Hamish de Bretton-Gordon (OBE) is a highly operationally experienced CBRN practitioner and a leading expert in chemical and biological counterterrorism and warfare. He was the commanding officer of the U.K. Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN) Regiment between 2003 and 2007 and NATO’s Rapid Reaction CBRN Battalion between 2005 and 2007. A veteran of the First Gulf War and tours in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Balkans, he retired from the British Army in 2011. He advises the British Ministry of Defence and the Foreign Office as well as the Kurdistan Regional Government on CBRN issues and is the managing director of CBRN at Avon Protection, which designs, develops, and manufactures CBRN respiratory protection products. In recent years, he has made several trips to Syria to document chemical weapons attacks and continues to help the CBRN Taskforce (which was set up by Syrian medical NGOs in 2014) collect evidence inside the country. He is a director of Doctors Under Fire and an adviser to the Union of Medical Care and Relief Organisations (UOSSM) in Syria.
CTC: What are your greatest concerns when you look at the spectrum of CBRN threats?
De Bretton-Gordon: There are three major things which concern me. The first is the continued active use of chemical weapons against civilians in Syria. I’m part of a fairly small number of CBRN weapons experts who have spent time on the ground there and can attest to a modus operandi by the Assad regime in which they use chemical warfare agents in besieged rebel areas they find difficult to seize. The regime has primarily been using sarin and chlorine for this purpose. It was the use of chlorine barrel bombs by pro-Assad forces that broke resistance during the four-year siege of Aleppo in December 2016. It was the use of chlorine and sarin by the regime that broke resistance in the sieges of Harasta and Ghouta, Damascus suburbs, in early 2018. It was the use of chlorine and sarin that broke resistance during the siege of Douma in April this year.
The only large area not under regime control is now Idlib province. My number-one concern for Syria now is the regime will use chemical weapons in its upcoming attempt to defeat rebel forces there. We’re taking about a very small area just 50 miles long and 40 miles wide with five million trapped inside with the remnants of the jihadis, probably a fighting force of about 5,000 fighters.
My second big concern is that terrorists will deploy CBRN weapons in the West and internationally. I don’t think the turmoil that is being caused by the Salisbury Novichok attack in the U.K. in March 2018 has gone unnoticed by the jihadis. There are a number of warning signs. Jihadis have been working on chemical weapons for some time, and they have been perfecting their ability to use them. We’ve seen widespread use of chemical weapons in Syria and Iraq by the Islamic State. We’ve seen jihadis trying to develop chemical weapons in Australia. We’ve recently seen a potential ricin attack thwarted in Cologne, Germany, in which the quality of the toxin—ricin in this case—was extremely high.
My third big concern relates again to the Novichok attack in Salisbury. We now know that the Russians have an asymmetric capability in Novichok that overmatches NATO’s ability to defend against it. If the Russians used it tomorrow, we would certainly be found wanting and that will continue to be the case until we’ve got necessary defensive measures in place. To make the issue hit home, let’s compare it to what is going on in Syria. The Assad regime is mixing sarin with chlorine and using it at the lowest tactical level. They’re even putting it into hand grenades. If there was an East-West confrontation, and the Russians decided to use chemical weapons, not only would it be a strategic weapon for them but it also would be a tactical weapon. We’ve never envisaged this and how one would defend against it.
CTC: There is an ongoing murder investigation into the Novichok poisoning by British counterterrorism police. The British government has stated “to a very high assurance”1 that the Russian State was behind the attack that nearly killed former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter. Last month, a British woman died after coming into contact with the nerve agent in a discarded perfume bottle.2 What are your main takeaways?
De Bretton-Gordon: Number one, it was a really professional attack that went way beyond the capabilities of non-state actors. It’s worth recalling that the Japanese death cult Aum Shinrikyo spent years and millions of dollars to make a relatively small amount of poor-quality sarin. Novichok is in a whole different ballgame.
I’m absolutely convinced from all the intelligence I’ve seen that the Russians were responsible. As I understand, the Novichok used in the assassination attempt was 100-percent pure, which is why the British government has been so confident in saying Russia was responsible, and this is where the comment from U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May [on] ‘’military-grade’’ nerve agent comes from. If you had the precursors and were going to combine it in anywhere else apart from a sophisticated laboratory, you would get some contamination there. You couldn’t not.
