What is a chemical weapon, anyway?

When it comes to weapons of mass destruction, chemical weapons have long taken a backseat to nuclear weapons in the competition for public interest and non-proliferation scrutiny. But the Syrian civil war has flipped the status quo on its head, as the mere use of such weapons threatens to drag the United States into another military intervention. So when Barack Obama says "the use of chemical weapons is a game changer," what is he talking about, and why does it make a difference in a war in which 70,000 people have already died at the hands of conventional weapons?

The Science of Chemical Weapons

For starters, a chemical weapon utilizes the toxic properties of chemicals to inflict physical pain ranging from mild discomfort to death on an individual. This can include blister agents (nitrogen mustard, sulfur mustard, and lewisite) that cause eye, skin, and lung irritation; blood agents (hydrogen cyanide and cyanogen chloride) that prevent blood from transporting oxygen throughout the body; and nerve agents (tabun, sarin, and VX) that can cause instant death by shutting down the nervous system.

The type of chemical weapon is important, since not all chemicals technically qualify as "weapons" in the eyes of the international community. In this week's widely covered attack in Syria, for instance, initial U.S. intelligence assessments have found that chlorine -- not a nerve or blister agent -- was used. "That would not be the same as using a chemical weapons, as defined by international treaties," notes CNN's Barbara Starr. The difference, of course, is a chemical weapon will supposedly warrant a U.S. military response, while chlorine will only elicit more verbal hand-wringing.

Regardless, one of the main reasons the United States obsesses over the use of chemical weapons is concern about such weapons getting into the hands of terrorist groups.

The Impact of Chemical Weapons

It only takes a small amount of chemical weapons to have a devastating impact on a highly populated area. Because you get so much bang for your buck, chemical weapons have become, by far, the most widely proliferated and used weapon of mass destruction on earth.

"The military value of chemical weapons is such that the United States and the Soviet Union stockpiled tens of thousands of tons during the Cold War," notes the non-partisan Nuclear Threat Initiative group. "Countries traditionally have acquired chemical weapons before attempting to produce biological or nuclear weapons, because they are the least technologically demanding of the three. While 188 countries have joined the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and have agreed not to develop, produce, stockpile, or use chemical weapons, a handful of key countries-particularly in the Middle East-remain outside of the treaty."

Syria remains one of the countries that has refused to give up its chemical weapons stockpiles, which are considered to be significant, as FP's John Reed reported last year. U.S. military officials have said Syria's chemical weapons arsenal is "100 times the magnitude we experienced in Libya," and it is thought to include hundreds of tons of mustard gas, blister agents, sarin, and VX. Strategically, the United States is adamant about those chemicals not getting in the hands of neighboring terrorist groups such as Hezbollah or al Qaeda.

The History of Chemical Weapons

Chemical weapons had their coming out party during World War I, when 124,000 metric tons were used by combatants to devastating effect. Since then, chemical weapons have been used by Italy during World War II, Japan during its invasion of China, Egypt during the North Yemen Civil War, Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war, among other occasions.

But the primary example that terrifies security analysts to this day is the release of sarin by the Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo in the mid-90s. This proved that terrorist groups were capable of creating and using sophisticated chemical weapons to horrendous effect. "The scale of the Aum Shinrikyo chemical ambitions revealed that non-state actors are fully capable of organizing and financing chemical programs," notes the Nuclear Threat Initiative." Because many chemicals commonly used in industry are themselves very toxic, terrorist organizations may also achieve their goals through the sabotage of chemical plants and shipments."

That goes a long way in explaining why the White House is willing to threaten war -- or something akin to it -- if Syria's chemical weapons arsenal becomes active.


A sneak peek at the State Department's campaign to apprehend two American jihadists

On Wednesday, the State Department posted a multimillion-dollar bounty on the heads of two Americans suspected of joining al-Shabab, an al Qaeda affiliate in Somalia. The two men, Alabama native Omar Shafik Hammami and California native Jehad Serwan Mostafa, are accused of making "significant contributions to this terrorist organization's media and military activities" and are "believed to be involved in planning attacks on U.S. persons or property." The trick now is targeting the communities most likely to come into contact with the two men.

Today, a State Department official with knowledge of the Rewards for Justice program gave Foreign Policy a sneak peek into the global effort to capture Mostafa and Hammami. The first step is a full-on media blitz with posters and leaflets detailing the $5 million reward for information "leading to the arrest or conviction" of Hammami or Mostafa. The materials were translated into French, Arabic, and Somali:

According to the State Department official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the program is just getting off the ground, these materials will be shared with newspapers and TV stations in a big push in the coming weeks. The goal of the U.S. media outreach is to target America's "large and significant" Somali expatriate communities, the official said.

The next step involves localized targeting of the two men, both of whom are believed to be in Somalia. Hammami left in 2006 for the African country, where he allegedly trained with Islamic militants and served as a rapping, English-speaking propagandist for al-Shabab. Mostafa left in 2005 for Somalia, where he allegedly leads foreign fighters for al-Shabab and serves as a "media expert."

The official told FP that the State Department is contemplating a "whole bunch of possibilities," including radio ads, matchbooks, and social media campaigns conducted throughout Somalia and Kenya. "In some countries, people use portable digital devices more than they use PCs," said the official. "It has to be decided on the ground in the region." Below is the State Department's matchbox bounty materials, including poster translations in French, Arabic, and Somali: