Andy Oppenheimer, CBRNE specialist, speaks to Defence IQ


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Defence IQ interviewed Andt Oppenheimer, UK-based CBRNE specialist and author, about the key issues and challenges in dealing with the threat of a CBRN IED emergency in an inner city.

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Andy Oppenheimer, CBRNE specialist, speaks to Defence IQ

  1. 1. Interview: Andy Oppenheimer, CBRNE Specialist Andy Oppenheimer is an independent UK-based specialist in CBRNE (chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear weapons and explosives) and counterterrorism. He was Editor of Jane's Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Defence Yearbook and NBC International, a UK-based magazine on CBRNE defence and countermeasures, from 2006 to 2008, and Co-editor of Jane's World Armies from 2002 to 2004. He has published hundreds of articles for specialist journals and provides consultancy reports for institutes, companies and government agencies. He presents at conferences worldwide and leads training workshops on all aspects of CBRNE and IEDs. His book IRA - The Bombs and the Bullets: A History of Deadly Ingenuity is published by Irish Academic Press. Defence IQ: Andy, what is the single most critical factor in efficient handling of a CBRN event? Andy: First of all, the first responders are the people who have to go out within minutes to something like an explosion. They have to be aware it may not be a conventional explosive or a conventional bomb and this will depend very much on whether they have received training, or awareness, or the equipment they need to deal with something like a chemical or radiological attack. If it’s a biological attack, it will come in a different way. It will not be a sudden thing, other than when you get calls about white powder attacks and people sending packages or letters that could contain microbes that people open in a post office, or something like that – which is what happened with the anthrax attacks. If we look at chemical and radiological for now, we can look at improvised devices that could be used. We have very little precedent for this; so much of the training has got to take into account many different kinds of scenarios. They’ve really got to know what they’re looking for. They’ve got to be able to detect what’s happening. They’ve got to be able to make sure people don’t spread whatever they have been contaminated with beyond the site of the attack and that’s a very difficult thing to achieve because everything’s mayhem. At the time, people are trying to escape - they’re coming out of and into tube stations and crowding into already crowded areas if it happens in the middle of a city. So, the people who have to respond to such a thing have to have the right equipment at the right training. They also have to have very good communication which is something that can let us all down.
  2. 2. When we had the 7/7 attacks all those brave people who were saving lives were actually themselves let down by poor communication systems which has since been improved – but that’s something that would not only just be the communication between agencies but also the media - because as soon as anything happens it goes straight up on the internet, it goes straight onto 24/7 news channels and that is where people need to know “don’t go to that area and to keep away”. This is very important, and of course the press has got to be told as much as possible so that people are not panicked, and they have the right information as soon as possible so they don’t crowd into an area that has been contaminated with something chemical or radiological. Defence IQ: So is training the most critical factor? Andy: It is, and what we must be aware of, is that CBRN is such a rare thing. Training specifically for CBRN response is not very high up on everyone’s priorities. It may be high up on the priorities of government agencies and we are hearing all the time these warnings about non-conventional terrorism. And in the field of military operations, as well, where events in Iraq…all kinds of things have been found. Chemical bomb- making factories have been discovered and improvised chemical attacks pre-empted. But in civilian areas this is very difficult because the national health and emergency services have far more pressing issues to worry about. Even just a conventional bomb attack is quite enough to keep people on their toes and to do the regular thing that they would need to prepare for (in terms of response). When you add in ingredients like chemical, biological and radiological, we’ve got so little precedence that it’s very hard other than to give people scenario-based training which is to give them drills and exercises and give them something to work on. They’ve got so [few] real lessons to be learned, we’ve only had one or two incidents involving chemical, radiological or biological materials that it’s very difficult to prepare people over and above the kind of things that occupy them every day of the week where they have lots of other things to worry about. Defence IQ: What training, technologies, and equipment are we lacking in the UK compared to the rest of the EU and America? Andy: This is a very interesting question and when I first looked at it, I thought, when it comes to Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) the British - along with the Israelis - are teaching the rest of the EU and America, from all we’ve experienced from civilian terrorism, and also insurgents. The British Empire had to deal with rebellions and unrest in its colonies, which have persisted in many countries in the Middle East. Israel has had years of dealing with terrorism. We had the experience of the IRA - 30 years of a sustained campaign, and so the British now have enormous experience to hand on. We may not have the equipment that the Americans have, we certainly don’t have the budget which they’ve been spending hand over fist for IED and other services and readiness, but we have the experience and the training. We may have fewer people,
