Terrorism and “poor man`s nuclear weapons”

Founding Director of PIR Center; Founding President of the Trialogue Club International
July 26, 2016

I would like to focus your attention on new challenges that might as well overshadow the terrorism as we know it. I mean terrorism involving weapons of mass destruction such as nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons. However, this issue can hardly be called a “new challenge,” as the international community has been facing these challenges for the last two decades.

Russia faced this threat during its counter-terrorism operation in the North Caucasus. But it managed to withstand the onslaught and eliminate the risks at their source.

Now, however, this threat has become tangible in other regions of the world as well.

Certain aspects of this challenge have been addressed through the existing international legal framework. For example, there is the UN Security Council resolution 1540, which deals precisely with countering non-state actors in terms of the use of weapons and components of mass destruction, and there is also the Russian-initiated Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism. To date 104 states have signed up to it. I believe that this is a very important international legal instrument and one that must not be overlooked.

There is, however, a gap in international law relating, first of all, to chemical weapons, as well as biological weapons.

I looked through the statistics on Syria over the last three years, and they indicate that chemical weapons were used not by Assad’s troops, but by the terrorists. I will not mention all the cases, but will highlight some of them.

On 19 March 2013, a shell filled with chemical warfare agents, was used in the suburbs of Aleppo, killing 26 civilians and Syrian army soldiers, and injuring 86 people. Samples analysed by a Russian laboratory certified by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons showed the following:

  • the shell used was fabricated in an improvised manner, and was similar in type and parameters to the unguided rockets manufactured in northern Syria by the Bashair An-Nasr group;
  • hexogen was used as an explosive, which is not the case in standard chemical munitions;
  • samples collected from the shell and soil contained the nerve agent sarin synthesised not under industrial conditions.

On 11 April 2014, fighters of Jabhat al-Nusra, an Islamic terrorist group allied with Al-Qaeda, dispersed chlorine. As a result, 2 people were killed and approximately one hundred were injured.

In June 2015, terrorists used “improvised chemical munitions”to attack Kurdish rebels in the Al-Hasakah Province in northeast Syria. Later, the use of chemical weapons by “Islamic State” against the Syrian Kurds was confirmed by an investigation conducted by two independent research organisations based in the United Kingdom.

On 8 March 2015, the Kurdish People’s Protection Unitsclaimed that terrorists, including from Ahrar al-Sham, used what is presumed to have been phosphorus munitions in an attack on an area in Aleppo.

Fortunately, the situation around Aleppo has already changed for the better, thanks to the efforts of the Syrian army and Russia’s assistance. But does this mean that there has been any change in the overall situation with the “poor man’s nuclear weapons” i.e. chemical weapons that are much easier to manufacture than nuclear weapons and are much easier to use on the battlefield or against civilians?

This March, Russia proposed transferring discussions on this issue to the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva and launching work there on a new convention, the Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Chemical Terrorism. This would be particularly apt as the convention prohibiting nuclear weapons was drafted in Geneva. Some people propose expanding this agenda by including the biological weapons issue as well, which Sergey Lavrov has referred to on number of occasions.

I believe that the problems relating to chemical weapons, as we see today in Syria, could crop up in other parts of the world as well. Terrorists have demonstrated their interest in biological weapons in some parts of Africa. I think we should proceed to eliminate the gaps in international law and start drafting conventions for the suppression of acts of chemical and biological terrorism. And it seems to me that Geneva would be the best possible platform for that.