It seems the most likely scenario is the Novichok was transported from Russia in a sealed perfume container. It would raise few questions and be easy to transport.
The attack has revealed a great deal to Western intelligence services about Russian capabilities. There was very little known about the Novichok threat before the attack. The discovery of the perfume bottle is a goldmine for them—not least, of course, for the likely DNA from the surface of the bottle.
The survival of the Skripals was down to a huge amount of luck. Salisbury is very near to the British CBRN research center at Porton Down. There were two doctors on duty who had just done their CBRN course at Porton Down who very quickly thought it was nerve agent. So they were pumped full of atropine. The other thing is Salisbury hospital is configured to deal with any accident at Porton Down. One of the reasons Salisbury hospital was not contaminated was because they know what to do.
Hamish de Bretton-Gordon in the Turkey-Syria border area analyzing samples after a suspected chlorine attack in Syria (Photo supplied by Hamish de Bretton-Gordon)
CTC: We know through various accounts that al-Qa`ida was developing CBRN capabilities, especially on the chemical side, in Afghanistan before 9/11. We know that the Islamic State and its predecessor groups, including al-Qa`ida in Iraq, worked to further develop those capabilities.3 And we know that the Islamic State launched a significant number of sulfur mustard and chlorine attacks in Syria and Iraq between 2014 and 2017.4 What worries you about the capability of jihadis to use these kind of weapons?
De Bretton-Gordon: We’ve always looked at a chemical weapon attack in the West as being massive impact but low probability. I think we’re now looking at massive impact and high probability. One reason is that jihadi terrorists in Syria and Iraq have developed and deployed chemical weapons. And even though they have lost hold of much of their territory, that expertise almost certainly remains, and they may judge they have less to lose by carrying out such attacks internationally. It is likely that those who remain are some of the most resilient and hardline who will have no philosophical issues with using these deadly weapons against civilians in the West. Another is that the quality of jihadi chemical and biological weapons efforts has increased, as evidenced by the alleged ricin terrorist plot in Cologne, Germany, broken up in June 2018.
What makes chemical weapons attractive to groups like ISIS is the terrible psychological impact of chemical weapons. I’ve witnessed how these chemicals have frightened even experienced doctors in Syria and Iraq, deterring them from responding to such attacks.
I fear terrorist groups will look at the cost-benefit of using toxic industrial chemicals like chlorine or cyanide or ammonia and conclude it’s a dead easy decision to make. It takes no great preparation to produce crude chemical weapons out of such substances, and there’s no great control over them. Although these toxic chemicals aren’t terribly poisonous, they still will kill or injury people and terrify millions. The Salisbury attack showed jihadis how easy it is to transport chemical warfare agents. Nerve agents are at the higher end of the difficulty scale for jihadi groups to produce and may currently be beyond their capability, but the Salisbury attack demonstrated to jihadis the fact that you only need a very small amount of nerve agent to create havoc. It basically shut down six blocks for six months.
I recently ran a conference in New York City for the agencies there, which focused on the potential danger from chemical weapons attacks to the area. The disruption caused by interfering with transport networks, particularly underground transport networks and air networks, would be very significant. I think it’s very good that we’re now thinking about this and putting mitigation in place to counter it, but that is why I think it’s so attractive to the terrorists.
CTC: We know from the account of Aimen Dean, a former MI6 spy inside al-Qa`ida’s WMD program, that the terrorist group was developing a capability to carry out poison gas attacks with what they called a mubtakkar device, a poison gas dispersal device that they were working on perfecting in Afghanistan before 9/11. And we know from that account that al-Qa`ida planned in 2003 to deploy the devices in a poison gas attack in the New York City subway before calling off the plot. And we know that technology got into the hands of al-Qa`ida affiliates in Saudi Arabia and Iraq.5 Fast forward to the summer of 2017, and there is an alleged plot thwarted in Australia to disseminate hydrogen sulfide via a poison gas dispersion device in which the plotters were talking about possibly targeting “crowded closed spaces potentially public transport.”6 Australian authorities have publicly alleged that terrorist cell in Sydney was under ‘remote-control’ instruction from a senior Islamic State operative in Syria/Iraq and that “there was a lot of conversations … between one of persons charged and the overseas controller in relation to how to create the [dispersion] device how to create the chemical reactions, indeed the amount of chemicals that would be used to create the most amount of damage within a confined space … and … they indeed experimented with getting some components of that reaction done.”7 Even though they were not yet close to making an actual functioning chemical dispersion device when they were arrested,8 how big of a wake-up call was the Sydney plot?
