters containing flammable chemicals. Probably, the attacker was expecting a much bigger explosion. A major fire could have impacted not only this factory but adjoining buildings as well. There is no specific information available about the exact nature and amount of chemicals stored in the warehouse. Hence, it is difficult to judge the probable nature of damage if the attacker had succeed in opening canisters and spreading chemicals in the air.

    Technically, chemical weapons could be dispersed in gas, liquid and solid forms. At present, multiple delivery mechanisms are available for this purpose. Normally, chemicals could be dispersed in a crowd by using canisters, cylinders, etc. When chemical weapons were used during the First World War, they were delivered on targets mostly by small surface-to-surface missiles. Also, crop-dusting aircraft could be used for spraying chemicals on larger (area) targets. Nerve gas and tear gas sticks as well as various spraying mechanisms could also be used to deliver chemical agents on targets. In the ongoing Syrian civil war, during 2013, incidents of chemical weapons usage occurred. These weapons were essentially chemicals from the Syrian Army's old stockpile and had fallen into the wrong hands.

    In modern day conflict, particularly for any non-state actor/terrorist organisation, it would be difficult to directly use chemical weapons owing to the fear of early identification. This is because it is difficult to hide cylinders, drums, spraying mechanism, small missiles, etc. while launching an attack in a crowded place. Probably, this is one of the reasons why Chemical Terrorism has not emerged as a viable option. However, there exists a possibility that a terror group could undertake an act of sabotage in any chemical factory to create large scale damage. Was the June 26, 2015 act in France a case of causing intentional damage to a chemical storage facility? Although it would be premature to reach any definitive conclusion at this stage, such a possibility cannot be ruled out.

    It is important to appreciate the likely nature of damage any act of sabotage in a chemical factory can bring about. Some parallels could be drawn from the case of accidental gas release from the horrific Bhopal Gas tragedy of 1984, which resulted in some 4000 deaths. In the case of the recent attack in France, the attacker had probably hoped to cause a much bigger blast, believing that the canisters were more combustible than they proved to be. The apparent intention behind the attack appears to have been to blow up the factory. There was also the possibility of accidental leakage of chemicals into the atmosphere. Luckily, the nature of damage and particularly the loss to human life was minimal in this case. But as the Bhopal incident demonstrated, worse could happen if any accident in a chemical factory (sabotage or otherwise) takes place.

    What happened in a water park in Taiwan was a case of accidental explosion. However, this incident demonstrates how easily and quickly a spray of chemical dust could cause and spread fire.

    In terms of specifics, both these incidents were different. But together they indicate what an act of chemical terrorism could achieve.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India