What would happen if the assassination attempt of former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter was scaled up to an attack on a target on their way to catch a flight from Heathrow? Potentially tens of thousands could come into contact with the deadly nerve agent. Erik Juel Ellinghaus digs deeper into the hypothetical attack and analyses how the spread of contamination would develop over the first minutes, the first 24 hours, the following weeks, and after one year.
We marked, on 3 March 2019, the first anniversary of the Novichok attack in Salisbury. The commemoration forced us to consider why we still do not seem to place a greater emphasis on the prevention of chemical attacks in public places. The Salisbury attack only actually killed one person, but another two nearly succumbed and a total of 50 people ended up in hospital for assessment or treatment. There is little doubt that this attack could have had an even worse outcome. The potency of the nerve agent, even four months after the attack, was such that it was still capable of having fatal consequences if applied to the skin.
The intended victim of the attack, Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia, became exposed to the chemical at their own home – supposedly on their front door handle – before they went to a local pub. From there, they went on to a local restaurant, Zizzi, that they left sometime before being found on the bench in a park. Being in a public place, and carrying traces of a nerve agent, others were at risk. Imagine if Sergei and Yulia, or anyone else who has been in contact with Novichok, had not gone to the local amenities in Salisbury, but had rather been en route to the airport to catch a flight from Heathrow’s Terminal 5.
Heathrow is considered particularly vulnerable because it is the second busiest airport in the world, in terms of international passenger traffic, and, as such, it could facilitate the rapid spread of contamination. The following is a conservative estimation of the massive effects a chemical attack would have on Heathrow, if we extrapolate the number of people affected by the Salisbury attack.
The Salisbury Attack
- 09:15 – 13:35
- 16:15 – 20:00
- Up to 500 people who visited the Bishops Mill Pub and Zizzi in the same timespan are asked to disinfect their belongings (clothes, jewellery, etc.)
- 131 are identified as potentially having been in contact with the nerve agent Novichok
- 48 people are assessed in the hospital in relation to the incident
Hypothetical Heathrow Extrapolation
Terminal 5 in Heathrow Airport saw 31.9 million passengers pass through it in 2017. Dividing by 365 and further down to a timeframe of 2.5 hours, we get the average number of passengers in the same time frame as the Salisbury attack – the timespan for a high risk of contagion equivalent to the time the Skripals were in the pub and at the restaurant. 2.5 average hours at Terminal 5 would amount to 9,104 passengers being in the terminal. In daytime and peak-periods this number would naturally be much higher, but we are looking at this conservatively:
- Up to 9,104 people who visited T5 in the same timeframe are asked to disinfect their belongings (clothes, jewellery, etc.)
- 2,385 are identified as potentially having been in contact with the nerve agent Novichok
- 874 people are assessed in the hospital in relation to the incident
The result of a nerve agent being released in one of the world’s busiest airports would be extremely severe. This is, I am afraid to say, a conservative estimate with a lot of unknown variables. This would require the contaminated passenger falling ill at the airport (as opposed to after flight departure), alarming fellow passengers, airport staff, or security officers. If this realisation is delayed by just a couple of hours, the consequences would be incalculable. The colourless and oily substance could have travelled to five, ten, or 100 different airports before anyone succumbed to its effects, and the situation would, by then, be practically uncontainable and unmitigable.
Although human health and safety would be the predominant focus in the wake of such an attack, we have not even started forecasting the financial consequences. A terminal may be easier to disinfect than a town setting, but keep in mind that it took the most skilful professionals almost a year to clean up the town of Salisbury. Heathrow’s largest terminal – and potentially the entire airport – would be shut down for days or even weeks, impeding the travel of hundreds of thousands or millions travelling to, from, or through London.
Why Airports are Targets for Terrorists
Airports have increasingly become a preferred target for terrorism as events in the last few years have sadly demonstrated. Most technological countermeasures focus on devices which are aimed at detecting explosive devices and concealed weapons, whereas there are currently few effective systems in place to detect chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) threats in airports around the world.
“…few airports are equipped with air neutralisation systems which could remove contaminants…”
Airports attract large flows of people every day; people who can spread infection to all four corners of the world. Also, consider the multitude of locations within airports such as departure/arrival halls, car parks, landside shops, the large number of entry/exit points to access these spaces, and the numerous chokepoints created by closely aggregated crowds. Additionally, the fact that almost everyone carries luggage obscures any illicit transportation of materials up to security checkpoint areas.
Airports are also enclosed spaces which require heating, ventilation and air-conditioning (HVAC) systems and they, in turn, represent vehicles to facilitate biological or chemical terrorist attacks since agents can be easily dispersed through HVAC technology. Few airports are equipped with air neutralisation systems which could remove contaminants. An agent released into an air duct would be dispersed into all connected spaces and affect many people – much worse than the Novichok extrapolation where the attack itself was carried out outside of the airport and where the airborne transfer of the agent is very limited. Yet, the severity of such an attack depends on the quantity of agent used and the quality of the air filtration system.
A Threat to All Crowded Venues
Another nightmare scenario would be a terrorist attack aiming to result in mass casualties, such as the 1995 sarin attack on the Tokyo underground by members of the Aum Shinrikyo cult, which killed 13 people and injured more than 1,000. The horrendous history of terrorism shows us that the locations with the highest number of people are the main targets. So, some of the main potential targets would obviously be football stadiums, concert arenas, museums, cruise ships, and, of course, airports.