De Bretton-Gordon: As you note, the technology to disperse poison gas has been at the fingertips of jihadi groups for almost two decades, and it appears their capability is improving. Aimen Dean has described to me the mubtakkar device al-Qa`ida developed in Afghanistan before 9/11, a poison gas dispersal device which could be configured to release hydrogen cyanide, which is a blood agent. From what I understand from those involved in the investigation, the device the terrorist cell were aspiring to build in Sydney had similarities in concept and structure. It’s almost certain that the mubtakkar technology is in the hands of a variety of jihadi groups, including the Islamic State now. The concern is that the technology behind these devices is fairly simple and the chemicals needed to produce such gasses are relatively easy to obtain and transport but difficult to detect.
The jihadis have been trying very hard to produce some very good-quality CW and BW. Some of the sulfur mustard I saw in Iraq with the peshmerga, probably three years ago now, was very poor. But the ricin that was going to be used in Germany only recently, as I said, was very high quality. And that is a concern.
We know that the Islamic State had a development capability within Mosul University, which we then know moved to Raqqa. One of their key people was Abu Malik, who was one of Saddam’s key [chemical weapons] people. He was killed [by a coalition airstrike] a couple years ago.9 But it’s evident that others took up the mantle, and as you say, they are giving orders from Syria on what to do and transmitting the expertise. The proliferation of knowledge is something that needs to be stopped by every effort.
CTC: What chemical weapons threats most concern you?
De Bretton-Gordon: I did some work at the end of last year on the threats to U.S. mainland. The number-one scenario that we came up with was a chemical agent being dispersed by a drone in a public space. It might not kill many people, but the panic probably would. If you envisage a drone with, say, very pure chlorine on it crashing into a big sporting stadium with, say, 80,000 people in it, it might only kill one person, but it’s going to panic the 79,999 other people. That is going to cause deaths and injuries far above the original attack.
Sports stadiums need to have a plan in place so that they can react if that drone with some chlorine does fly in there. Chlorine, fortunately, is very non-persistent (it lasts only seconds) and only has a small downwind hazard of about five meters by two meters, for say one liter, which means the casualty count will be only limited. So people in the sports stadium need to know not to panic. A stampede would be far more deadly than the actual attack. The key is to have a plan in place to react.
CTC: As you just alluded to, one of the things that most worries counterterrorism officials about chemical weapons attacks is that while an attack might not kill many people, it’s going to create a great deal of panic and potentially stop people from wanting to take public transport or go to crowded venues. How can one prepare the public psychologically for this sort of attack to mitigate a panic response that might ensue?
De Bretton-Gordon: I think the number-one thing is information. It’s the lack of information that creates panic. We’ve found from long experience in Syria that it’s best to give the people all the information we have. It was a mistake for British authorities in Salisbury when the Chief Medical Officer was put up in front of the press and said, “Wash all your clothes if you’ve been in the area,” and people are going, “Why am I doing that?”10 What she failed to say is why you’re doing it. So I think number one is information. And also giving people basic ideas on what to do in the event of attack.
During the Cold War, instructions were provided to the public about what to do in a nuclear attack, and I think we need to prepare the public the same way in the West for possible terrorist CBRN attacks. One of the basic things in Syria, everybody knows is CW is heavier than air. It sinks to the ground pretty quickly. So your first instinct should be to get to higher ground. And the other thing that everybody knows in Syria or understands is the idea of a downwind hazard. This stuff blows on the wind. So we try to make sure that people are always aware of where the wind is, and if there is an attack, you either run across the wind or move into the wind because you will be going away from whatever threat. So in Syria, we say simply get to higher ground and get upwind. This has been very effective for people who have no respirators or other types of protection.