  3. 3. but those have been trained in conventional IED disposal and procedures, and they are adapting over time to factor in the non-conventional stuff as well. It’s just in terms of spending that we probably do lag behind the States, but spending money on equipment is not everything. Training and awareness is often to do with intelligence and is far more important in terms of learning. And this leads into how we break the supply chains used by terrorists and states developing CBRN weapons; learning how to track what is out there, what they are doing in terms of trafficking – how are they doing it, where are the loops in the sale across continents, across boarders and how can that be integrated into training and awareness. We can use the police along the journey because police divisions have counter-terrorist experience. In Britain we have enormous experience in this area in dealing with the IRA, so we have quite a lot to teach the rest of the world. As far as Europe is concerned, the newer states, like the Czech Republic, have a high level of expertise in Military CBRN Reconnaissance and they can teach other countries with lots of expertise in that area, as they went in to the Gulf war to look for chemicals and evidence of weapons of mass destruction before the invasions took place. The Germans are well up on detection and decontamination, as are the French and Italians too. So there is quite a lot of expertise and equipment being spread around in European countries. And Israel, as I’ve just mentioned, they really are top-of-the-range in terms of training and intelligence and the equipment they use – they know exactly how to use it. Defence IQ: How do we improve inter-operability if a CBRN attack does take place? Andy: As I mentioned earlier, a lot of money can be spent on equipment, and there’s lots of equipment out there. You have to train people how to use it and how to use it very quickly. So, rather than just having it as an add-on for emergency service personnel, it is probably going in the direction of having specialist units based in the first responders – we’ve got things like the ambulance hazard area response teams (HART), we’ve got very highly-trained people who can work with ambulance crews, who can work with the first responders, particularly in the larger cities. They would have to go out, they would have to use the equipment, and they would also have to communicate with the other agencies – that’s the difficult bit. It’s getting everybody on board having proper preparations, centralized…but not too centralized, otherwise you’ll just have people not getting the message. And because everything happens so quickly, for example, if you did have an incident with a thermo-radiological element, people aren’t going to know that it is anything other than an ‘ordinary’ bomb that’s just gone off, or that objects within range are contaminated…and that they may be spreading the stuff around as they move around, that is, if they haven’t been blown up by the device or been injured by it. The injuries from a radiological weapon…though it looks very much like the injuries of an IED, it’s when people start to get radiation sickness or some kind of problem later on, that they know that this was not a conventional design. So police have to get the cordons put up, make sure people are
  4. 4. not moving around and carrying the contamination away, particularly into an underground network. And that’s where you have to decontaminate whole areas, and buildings, as well as people. And this has got to be done quite quickly because you can’t wait for everybody to start going on the Tube, or driving off in their cars, or taking their clothes with them. Even if a lot of experts are saying these days that the threat is minimal in terms of health, nobody wants to mess around with radiation. If you look at what happened with the Litvinenko incident in London: there were several premises affected by this very rare substance that was used to kill him, so it [is useless to say] “Oh, it’s not going to harm anyone, it’s just a small amount.” You can’t. People are not going to want to go back into places that have been contaminated, even if the possibility of being affected by the contaminant is very small. You’ve got to inspire confidence that this place is safe, that the workers and residents are safe, and so on. Defence IQ: Is there anything that you feel should be highlighted specifically to the community before the event? Andy: I think that the weapons and components supply chain is particularly important. We can’t stop terrorism or war, but we can certainly have a look at how materials are being acquired and whether we can stifle the flow, particularly of radioactive sources. You’ve heard a lot in the news recently about President Obama wanting to get the nuclear countries together – every state which has a nuclear installation – and that includes many many countries, and ensure these materials don’t get into the wrong hands. This approach has been around for a very long time now and is nothing new- locking down and securing all sorts of establishments, from weapons establishments through to universities, research centres, and so on. But there are lots and lots of materials out there that are in common use and that are exported in billions of tons every year, including many hundreds of chemicals which are exported all over the world . Many of these can be easily bought or acquired; there have been chlorine attacks in Iraq and there are threats from much more commonly available material which don’t take all that much effort to acquire or to assemble into a weapon. While much of the chemical effects may be dissipated by the heat of the bomb explosion, if a bomb is used, an improvised chemical attack would create fear, even if it doesn’t kill any more than a conventional car bomb would. It’s the fear effect. And it’s trying to lock down not just the establishments that produce materials but how they’re being moved around. Where is the trafficking coming from? Have we got companies that are dealing with these materials for people like criminal groups, who are then passing on to terrorists? This is a huge operation that requires intelligence, that requires efforts to track and trace across borders. And that really is where the future lies. We’ve got to stop an attack happening and stop the people acquiring these materials before they do any harm. Defence IQ: On the issue of Obama and these nuclear decommissioning efforts, will this be an effective approach?
  5. 5. Andy: A lot of focus is being made on securing weapons-grade nuclear material. But radiological weapons would use civilian-based radioactive materials, which includes the kind used in hospitals, such as x-ray machines, cancer machines. These materials are used in industries all around the world and are not well-guarded or secured. Of course, handling the material to fashion it into a RDD, would include exposing yourself to it, which could be lethal. Caesium-137, for example, which is used in hospitals, emits gamma rays, which penetrate human tissue - they go straight through you. There are examples of smugglers of materials who turn up at hospitals needing their hands removed as they’ve got burnt and irradiated from trying to smuggle this stuff in. And just abandoning an exposed radioactive source - as many previous incidents show - could cause more radiation injury than exploding a radiological device. Also, just to end, terrorists in the end want to do something that’s simple, quick, cheap and difficult to find. They will more often than not take the path of least resistance. So while there’s nothing to say they won’t try the CBRN route, the IED is still the most commonly used weapon, and that is still our main threat.
  6. 6. IQPC Please note that we do all we can to ensure accuracy within the translation to word of audio interviews but that errors may still understandably occur in some cases. If you believe that a serious inaccuracy has been made within the text, please contact +44 (0) 207 368 9334 or email