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Dr Bill Durodié

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A TOXIC TALE OF TERROR
How the UK authorities unleashed osmium tetroxide on to an unsuspecting public.

Until this week, few people, including chemical weapons experts, had heard of osmium tetroxide, which is used in small quantities by scientists, mainly as a fixing agent in electron microscopy. This ignorance was shattered by ABC News' announcement that American and British intelligence agents had foiled a plot to lace a conventional explosive with osmium tetroxide, with a view to enhancing its impact. The story became headline news; expert pundits discussed the devastating consequences such an attack might cause in a confined space.

Osmium tetroxide is not the kind of chemical you should mess about with - getting it on your skin could lead to nasty staining and you wouldn't want it in your eyes. Anyone who uses the chemical is advised to do so in a fume cupboard. Inhaling or ingesting it could lead to fatal consequences. But the same could be said for countless other chemicals in everyday use, including in schools. Adding osmium tetroxide to a bomb to spray passers-by is just as likely to destroy it or disperse it too widely for it to be harmful. The scenarios that have been raised are entirely speculative, as such an attack has never occurred.

Indeed, reading between the lines of recent news reports there is remarkably little evidence that such an attack was about to occur. The foiled plot rests largely on communication intercepts, known as 'chatter', from suspects under surveillance. And as no announcement has been made as to any arrests relating to the scheme, one can only assume that the purported perpetrators continue to be free to purchase osmium tetroxide, or any other chemical they choose, in whatever quantities they like. Notably, no osmium tetroxide had been acquired; there was simply talk of doing so.

The osmium tetroxide story shows how we in the West often do the terrorists' job for them. From now on, it will be clear that simply talking about a nasty-sounding chemical is enough to make the front pages and cause panic. Al-Qaeda and its apparently ever-expanding band of 'sympathisers' must already be going through all the various combinations of the periodic table. This is the cheapest form of terrorism possible: it poses no risk to its perpetrators and relies for its effect on the overblown response of the security services as amplified by the media and pundits.

Even worse, there is a growing tendency at the heart of government to confuse private intelligence with public information. Assuming the intercepts about osmium tetroxide are true, what possible advantage could be gained from notifying the media? It seems that the drive for transparency is so strong that it could compromise the ability of the security services to gather intelligence in the future. After all, a number of terrorists/hoaxers/loners/cranks have now been informed that their conversations are being monitored.

How are the public to react to all of this? Was it designed to keep them 'alert' rather than 'alarmed'? What should people do with this information, unless they run their own covert 'chatter' monitoring station from within their own homes? As nothing actually happened, and the public could do nothing about it anyway, either before or since, one can only assume that some elements in the authorities consciously choose to keep such stories emerging into popular consciousness. If so, it is they who form the real terror that should be dealt with.

The final sorry part of this sordid tale is the way in which the media and their expert pundits were so uncritical in analysing the information. Various special correspondents, toxicologists and commercial risk consultants were wheeled out to discuss the dangers posed by such a (hypothetical) device. They dwelled on the damage that could be caused to the public and emergency services, especially psychologically. Few questioned the overall framing of the discussion in the first place. Even if it were true, what use did it serve in the public domain, and who is it that wants to keep us alarmed?

While the authorities and media speculated endlessly about the unclear target involved, believed by some to be a major transport hub, they lost all sense of proportion, puffed-up by their own self-importance. UK home secretary David Blunkett even declared that the alleged plot vindicated his decision to bring in tougher anti-terror laws. With leaders like this, who needs terrorists?

First published on Spiked, 7 April 2004