Of course, in Syria, we’re assuming pretty much that it will be a non-persistent agent. Chlorine lasts seconds, and sarin lasts minutes. Mustard agent is more persistent but goes to ground very quickly and you can avoid it. Mustard is also an incapacitant rather than a killer, so unless you ingest it, you are unlikely to die with proper medical help. Education of the population is key and the information with that.
CTC: What can security services in the West do to prevent chemical attacks?
De Bretton-Gordon: They need to prevent chemical warfare agents from coming in, but my worry is when it comes to these toxic industrial chemicals, at least in the U.K., there’s very little regulation about them. And the only regulation is coming through at the moment because we have this epidemic of acid attacks. I think we need better control of our toxic substances. I think security services also need to be watchful over returning jihadis from Syria and Iraq who might either be transporting substances or have expertise in making them.
CTC: Turning now to the ricin plot in Cologne, which was thwarted this June. It was the first time that jihadi terrorists in the West have ever allegedly successfully managed to produce ricin. Back in 2003, U.K. counterterrorism police thwarted an aspirational plot to make ricin by seizing 22 castor beans from a residence in Wood Green in London. No ricin was successfully produced in that case. By point of comparison, according to German authorities, the alleged terrorist plotter in Cologne obtained over 3,000 castor beans and managed to produce 84mg of ricin.11 How serious a development was this?
De Bretton-Gordon: Very serious. There have been a lot of “white powder” threats over the years particularly in the United States, but the vast majority were hoaxes—many thousands since the Amerithrax in 2001.a It’s very easy to say, “There’s ricin in this letter. It’s going to kill you.” It’s very difficult to actually weaponize it. One particle of ricin is enough to kill you. It’s incredibly toxic stuff, but the challenge is weaponizing it. Or in other words, getting the particle small enough that it can be ingested. My understanding is the suspect in Cologne managed to make weaponized ricin of a very high quality. This would mean he was able to grind the particles to the size required to weaponize it. That is the real skill that nobody in jihadi circles in the West appears to have perfected before. It shows the level of expertise and professionalism that I think hitherto we didn’t think the jihadis operating in the West had.
The amount of ricin he [allegedly] made—84 mg—would contain millions of particles. So it could have been a very, very serious event. It’s a little bit a game changer that they can produce so much of this stuff of such purity. It had the potential to kill a lot of people if they were to ingest it.
CTC: Ricin is, of course, a biological agent. There is concern that terrorists could eventually take advantage of rapid advances in biological know-how, for instance, in gene editing12 to unleash diseases and pathogens.
De Bretton-Gordon: I see these as tomorrow’s threats. Biological engineering is advancing fast and the know-how is spreading wider and wider, so it’s a scenario we ignore at our peril. But I think, today, the most concerning threat is the chemical weapons that we’ve talked about. We need to mitigate that and then, of course, look at the long game for any terrorist biohackers that are likely to emerge in the future.
CTC: We’ve talked about the threat from CBRN weapons. Let’s now talk about the response. For Western countries like the U.K., the United States, where are we at right now in terms of our capability to respond to a terrorist attack using these kinds of weapons? And what have been the learning experiences from Salisbury?
De Bretton-Gordon: It was a big wake-up call. NATO countries including the U.K. have only paid lip service to CBRN defense since the end of the Cold War. This has now rapidly changed. In the U.K., there is a lot of work underway to recover capability that we let go of after the Cold War. For instance, the [CBRN] regiment I commanded was disbanded as a cost-saving in 2011. That now seems like a ridiculous decision given the current threat. But in 2011, the threat was not there. Like all militaries, they have to spend money on what are the higher threats. From a U.K.’s perspective, there is massive catch up that is necessary. The United States is somewhat better prepared. U.S. agencies have been thinking about these scenarios and creating the capability to respond to them. When it comes to capabilities, I think the NYPD and other agencies in NYC are really leading the way, especially when it comes to protecting ‘mega-cities.’
In terms of lessons learned from the Novichok attack, virtually every bit of military capability in the CBRN defense area was deployed to Salisbury, and a lot of it is still there. A quarter of an egg cup of Novichok has required the mobilization of almost all Britain’s military’s CBRN defensive capability. And that creates a vulnerability because if there were another CBRN event, U.K. authorities would likely be stretched too thin. In the U.K., the local police forces do not have a meaningful CBRN capability.
