In 2007, al Qaeda suspended using chlorine gas as a weapon while waiting for guidance on whether or not to continue the practice, worrying that collateral damage from attacks could hurt its image, according to documents published online.
The Combating Terrorism Center at West Point on Thursday released 197 pages (175 pages translated from Arabic) of documents found last year on electronic storage devices in Osama bin Laden’s Abbottabad, Pakistan compound. Both the original Arabic documents and the English versions are available online. In a May 2, 2012 raid, Navy SEALS killed al Qaeda mastermind Osama bin Laden and recovered hundreds of items including flash drives, hard drives, and discs.
In a letter to a legal scholar named Hafiz Sultan, an unnamed operative writes that he is concerned about al Qaeda’s conduct in Iraq and looks for guidance on using chlorine gas as a weapon.
Chlorine is a choking agent, a chemical that attacks the respiratory system. As a weapon it’s most likely to be used in gas form and is extremely flammable when mixed with other chemicals. When released into the air it spreads quickly, causing breathing difficulty, nausea, fluid buildup in the lungs, blistered skin, and eventually death.
“The gas could be difficult to control and might harm some people, which could tarnish our image, alienate people from us,” the operative wrote.
The letter is dated March 28, 2007--one month after two high profile chlorine attacks in Baghdad. In the first attack, a bomb placed under a chlorine truck sent 150 villagers to the hospital. A day later, insurgents exploded pick-up truck carrying chlorine canisters. The explosion killed five people and sent 55 more to the hospital.
“Also, the brothers where Mahmud is have the potential to use [chlorine gas] on the forces of the apostates, Jalal and Mas'ud, and have already considered using it. However, I informed them that matters as serious as this required centralized [coordination] and permission from the senior leadership,” the letter reads. The writer says they would put chlorine attacks on hold and wait for guidance. According to media reports, attacks continued, but at a slower pace.
A U.S. Department of Defense spokesman did not immediately return requests for comment.
Other documents released by CTC show al Qaeda was an organization hypersensitive about its image and its own ability to win the hearts and minds of people in the region caught in the crossfire between itself and its enemies.
In one letter, al Qaeda spokesman Adam Gadahn provides PR advice for the tenth anniversary 9/11 and suggests the organization distance itself from the Pakistani Taliban and the Islamic State of Iraq, an insurgent group.
Continue to the next page for the complete CTC report on the documents.