“…the US carried out an assessment of the impact of an aerosol attack in which 1 to 2 kgs of anthrax spores had been spread over a major city using a crop duster…”
Similar threats from terrorists are not just chemical, but also biological or radiological. Some examples are the recent events in France and Germany where terrorist plots involving homemade ricin were uncovered and fortunately stopped by authorities.
It goes without saying that the threat of a CBRN attack is not limited to airports. Biological attacks targeting airports would be especially devastating due to the risk of an instant pandemic, but other locations are just as vulnerable. According to the World Economic Forum, the risk of terrorist groups developing CBRN weapons has become one of the most serious global threats. Between 1970 and 2016 there were a total of 348 chemical, 13 radiological, and 36 biological attacks. The total number of terrorism-related incidents has grown from about 651 in 1970 to 13,488 in 2016, whereas the total number of fatalities per year from terrorist attacks has grown from 171 in 1970 to 34,676 by 2016. The recent surge in right-wing terrorism combined with the ease of access to dangerous chemicals also poses a major threat to the Western world and its citizens.
The 2001 anthrax attack in the United States exemplified these weapons’ potential to disrupt governments and the general reach even a small amount of a biological weapon can have; multiple deaths and 30,000 citizens required antibiotic treatment. Following this tragedy, the US carried out an assessment of the impact of an aerosol attack in which 1 to 2 kgs of anthrax spores had been spread over a major city using a crop duster. According to a study by the European Parliament, the estimation of damage amounted to approximately 380,000 deaths, 450,000 illnesses, and up to more than three million requiring antibiotic treatment. Decontamination would need to be city-wide and the projected economic cost has been estimated at more than $1.8 trillion (£1.37 trillion). As of today, no country in Europe matches the preparedness level of the US in terms of CBRN, according to a report from the EU, suggesting room for improvement.
The same European Parliament study suggests that ‘only Industry has the capability to develop, manufacture and supply medical countermeasures and protective equipment that can be deployed following a CBRN incident […] Governments could collaborate with Industrial partners that have more flexible manufacturing capability through public/private partnerships to improve response in these situations’.
Hard to Prevent, Possible to Mitigate
We have been following the attack in Salisbury closely, and we are of the belief that while the attack was difficult to avoid, many non-targeted individuals were unnecessarily affected.
Why is it then that there are no legal requirements at public spaces for protection against chemical attacks as we see in the case of a fire? Shopping malls, sports venues, concert halls, and airports all have advanced fire alarms, accurate evacuation plans and trained personnel, but few or no precautions related to the CBRN-threats. It is not that the technology does not exist, it is simply a matter of low public awareness regarding this issue. The technology is capable of mitigating and potentially saving human lives in the event of an attack or accident. Wouldn’t it be comforting to know that airports, arenas, and train stations are protected against CBRN when we know that terror groups have better access to these weapons and the associated expertise than ever before?
The future of threat mitigation lies in the hands of governments, the industry, and the people. If we demand that CBRN security systems be installed in all major public venues, the legislation will soon follow. The technology is available – we just need a change in perception.
Erik Juel Ellinghaus is CEO at Bruhn NewTech located in Copenhagen, Denmark and in Salisbury, UK. He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org Bruhn NewTech is a global technology company offering protection from CBRN threats and supplying civil authorities as well as the UN and NATO.
Biological agents have the potential to produce a life-threatening illness. For most of them, the exact infectious dose (the number or organisms needed to make one sick) is unknown and unpredictable. Psychological responses following a bioterrorism event may include anger, fear, and social isolation. Following the 2001 anthrax attacks, thousands of people who thought they were infected sought treatment. Trying to distinguish those who have not been infected complicates medical centres’ ability to treat those at risk. Here is a brief introduction to the most dangerous biological weapons:
Yersinia Pestis (plague)
- Causes pneumonic plague
- Weaponised since the 14th century
- Can be produced in high quantity in a laboratory
- Respiratory failure
Bacillus Anthracis (Anthrax)
- Causes anthrax
- Spores are found naturally in soil and can be produced in a laboratory
- Used as a weapon for 50 years combined with powders, sprays, food, and water
- Invisible, highly infectious, odourless and tasteless
- Coughing up blood
- Trouble breathing
Ricinus Communis (Ricin)
- Highly potent toxin
- Found naturally in castor beans
- Used numerous times in biological attacks
- Recently seized in great quantity in Cologne, Germany, where a terrorist attack was prevented
- Bloody diarrhoea
- Organ failure
- Muscle-paralysing disease caused by nerve toxins
- Bacteria are found naturally in forest soils, bottom sediments of lakes, and intestinal tracts of some fish and animals
- 1 gram of botulinum toxin can kill more than a million people if inhaled
- Muscle weakness
- Difficulty in speaking and swallowing
- Double and blurred vision
- Respiratory problems
- Nausea, vomiting
Variola Major (Smallpox)
- Causes Smallpox
- Highly contagious and infectious, and has no cure
- Believed to have been used as a biological weapon against the native Americans and again during the American Revolutionary War
- High fever
- Widespread skin rash
- Vomiting and diarrhoea