Chlorine, mustard, sulphur-mustard and worse have been used in Iraq and Syria by state actors and non-state actors such as Daesh. While state actors like the Syrian regime have access to documented and suspected chemical munitions facilities, non-state actors rely more on improvised chemical weapon (CW) labs for the synthesis and fabrication of improvised munitions

The first documented use of sulphur mustard by Daesh occurred on 11 August 2015, when it fired mortar rounds at a village south of Erbil under Kurdish Peshmerga control. An assessment conducted in 2016 by IHS Conflict Monitor indicated that at least 52 chemical attacks had taken place on the battlefield in Syria and Iraq.

Continued use of chemical warfare agents (CWAs) on the battlefield culminated with missile responses by several western governments on facilities under the control of the Assad regime in Syria. Coalition forces also responded with air assaults against Daesh-identified chemical munitions facilities in both Iraq and Syria.

Fast-forward to the July 2017 Sydney, Australia hydrogen sulphide plot. This is one instance where Daesh knowledge gained on the battlefields of Iraq and Syria may proliferate as foreign fighters attempt to return to their home countries.

This further reinforces the imperative of responders being able to successfully apply ‘left-of-the-boom’ strategies when dealing with improvised warfare agents (IWAs) and other weaponized toxic industrial chemicals (W-TIC).

Finding the labs

Effective tactics honed when addressing the threat of IEDs – specifically, applying similar left-of-the-boom strategies learned while containing these threats – substantially increases the odds that IWA plots can be successfully disrupted, dismantled, and interdicted prior to the execution of these plots.

It is relatively easy to identify and monitor large industrial facilities related to the production of warfare agents and their precursors. Western governments, UN bodies and other NGOs have the specialised tools and skill sets required to monitor and assess activities of these facilities.

Tracking clandestine supply chains, smaller quantities of precursors, and identifying small IWA/W-TIC clandestine labs becomes much more difficult as Daesh knowledge disperses through affiliated terrorism activities outside the Middle East. First responders, investigators, military units and others that may be the first on-scene to run across these activities may not have the same level of subject matter expertise found in national and international organisations tasked with monitoring nation-state activities.

Their recognition of suspicious activities, chemicals and equipment likely found in these clandestine facilities coupled with good intelligence are keys to the early, and successful, interdiction of plots involving IWA/W-TIC.

Order out of chaos

While there is no replacement for a properly trained operator on the ground, decision support tools, when coupled with the right sensing and sampling kit, can certainly act as a potent force multiplier by providing ‘so what does that mean’ insights to responders on-scene.

They can also quickly identify appropriate protective actions and consequence management measures given the hazards found on-scene. Traditionally, point-results from detectors – especially when there are no tell-tale ‘smoking gun’ detection results – along with other observable indicators documented on-scene are forwarded back to subject matter experts at analysis centres. These may be located many kilometres or time zones away from where operational decisions need to be made.

The overheads associated with this process, and the time delays involved in getting results back on-scene result in potentially lost opportunities in the timely disruption of these suspect activities. When indicators on-scene do not point to an outcome known by responders, HazMasterG3 has a clandestine laboratory identification tool where the observed indicators can be selected, and HazMasterG3 will cross-correlate these inputs to indicate the mostly likely purpose of the lab.

Making actionable decisions

Integrating detection point results, along with observable indicators found by responders’ on-scene decision support systems like Alluviam’s HazMasterG3, can now be done on today’s smartphones and tablets customarily carried by responders. This makes it possible to cross-correlate these indicators and detection results in near real-time to determine the intent of a clandestine lab, and to answer a range of other questions directly at the point of need on-scene.

A decision support tool like HazMasterG3 allows responders to take the point-detection results from detectors and virtually mix them together to model the most likely end-product formulations being made in the lab. This can be done along with calculating potentially how much end-product could be made, given the quantities of chemicals found on-scene. HazMasterG3 also indicates what key materials may be missing to complete a given formulation, or what substitutes could be used in place of any of the key ingredients within a formulation.

Answering questions

After an entry team samples unidentified chemicals found on-scene, these results can be factored in with observable on-scene indicators to reinforce, or refute, assumptions made about a lab’s purpose, given the initial observable indicators found on-scene.

 There is a certain overlap between some equipment, consumables and labs (illicit narcotics, explosives, IWAs, etc). The presumptive results of pointdetection samples, combined with the observable indicators of equipment, protective gear, and other consumables found on-scene, can help illuminate the type of lab along with other hazards present on-scene.

This provides valuable insight for responders to know when determining potential mitigation, decontamination and other consequence management protocols. It is also useful for other follow-on intelligence and investigational purposes.

Combining decision support with detection technologies directly at the point of need at an incident puts advanced tools into the hands of responders and investigators. It provides valuable insights to help keep responders safe, answer ‘so-what questions’ such as, what is being made in the lab – and to help build more complete prosecution packages to achieve convictions in court.

HazMasterG3, Alluviam’s flagship decision-support product earned US Department of Homeland Security Certification and Designation as an approved counter-terrorism technology. in 2006. With an extensive database of over 167,000 materials and trade names, it is the only mobile technology available that has earned this certification. It is deployed into several programmes of record and is used at training centres both in the US and with NATO.

Greg Ouzounian is the Director of Business Development at Alluviam LLC. He spent over twelve years in the US intelligence community working on terrorism, trans-national, narcotics and other special collection problems.