COMMENTARY

Chemical Warfare in Syria and Chemical Terrorism: The Clinical Perspective

Alexander Garza, MD, MPH

Disclosures

September 18, 2013

In This Article

Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear, and Explosive Weapons

Events in 2013 remind us that terrorism and the use of chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, and explosive weapons (CBRNE) remain ever-present dangers to the United States and the world. On April 15, 2013, improvised explosive devices were used to attack spectators at the Boston Marathon, killing 3 and wounding 264. The weapons used in the attack were reportedly based on a design published in an English-language online magazine by an al-Qaeda affiliate in Yemen. Other issues of this magazine have called on jihadists to use chemical and biological weapons as well. The day after the Boston bombing, the first of 3 letters containing the toxin ricin, addressed to government officials, including President Barack Obama, were intercepted. However, the most significant event has been the recent use of chemical weapons by the government of Syria which reportedly have killed over 1000 people.

The United States and other countries continue to remain concerned about Syria's stockpile of chemical weapons. Chemical warfare agents in Syria's arsenal are believed to include mustard gas, sarin, and VX. Of most concern is that these weapons could again be used on the people of Syria, potentially transferred by the Syrian government to proxy groups such as Hezbollah, or stolen during the chaos created by the country's civil war. One of the rebel groups, Jabhat al-Nusra (al-Nusra Front), has declared its allegiance to Ayman al-Zawahiri (declared the leader of al-Qaeda following Osama bin Laden's death in 2011) and is viewed as a terrorist organization that is a threat to the United States.

Although the use of chemical weapons occurred halfway around the world, it is important to understand why the Obama administration is so concerned about them, how these weapons were used, and the clinical effects of these weapons should they ever become an instrument of terror in the United States.

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