One of the key lessons relates to detection. Detection will be key to mitigating the loss of life in any chemical attacks in the West. In Syria, we often don’t know we’ve had a chemical attack until people start dying. The tell-tale sign is not seeing other injuries. Chemical weapons that are lobbed over in a mortar or rockets are generally not rigged up to explode because they learned if they did that, it would destroy the chemicals. Detecting what kind of chemical weapons attack has taken place is not straightforward. There’s a very big difference between a chlorine attack and a nerve agent attack. We’ve had issues in Syria where our hospitals thought they were under a chlorine attack and have reacted as if it were chlorine, but in fact, it was mustard agent, sulfur mustard—and they’ve taken casualties. So quickly detecting what chemical agent you are dealing with is very important.
The other huge challenge that Salisbury highlighted was the issue of cross-contamination. The problem is that if you don’t know you’ve been exposed to a chemical attack, you’ll spread things around. Decontamination will be key to mitigating the casualty count in a chemical attack in the West. In the Salisbury incident, five people became contaminated but only one person was targeted. In Syria, after the major sarin attack in Ghouta on August 21, 2013, we [UOSSM] had nine doctors working in our hospital in Ghouta, and seven of them died because of secondary contamination.
Decontamination is absolutely crucial, and I’m concerned that from a CBRN response point of view, we’ve only paid lip service to it. If you are first responder, it’s all very well surviving an attack thanks to a gas mask if you then die from touching a respirator or something else that’s contaminated.
From a military perspective, there needs to be careful thinking about standard operating procedures and how we react. When I was with the peshmerga in the suburbs southeast of Mosul over the last few years, it was very hot. The thought of wearing your full MOPPb set-up was just crazy. Soldiers just can’t operate in it. We worked out the main chemical weapons threat from the Islamic State was either from chlorine or from mustard. The Islamic State didn’t have any nerve agent or use it. The key with chlorine was not to breathe it in. You just protect your airways, and that’s fine. And we also agreed that the mustard agent was not going to kill you unless you breathed it in. If you got mustard agent on your skin, it’d produce a nasty blister, burn, and be painful, but was not going to kill you. So we prioritized wearing respirators over full body protection.
Wearing a full CBRN suit and lots of kits is not sustainable over a long period, and we need to address that. In responding to the Novichok attack in Salisbury, the British military was operating at no longer than 20 minutes at a time in kit. Recent technological advances like ‘Powered Air,’ which forces cool air into your respirator, allows you to work for much longer in hot conditions, and this kit is now being delivered to U.S. warfighters and the British SAS, for instance.
The other thing the Salisbury attack highlighted was the importance of evidence collection. The issue that we’ve had in Syria is the restrictions put on the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). They can only go in and investigate if they’re invited in, and in Syria, they can only go into the areas the Syrian regime takes them. But, of course, most of the attacks have been in rebel-held areas, which they have not been able to get access to.
The evidence that we’ve [CBRN Task Force] managed to smuggle out has been a bit flaky. Not surprisingly, the Syrians and the Russians questioned it. So we’re taking steps to address that. I just got back from a trip to the northern Syria area training people how to collect evidence properly and giving them the right sort of equipment to do that. Because unless you collect the evidence, whoever is the perpetrator is never going to be brought to book. I want Assad to know that this time, if he uses chemical weapons to attack civilians in Idlib, which we think is highly likely over the next few months, we now have a robust system to get that evidence to the U.N. very quickly. Part of the reason that chemical weapons have proliferated is firstly because the international community didn’t react more forcefully when they started to be used in Syria and the 100-year taboo on their use was broken. That made it easier for others to start to use them. Secondly, I think if people think they can get away with it, not just at the time, but in future, then that makes it even more attractive. The ‘bang’ for your ‘buck’ with chemical weapons is massive. Just look at the Salisbury attack, which is still transfixing the globe five months later.
So the collection of evidence, like any war crime, is absolutely key. We’re trying to be as comprehensive as possible. First of all, teaching people how to avoid becoming casualties, and then after that, collecting the evidence so that the chain of evidence, the way it’s treated, is exactly the same way the OPCW would do it, including video cameras constantly filming the kits, so that it is admissible to the OPCW and the U.N. Security Council and others. We hope that by getting the evidence out, those who use chemical weapons will be brought to justice and deterred from further using them.
CTC: How big a threat do radiological devices or “dirty bombs” pose?
De Bretton-Gordon: The radiological threat is of particular concern to the insurance industry because of the decontamination implications. Basically, if you get radiological isotopes imbedded in your building’s ‘skin,’ as it were, you might need to knock the building down and rebuild it. There’s a great deal made about the threat from dirty bombs, but the radiation is unlikely to kill you. But it is likely to contaminate areas. And of course, these isotopes are very readily available. There have been several stories of them going missing in Mexico, for example.
One thing which makes dirty bombs more difficult for terrorists to deploy is that they are very easy to detect. Whilst it’s challenging to detect chemical weapons being moved, when it comes to dirty bombs, most big cities like New York City and Washington and London have their detection systems for radiation at their ports of entry. So it’s quite difficult to move this stuff around. I’d be surprised if the jihadis go down the dirty bomb route.
I’m more concerned about the impact of a terrorist group deploying an improvised nuclear bomb. Producing a basic gadget gun device for an improvised nuclear weapon is not as insurmountable as many think. Jihadis have looked into buying highly enriched uranium (HEU) on the black market, even though it would cost tens of millions of dollars. Earlier this decade, the FBI and Moldovan police interdicted several attempts by Russia-linked criminals to sell radioactive material to extremists in the Middle East. One case involved a scheme to sell HEU at $40M per kilo.13 At its peak, ISIS certainly had the funds to buy the 20 KGs they needed for a device, which could yield two kilotons and the expertise. At least now, they [the Islamic State] neither have the funds or expertise, but we must not be complacent.
As well as the black market emanating from the stockpiles in former Soviet states, I’m concerned that North Korea might be willing to sell plutonium or enriched uranium to jihadis. I’m also worried about North Korea because we know that they have a very large stockpile of VX nerve agent, and there’s always concern the North Koreans might sell some of their VX to jihadists, particularly jihadis who are willing to pay millions of dollars for it. CTC
[a] Editor’s note: As the FBI later recounted, “Soon after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, letters laced with anthrax began appearing in the U.S. mail. Five Americans were killed and 17 were sickened in what became the worst biological attacks in U.S. history. The ensuing investigation by the FBI and its partner was code-named ‘Amerithrax.’” “Amerithrax or Anthrax Investigation,” Famous Cases and Criminals, FBI website.
[b] Mission Oriented Protective Posture gear
 For example, see “Final Report of the Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction,” March 2005; Aimen Dean, Paul Cruickshank, and Tim Lister, Nine Lives: My Time as the West’s Top Spy inside al-Qa`ida (London: Oneworld Publications, 2018), chapters 3-6; Chris Quillen, “The Islamic State’s Evolving Chemical Arsenal,” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 39:11 (2016): pp. 1,019-1,030.
 Dean, Cruickshank, and Lister; Quillen.
 “AFP and NSWP discuss the Two Sydney men charged over alleged terrorist acts,” Australian Federal Police Press Conference, August 3, 2017.
 Andrew Zammit, “New Developments in the Islamic State’s External Operations: The 2017 Sydney Plane Plot,” CTC Sentinel 10:9 (2017); “AFP and NSWP discuss the Two Sydney men charged over alleged terrorist acts.”
 “AFP and NSWP discuss the Two Sydney men charged over alleged terrorist acts.”
 Florian Flade, “The June 2018 Cologne Ricin Plot: A New Threshold in Jihadi Bio Terror,” CTC Sentinel 11:7 (2018).
 James R. Clapper, “Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community,” Senate Armed Services Committee, February 9, 2016; Emily Mullen, “Obama Advisers Urge Action Against CRISPR Bioterror Threat,” MIT Technology Review, November 17, 2016.
 Desmond Butler and Vadim Ghirda, “Nuclear black market seeks IS extremists,” Associated Press, October 7, 2015; “Nuclear smuggling deals ‘thwarted’ in Moldova,” BBC, October 7, 2015.