Dr Dave Sloggett looks at the various trends in CBRN incidents reported in 2013 in the United Kingdom
The graphic images of dead women and children released in the wake of the sarin gas attack that was conducted in the suburbs of Damascus last year provide a timely reminder of the impact chemical weapons can have on a population. With sarin also being found in at least two locations in Baghdad in the summer of 2012 and reported to have been intercepted at a safe-house in Turkey the worry that terrorists groups might make good on their claims to be seeking to smuggle this substance into the west to use it as a weapon of mass destruction is very real. This time the talk may not all be hyperbole.
Against this dangerous and rapidly evolving backdrop the publication of last year’s annual analysis of reports fed into the Police CBRN Centre at Ryton-on-Dunsmore in the United Kingdom by the police forces are worthy of specific scrutiny. Do they give any warnings and indications of an increase in CBRN related activity that could suggest terrorists have been inspired by what happened in Damascus? Or is the situation somewhat similar to past years?
A careful study of the pictures does not reveal any major alarming trends. Overall the total number of reports received from police forces across the year is significantly up on the figure of 332 for 2012. The total for 2013 at 392 represents an increase of 18% over the year in the number of reports that have been received. But that per se is not a clear indicator that terrorists groups are moving onto a new footing with respect to CBRN weapons. In fact the picture is somewhat patchy.
One obvious contributing factor to the increase is that police forces are increasing their engagement with the centre at Ryton-on-Dunsmore. This is bound to place an upward pressure on the figures. Key to understanding the figures are the percentage of reports that are filed by the Metropolitan Police Service (MPS). In 2012 it was the source of 150 reports. In 2013 that had marginally increased to 172. As a percentage of the overall reports submitted to the Police CBRN Centre in 2013 the rate of reports generated by the MPS is unchanged at just under 45%. Perhaps understandably the next two highest reporting police forces were West Yorkshire at 26 and West Midlands at 23 events.
Reports from these three police forces represent 56% of the total reporting produced in the United Kingdom. With just over 50% of the total reports filed to the centre being related to white powder incidents clearly indicates there is a level of vigilance about the potential threat that is commendable. In 2012 the total number of white powder reports was 84. In 2013 a total of 209 reports were generated, a figure well over twice the level of the previous year’s records.
This is probably a reflection of the increased concerns that exist over the rapidly evolving terrorism threat in the United Kingdom with specific concerns about people returning from Syria as an obvious focal point. What it does show is that people are being vigilant about the potential threat. Ensuring that high degree of awareness is sustained is an important point. With so many turning out to be false alarms the concern has to be that complacency could easily set in ahead of a real world event.
One other notable point to emerge from the figures is the steady but noticeable increase in the number of chemical fatalities in the United Kingdom. In 2012 the total of 35 was already an increase on previous years. In 2013 the total of 49 represents a significant (40%) increase. There is also quite a variety of substances that get used in these incidents. Helium is one that occurs quite frequently as is Potassium Cyanide. Incidents involving propane, lime sulphur and bleach as well as Hydrogen Sulphide were also reported. Clearly accessing dangerous chemicals is not an issue. The danger is that terrorists will see these events and contemplate devising their own ways of using them to kill larger numbers of people.
Of all the chemical fatalities recorded in 2013 the deaths of a married Russian couple in Edinburgh at the beginning of August in the five-star Scotsman hotel certainly created a media furore. It was by far the highest profile event in the year.
Pictures of members of the emergency services in Scotland dressed in full CBRN kit gave weight to the seriousness of the incident. The couple involved had ingested a cocktail of chemicals. They were discovered dead in their room when they failed to check-out of the hotel on time. Hotel staff unaware of the potential risks from the bodies off-gassing the chemicals that had been ingested had unwittingly placed themselves in danger despite the obvious presence of manuals and notes on the bed which alluded to the couple’s plans to kill themselves.
When the emergency services arrived at the scene the fourth floor of the hotel was quickly evacuated. At the same time a wedding party was getting under way in the hotel. The response of the emergency services quickly saw the two bodies removed from the scene in CBRN body bags.
What these numbers show quite clearly is that there is a continuing issue about the increasing rate of chemical suicides. At the current rate of incidences each fire and rescue service in the United Kingdom can, on average, expect at least one incident involving a chemical fatality every year.
Looking across the wider reporting of other CBRN-related incidents the reports of radiological discoveries barely changed at 13 for 2013 in contrast to 16 in 2012. Two involved the theft of Iridium 192 and Radium in the North West of the United Kingdom. Reports concerned with biological agents were, by comparison significantly lower, down from 20 in 2012 to 4 in 2013. Chemical incidents were also down over the year from 104 in 2012 to 82.
While these figures provide little substantive evidence that the CBRN threat in the United Kingdom has worsened as a result of what is happening in Syria there are other factors that also come into play. One of these surrounds increasing anecdotal evidence of the ways in which proliferation of a number of technologies is creating new capabilities for terrorists.
This creates a highly uncertain environment in which terrorists may suddenly find themselves able to assemble novel forms of weapons that could be used in a way that creates strategic surprise. So despite the lack of any hard evidence in the CBRN reporting that provides indicators that terrorists are trying to harness the capabilities of these weapons this is not a good time to be letting down our guard. If there is one lesson to take away from the use of chemical weapons in Syria is that when they are deployed against an unsuspecting population the results can look like Armageddon has just dawned.