2018 has seen the reappearance of chemical terrorism. Unfortunately, it has reappeared in and around the British county of Wiltshire. Parties unknown, allegedly assassins doing the work of the Russian state, used a highly toxic and highly persistent nerve agent. This was done to try to kill a Russian defector, Sergei Skripal, at his home in Salisbury. He and his daughter Yulia were gravely ill and eventually recovered after serious medical interventions at Salisbury District Hospital. A police constable was also injured and treated. The nerve agent was part of a family of chemicals, the so-called “Novichoks”, invented by the Soviet Union. It’s identity as the substance “A-234” was inadvertently confirmed by Russian official statements.
Many weeks later, two people (Charlie Rowley and Dawn Sturgess) fell ill in nearby Amesbury. Both were hospitalised with clinical signs very similar to the previous victims. Ms. Sturgess died from her condition, while Mr. Rowley made an eventual recovery. Police and media statements indicate that the couple had handled a perfume bottle containing Novichok.
While the whole drama of the Novichok incidents continue to unfold in real time in front of us, and will continue to do so for some time to come, it is important that those of us with responsibilities for public safety and security learn what lessons we can right now.
The purpose of this article is to try to encapsulate some of the lessons we can learn now. But first, a small primer on the basics.
What are nerve agents?
Nerve agents are a family of chemicals, which includes organophosphates and carbamates, that were originally developed as pesticides. These chemicals interfere with the chemistry of the human nervous system causing chemical imbalances which, in turn, cause major malfunctions in things like muscles and glands. As we literally use muscles to breathe (our diaphragm) and to circulate our blood (our heart), loss of control of these can be fatal.
A subcategory of nerve agents were developed as chemical warfare agents, starting in the late 1930s in Nazi Germany. The chemical nicknames Tabun, Sarin, Soman, and VX may be familiar to anyone who did military CBRN training. Nerve agents were used by Iraq in the Iran-Iraq war, and have been used by the Syrian government against civilians in the Syrian Civil War. They were also used in several instances by the Aum cult in Japan in the mid 1990s.
The Novichok agents were developed only in the Soviet Union and were meant to be improvements on the earlier nerve agents. There’s no evidence of manufacturing or stockpiling of the Novichok agents outside of the USSR and Russia. It should also be noted that some nerve agents are commercial pesticides, while some nerve agents in the carbamate family are used as medicines, such as physostigmine. The term “nerve gas” is not correct and marks one out as an amateur – the nerve agents are liquids and some can even be in solid form.
Chemical terrorism is a real thing
The first lesson we can learn from the Novichoks is that chemical warfare agents and their use is not consigned to foreign lands and to foreign wars. Indeed, chemical warfare is largely useless in conflicts between modern militaries as it is one of the few battlefield hazards that good training and equipment can completely eliminate. It retains its use against the unprotected – Syrian children, Kurdish farmers, and people going about their business in Wiltshire. The lesson is this – we cannot write off chemical terrorism as too hard to do or too exotic. It needs to be on one’s planning horizon and in the risk register.
Liquid nerve agents are not magic
A lot of strange ideas started to run rampant after the Skripals fell ill. However, it is important to stick to the basic facts here. Nerve agent liquids, Novichok or otherwise, are not magic. Liquids behave like, erm… liquids. They do not “leak out” of Porton Down and fly through the air for miles, leaving the intervening areas untouched, only to land on one door handle. They do not suddenly jump off a door handle and affect everyone who walks by. Persistent nerve agents, like the Novichoks are designed to last a long time in the environment. They evaporate slowly and are primarily a “contact hazard” – i.e. they affect people by absorbing through the skin. Also, they are not “instantly lethal” – absorption through the skin can take a long time, many hours. This is good because it gives a reasonable period of time for someone to seek help. Also, this means that the primary means of self defence is not a full protective suit or sophisticated breathing apparatus. The primary method of protection is gloves. This does not mean that such things cannot be a hazard in other forms. But creating a breathing hazard with such persistent agents usually requires a physical mechanism to create a cloud of small droplets. This could be done in a bombing-type incident, but fortunately we’ve not seen that sort of thing yet.
Nerve agents are treatable
A key lesson learned in Salisbury is that exposure to nerve agents, while it is a medical emergency, is not a death sentence. Novichoks affect the human body in the same basic way as the other nerve agents, and there is a widely understood method for treating people who are experiencing nerve agent poisoning. The widely available drug atropine is a lifesaving treatment in these situations. Atropine and other nerve agent-related drugs are stockpiled in the UK for emergencies. Atropine is available on NHS ambulances and is in every hospital. Protocols for treating nerve agents are widely circulated, and are freely available online. Nerve agent terrorism is in the emergency plans for NHS hospitals. The idea, circulated by some online, that “Novichoks have no antidote” is clearly bogus. Four of the five people exposed survived, and the person who died seems to have sprayed the substance directly on her wrists in some quantity, so she clearly received a higher dose than the others.
Another important lesson to be learned is that one person getting sick and collapsing is a normal day’s event. But two people, in the same place, around the same time (even if a few hours apart), with the same general condition, is an alarm bell. It’s not normal and you should consider it suspicious. Three people, and it’s definitely something seriously wrong until it can be proven otherwise. This idea is well-embedded in UK CBRN training for the emergency services as the “STEP 1-2-3” concept and it is well worth observing.
Myths and Conspiracy theories run rampant
It is an axiom of our modern times that strange situations will rapidly spawn strange stories. In the case of deliberate acts like the Novichok incident, it is very much in the interests of the perpetrators to cloud the situation. Upwards of 35 fake news stories about the Skripal poisoning, ranging from the simple (attempted suicide, for example) to the ridiculous (a restaurant served poisonous exotic expensive fugu fish that was not on its menu), have been started in the Russian state-owned media and have been circulated long and hard on social media. Other conspiracy theories seem to have been organically grown and promoted. The point behind such information warfare operations is generally not to tell a convincing story that everyone will believe. The point is to distribute enough confusion so that people give up trying to figure out the truth. The lesson here is that any similar incident in the future will be covered in such a dense web of bad information that many will find themselves confused. This makes the struggle to stick to the factual narrative and actual evidence all the more important. It also makes it important to find good sources of news. Finally, do not spread rumour, innuendo, and conspiracy theory itself. It does not help the security profession.
The dangers of extending the lesson too far
It is also important to remember that the threat will not always be persistent liquid nerve agents. There is always a tendency to fight the last battle, not the current one. For example, the Tokyo Sarin situation provides some interesting lessons. But the knowledge base at the time was about military usage of chemical weapons, not terrorism in the civil environment. In turn, Tokyo is not the template by which to judge Sarin-related situations in Syria, which use larger quantities and specifically designed weapon systems made by the Syrian government. Likewise, using knowledge gained from Syria to judge the Novichok situation is a course of action which will yield little. So, the best advice is to deal with what’s in front of you and not try to force-fit the past into the current situation.
Experts in this field are few and far between. But we are here. The author is a member of ASIS UK and the Worshipful Company of Security Professionals. There are others like me who can help our colleagues in the profession.
About Dan Kaszeta
Dan Kaszeta has worked in chemical warfare defence sectors for an entire 27 year career, which spans service as a US Army Chemical Officer, in the White House Military Office, and in the US Secret Service. He is now a London-based author and internationally respected consultant in the field and the Managing Director of Strongpoint Security