Commentary Magazine

The Curious Case of Chemical Warfare

On the first of March of this year, the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, William Webster, testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, quietly observed that the spread of chemical weapons threatens to change the strategic balance in the Middle East. Syria, Iraq, Iran, and Libya, he said, have all greatly expanded their chemical-warfare capacity. And along with the technology to manufacture chemical weapons, these same countries are working feverishly to acquire the means to deliver chemical weapons to their likely targets. Programs for new, longer-range missiles are under way, and in the meantime the Libyans have just acquired Soviet SU-24 intermediate-range bombers, complete with mid-air refueling equipment, putting virtually every country in the region—above all, Israel—within Colonel Qaddafi’s striking range. In short, Webster warned, the most radical countries in the Middle East are either ready or will soon be ready to launch chemical attacks. (So is Egypt, though Webster did not mention it.)

In the cases of Iran and Iraq, this was hardly news, for both had already relied heavily on chemical weapons during their long war. Indeed, many in the United States government credit the defeat of Iran to Iraq’s more effective use of chemical weapons—a lesson that has not been lost on the likes of Syria’s President Hafez al-Assad and Libya’s Qaddafi. Nor has it been lost on Israeli leaders. As Defense Minister Moshe Arens puts it: “Israel is concerned, not only by the recent use of chemical weapons, but with their conventionalization—the almost routine usage of gases on the battlefield without provoking any immediate international reaction.”

Earlier this year, in response to such ominous facts, an emergency international conference on chemical weapons was held in Paris, in an effort to obtain a ban on their proliferation. But little was accomplished, and many Third World countries protested that this was simply another attempt by the major powers to relegate smaller nations to permanent inferiority. Some even argued that chemical weapons were the “nuclear deterrent of the poor,” and that they would contemplate chemical disarmament only if Israel forswore nuclear devices.

Yet the events of the Iran-Iraq war give the lie to this argument. Neither Iran nor Iraq is poor (their oil reserves put them among the richer nations in the world), and chemical weapons, far from serving as deterrents to aggression, were integral elements in the Iraqi assault against Iran, and also in Iran’s counteroffensives. And the Iraqis, delighted with their success against Khomeini’s forces, then turned these weapons on the Kurds. (It was the campaign against the Kurds, in fact, that produced the first Western outcry against chemical warfare; no one had been much upset by the gassing of Iranians.)

Quite obviously, then, at least some of the nations that are developing chemical weapons have every intention of using them.1 That is why Webster was so concerned about the matter. But he was also quite explicit in noting that a large measure of responsibility for this grim phenomenon belongs to parties outside the Middle East itself:

Assistance provided by foreign suppliers, many of whom were fully witting of the intentions of the Middle East countries to produce chemical weapons, has been the key element that has enabled these nations to develop a capability to produce chemical weapons within only a few years. And, without this assistance, these Middle East countries would have been unable to produce chemical weapons.

Webster did not identify the “foreign suppliers,” but everyone in the room knew whom he was talking about. For just a few moments earlier, Jesse Helms, the man primarily responsible for making this a major issue in the Senate, had introduced Webster with these words:

We now know that with the witting assistance of German industry, Iran, Iraq, Libya, and Syria have acquired or are about to acquire chemical and biological weapons of mass destruction. . . . Forty-two German firms have been publicly identified as participating in this dirty business.

To be sure, German firms have not been alone. Several companies in Eastern and Western Europe, and in South Asian countries (principally Hong Kong, Thailand, and Singapore) have been involved in illegally transshipping Western technology for chemical-weapons manufacture and delivery systems, and the People’s Republic of China has been an active participant as well. But Germany is the keystone of the international operations through which Libya, Syria, Iran, and Iraq have developed their programs.

The scandal first broke on New Year’s day of 1989, in a front-page article in the New York Times: “Germans Accused of Helping Libya Build Nerve Gas Plant.” According to the Times, the German firm Imhausen-Chemie had provided the Libyans with crucial expertise for the construction of their main chemical-weapons plant at Rabta, just outside Tripoli. In response to the story, the president of Imhausen, Dr. Jürgen Hippenstiel-Imhausen, made three amazing statements to the Times.

First of all, he said, the founder of the firm (his wife’s grandfather) was “half-Jewish,” and “we would not supply something like this to our enemy.” The other two statements were of a piece with the first:

The company had absolutely nothing to do with the allegations. . . . We don’t even have the know-how in this area. We have no employees there, no technicians there either. . . . Libyans don’t have money to pay for things like that. We totally deny any involvement in this.

The Libyans are much too stupid to run a plant like this. All the Arabs are lazy and they call in foreign slaves to do the work.

He was wrong on all counts. The Libyans can indeed run such a facility, so long as companies like Imhausen supply them with training, technology, and chemical components. And Imhausen had done just that. A report from the German government to the Bundestag in February acknowledged that agencies of the Federal Republic had known for some time that Imhausen and “firms linked with it” had delivered to Hong Kong “know-how, blueprints, and plans” for the construction of the Rabta facility. Moreover, Imhausen had “probably” sent engineers to Libya (this became a certainty shortly thereafter) and the facility at Rabta was “not only suited to the manufacture of chemical weapons but was intended for that purpose from the outset.”

Herr Hippenstiel-Imhausen not only lied to the New York Times; in late September of last year, he ordered his closest associates to cull all documents dealing with Rabta from the Imhausen files, and ship them to a subsidiary in Zurich. But the cover-up failed, and when the truth finally came out, the vice president of the company appropriately swallowed large quantities of poison in an unsuccessful attempt to avoid being called to account.

Imhausen’s participation in the Rabta operation was considerable, ranging from all manner of technology to computer software to run the manufacturing process. Dozens of other German companies were similarly involved, including Siemens, the celebrated telecommunications firm, which sent the Libyans six “field multiplexers”—measuring devices for the electronic control of chemicals in a production process. As Stern magazine dryly noted, “The strange thing is that precisely six such measuring devices are needed for the production of the nerve poison Tabun,2 which is made of six chemicals.” (Siemens was particularly unlucky, for when the Libyans finally took some Western journalists around the Rabta facility, a container labeled “Siemens” was photographed by German camera crews.) Rabta may also be described as a joint East-West venture, since the Soviet bloc contributed special steel components and numerous engineers and technical experts to the project.



The Libyan case is only the most publicized example of the pattern that has placed chemical weapons in the hands of the most radical countries in the Middle East. Thus, the German connection is also crucial to the chemical-weapons facilities in Iraq. A recent project near Baghdad, built in large part by the German construction company WTP, was said to be a “detergent factory,” but as the weekly Der Spiegel commented:

It would have been the best-guarded detergent factory in the world. A barbed-wire fence about 2.50 m high surrounds the entire complex which is about 1 km long and 600 m wide. The vacant ground on the other side of the fence and every point of the factory site can be seen from watchtowers. At night, the guards can check the ground with remote-controlled headlights.

What is really produced . . . was indicated by a WTP man who was asked about the purpose of the giant underground tanks on the site: “Detergents for two-legged flies. . . .”

Similarly, the main Iraqi chemical-weapons facility at Samarra was made possible in large part by sales from Karl Kolb-GmbH & Co’s Baghdad affiliate, “Pilot Plant.” Kolb manufactures laboratory equipment and sophisticated instrumentation, just the sort of thing needed at such a facility. As Webster testified:

From the program’s inception, firms and individuals from Western Europe were key to the supply of chemical process equipment, chemical precursors, and technical expertise. West Europeans remained at Samarra even after it began operations. . . . At Samarra, Baghdad produces the blister agent mustard and the nerve agents tabun and sarin. Several types of weapons, including bombs and artillery shells and rockets, have been filled with these agents.

As with Libya and Iraq, so too with Iran, where German companies also procured crucial components for chemical weapons. In 1987 and 1988, at the request of an official in the Iranian embassy in Bonn, the Chemco firm arranged to purchase large quantities of thiodiglycol—a so-called “precursor” chemical for the manufacture of mustard gas—from Alcolac, Inc. of Baltimore. To evade U.S. controls on precursors destined for countries like Libya, Syria, Iraq, and Iran, the chemicals were shipped from Baltimore via Singapore and Pakistan.



In the Iran-Iraq war, both sides used Soviet SCUD missiles to deliver mustard gas (and, in the Iraqi case, even more lethal poisons) on their enemies. The Iraqis also used artillery shells with chemical loads and chemical bombs as well. From interviews conducted by Stern magazine with German workers from Rabta, it became clear that the Libyans in their turn were pursuing just such delivery systems:

We were convinced that the giant halls, 36 meters high, for the lathes and milling cutters could only be designed for the production of missiles. Moreover, what did they need a 25- meter-wide feeder road for? Obviously only for giant vehicles such as are used for shipping missiles.

But by far the most ambitious program for a chemical-delivery system is the missile project known as Condor II, headquartered in the province of Cordova, Argentina. The Argentinians, with the help of German technology, developed a short-range missile in the early 1980’s (Condor I), and they are now preparing a new generation. The prime German contractor—Messerschmitt-Boelkow-Blohm (MBB)—officially withdrew in 1985. But MBB’s involvement has continued far beyond that date, as has that of the other main contractor, Italy’s SNIA-BPD. At least as late as 1987, a subsidiary of MBB performed a feasibility study for the Condor II, a two-stage missile with a range of at least 1,000 kilometers and a 500- kilogram warhead. Argentina’s financial backers in the Condor II project include Iraq and Egypt.

Technical support for Condor is managed through a Swiss-based consortium of sixteen European companies known as Consen; its most important subcontractor is MBB. When the British television show “Panorama” did a special broadcast on the Condor program earlier this year, it ended on this somber note:

The Condor, with its chemical-warfare potential, is the beginning of a new generation of terror weapons. Thanks to European engineers, the Condor II prototype will fly in the next year.

Then it will be for sale, and the West cannot control who will buy it. . . . There are about 20 to 25 Third World countries trying to get exactly the same capabilities. And when they have that capability, the international balance of power will shift, and it will shift forever.

MBB has not only contributed to the Condor project; it is also the key company in the development of the new Iraqi missile and chemical-weapons project in Mosul known as Saad 16. The cooperation with Iraq was so secret that even the metalworkers’ representative on the MBB board of directors was unaware of it until stories appeared in the German press.

Finally, there is Egypt, which may be said to have started the chemical-arms race in the Middle East back in the days of Gamal Abdel Nasser, who used Soviet-made chemical weapons against the Yemenis. The Egyptians have their own part of the Condor II project, and were recently caught attempting to smuggle out of the United States sophisticated materials for use in nose cones. U.S. customs officials uncovered the scheme—run by an Egyptian military officer from the embassy in Germany, in tandem with two Egyptian-Americans in California—and arrested four of the plotters. The plan was foiled around the same time that the New York Times revealed that Krebs A.G., a Swiss company, had delivered to Egypt “the main elements of a plant that can be used to make poison gas.”



We know why the various companies, from Germany to Italy, from the United States to China, Singapore, and Hong Kong, sold the dreadful chemicals, technology, and software that have made chemical warfare a reality. They did it for the money. And although they all say that they never really knew what was going on, and that they thought they were helping Libya, Syria, Iraq, and Iran build harmless “chemical plants” or “pharmaceutical factories,” these are either outright lies or feeble efforts at self-deception. In virtually every instance, the companies took extraordinary steps to elude the surveillance of their own governments, created dummy companies in other countries, and falsified shipping documents, or permitted other companies to take such steps on their behalf.

In most cases, this kind of thing was hardly necessary, since the governments in question seemed singularly uninterested in finding out, let alone doing, anything about it. The German example is again instructive. According to the official government report, Western intelligence services, including the Germans’ very own BND, were warning of the participation of German firms in chemical-weapons programs in Libya and other countries as early as 1980-81. Reports came in a steady stream over the years, yet virtually nothing happened. In the rare instances when someone got curious, justice moved at a glacial tempo. Thus, in 1983, the involvement of the Kolb company in the Iraqi poison-gas factory at Samarra was brought to the attention of the West German authorities by both Israel and the United States. Yet according to Stern,

three years elapsed before the German judicial organs started investigations. At the end of 1987, customs investigators and public prosecutors searched several firms. Currently nobody can tell when the investigations will be concluded.

In the Rabta affair, the German government seemed determined not to look at what was in front of its collective nose. As far back as April 1980, the BND informed the Chancellor’s office that “with the help of unnamed East and West German experts, Libya is developing a plant for the manufacture of chemical-warfare agents as well as a system for using them.” But as the official German report reveals, not until January 1989 was the government able to conclude that the plant was really for chemical weapons, and that German corporations were really involved. During those nine years, there were repeated warnings from the United States, Britain, and Israel. Indeed, in the period from November 1983 to the end of 1988, there were no fewer than 150 demarches from the United States government on the subject of German involvement in chemical-weapons programs in the Middle East. And while one might wonder about the vigor with which American concerns were presented (former Assistant Secretary of Defense Richard Perle has said that instead of “demarches” the American protests should be called “de-marshmallows”), the nonchalance of the Germans was still remarkable.



It was only when the New York Times put the Rabta story on its front page, and William Safire followed up with a stinging column on “Auschwitz-in-the-sand,” that the Federal Republic finally bestirred itself. Around the same time, the Belgians also responded, arresting the man who had shipped the equipment for Rabta. This striking simultaneity suggests that the Europeans acted because they feared a politically damaging scandal, not because of any firm opposition to exporting poison-gas technology to the Middle East.

The lack of principled opposition comes out in the official report on Rabta, which over and over stresses the remarkable fact that no German laws were broken there:

. . . no license was required for the export of the control unit, even to Libya. Under existing regulations, the export of know-how for the construction of chemical facilities . . . is likewise not subject to a license. And as far as the presence of German engineers and technicians in Libya is concerned, their involvement in the construction of chemical-weapons facilities abroad, either in the form of physical work or of technical consultancy, does not constitute a breach of the law.

Indeed, in the past several years, despite numerous American requests to investigate the diversion of technology and materials for chemical and biological warfare, the German government never once found a violation of its laws. Only now, in the wake of the Rabta scandal, has the government begun taking action. Jürgen Hippenstiel-Imhausen has finally been arrested, and legislation is being contemplated that would make it much harder for Germans to engage in the production of atomic, biological, and chemical weapons either at home or abroad.

It is, then, fair to say that up until the scandal became public, not only did the Germans not wish to know about the involvement of their companies in preparations for chemical warfare, but they did not wish to prevent it, either. The same, astonishingly, applies to missile technology, even though the German government is a member of the so-called Missile Technology Control Regime, an agreement among seven countries which prohibits the export of advanced technology in this field. Typically, each country is left free to enforce the agreement as it sees fit. Germany’s choice was evidently not to enforce it at all.

Nor were such laws as did exist (licensing requirements for certain exports, for example) aggressively enforced. West Germany, in fact, has been the greatest single source of illegal transfers of sensitive technology both to Warsaw Pact countries and to the Middle East.

This has come about partly because of a series of traps of uniquely German design: the government needs a court order to investigate the records of a private company, but the courts are reluctant to give approval unless there is clear evidence of illegal activity. This Catch-22 situation is rendered even more difficult by the fact that companies can sue an individual government bureaucrat who dares to deny them an export shipment. Moreover, it is not illegal for German companies to transship controlled commodities (including chemical precursors or sensitive technology), since such shipments do not originate on German soil (or even touch Germany at all).

To make matters even more disturbing, some of the very same companies that today supply Israel’s enemies with poison gas and missile technology were deeply involved in the activities of the Nazi era. To quote the historian Paul Johnson:

Himmler wanted to use the war to create the nucleus of his slave empire and was not therefore anxious to kill Jews if he could get work out of them, particularly since he could get hard cash for his SS coffers from Krupps, Siemens, I.G. Farben, Theinmetall, Messerschmitt, Heinkel, and other big firms in return for concentration-camp labor. By the end of 1944 over 500,000 camp inmates were being “leased out” to private industry. . . .

Even though Germany is the biggest sinner, however, all Western countries bear a share of responsibility for the chemical warfare that is now almost certain to occur again. For no country has fought with sufficient courage and tenacity to prevent the world from arriving at so dangerous a state.

The lack of passion on the issue of chemical warfare is stunning. We heard little if anything from the Reagan administration about Iraqi and Iranian poison gas, and then only when the Kurds were being slaughtered. We heard nothing on Condor. We finally heard something about our favorite monster, Colonel Qaddafi, and even threatened to bomb him. But this spasm of indignation soon passed.

As for the media, despite ample coverage given to the story, there have been few calls for the sort of action that might put a stop to the commerce in chemical weapons. Nor has there been any great outcry against the use by Soviet military forces of some sort of poison gas against demonstrators in Tbilisi, Georgia, this past April, even though (or perhaps because) their willingness to gas their own citizens suggests they would be willing to use chemical weapons -against us in the event of war.



Is there anything that can be done to “put the genie back into the bottle”?

The most frequently mentioned solution—a treaty banning chemical weapons and their use—is impractical, since it is next to impossible to verify. As Qaddafi has demonstrated, even a massive facility can quickly be converted to “civilian” production, and it is hard to imagine the international community agreeing to rapid and efficient inspection.

Nor, alas, is the military option—the physical destruction of the chemical facilities by force of arms—feasible. For which among the Western nations would be willing to carry out the attacks? The only candidate for the task is Israel, which is after all directly threatened by poison gas. (Israeli leaders are understandably very fearful that Israel’s cities will be targeted by chemical weapons, or that Israeli tanks will be doused with mustard gas, thereby slowing down mobilization in response to a Syrian attack.) But would Israel under present circumstances be willing to brave the inevitable international reaction?

Which leaves only one option: those countries that have tolerated the murderous traffic must put an immediate end to any further supplies, including service and spare parts. Even the best hardware will break down in the deserts of the Middle East, especially if expert maintenance is lacking. Therefore, while much damage has already been done, stopping the traffic might still produce some significant improvement in this grim and extraordinarily dangerous picture.




1 To this list, we must add Libya and Ethiopia, which have reportedly used poison gas in recent years.

2 In one of its few mistakes, Stern got the wrong poison. The actual product was supposed to be Sarin, a nerve gas.

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