Full Hazmat Gear

On Saturday evening, January 7th, German police raided a residence in the town of Castrop-Rauxel, in western Germany. This was no ordinary call; law enforcement responded wearing full chemical protective gear because their target was accused of imminently preparing to launch a chemical attack. Officials ended up detaining a 32-year-old Iranian man shortly before midnight. He is suspected of plotting a terroristic attack motivated by Islamic extremism. The man was thought to have been trying to obtain cyanide and ricin, both extremely hazardous poisons capable of being fashioned into bioweapons capable of causing widespread terror.

German SEK (Spezialeinsatzkommando) police special forces were, according to reports in The Guardian, first on the scene arriving onsite in a fire truck to hide their identity and purpose. A decontamination unit from Germany’s disease control and prevention agency was also on site, in addition to a detonation unit.

A second man, believed to be the subject’s brother, was also taken into custody. Police report that this man is known to have ties to terrorist organizations but did not specify whether he was directly involved in the current plot. The pair have reportedly been in the country since 2015.

Pure ricin is a highly toxic substance that can be lethal in small amounts if ingested, injected, or inhaled. Two milligrams are enough to kill the average person, and there is no antidote. The best that can be done for victims is to control their symptoms. Cyanide gas is a chemical asphyxiant and has been historically used as an effective chemical warfare agent, first used during World War I.

A German investigator rushes to the raid scene in full chemical protective apparel—image from YouTube and DW.

Memories of 2003 and the Senate Mailroom

Perhaps the most infamous use of the toxic substance in the United States occurred in 2003 when a letter addressed to the White House tested positive for a fine, white powdery substance at a United States Postal Service processing center in Greenville, South Carolina. The powder was positively identified as ricin, albeit low grade and not potentially a health risk. The incident was not made public until nearly three months later when the presence of ricin was discovered in the office mailroom of Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist. Despite the discovery, there were no reports of any individuals experiencing medical issues due to exposure to the contaminated area. Nevertheless, several Senate office buildings were temporarily closed as a precautionary measure.

The high-tech gear worn during the German raid was because of this threat. As it turned out, an initial inspection of the premises showed no hazardous chemicals of this type at that location. Nevertheless, local police reported that the nature of the tip they received prompted them to act immediately. The information regarding the alleged plot is thought to have come from an allied intelligence agency, American, or the FBI. Further investigation will be conducted to determine if the urgent nature of the response was warranted.

In their periodical, the German tabloid newspaper Bild quoted security officials stating that the men intended to carry out their attack on New Year’s Eve but did not have the materials to act at that time. However, since then, they have supposedly acquired the necessary items to carry out their plan.

Although the suspect is an Iranian national, there is no evidence at this time that he was acting under orders of the Iranian government. Instead, he is believed to be a supporter of a minority Sunni extremist group in Iran. Nancy Fraser, the German Interior Minister, thanked German law enforcement for their swift and thorough investigation while emphasizing the importance of international cooperation in combating extremist threats. She added that 21 Islamic attacks had been prevented in her nation since 2000.