The attack on Ghouta
On Wednesday 21 August reports were received that up to a thousand or so people had been killed in a chemical weapons attack on Ghouta, a rebel controlled area east of Damascus. United Nations weapons inspectors, led by Sweden’s Åke Sellström, former Head of FOI’s laboratory in Umeå, were then in Syria. While the inspectors were trying to obtain access to the affected area, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) started to look for laboratories that might be able to carry out tests on whatever the inspectors might find in Ghouta. FOI in Umeå immediately raised its level of preparedness. Ever since the establishment of OPCW in 1997, FOI’s chemical laboratory in Umeå has been one of the few certified laboratories capable of carrying out such tests in a crisis situation.
“We realised that we could be chosen, partly because we had been a reliable partner for the OPCW since 1997 and partly because Sweden had no direct interest in the Syrian conflict. We had, moreover, declined earlier enquiries concerning the analysis of material from Syria because we could not be sure that there would be a safe, documented and unbroken chain from source to laboratory,” says Mats Strömqvist, Director, Division for CBRN Defence and Security at FOI.
At 18:55 on Monday 2 September, FOI received an official request from the OPCW. Late on the following day, Tuesday 3 September, Yvonne Nygren, Head of FOI’s CBRN Analysis Unit, was collected at her home by a car from the Swedish Security Service (SÄPO) and driven to Umeå airport. There she could see the official aircraft that the Swedish government had made available landing after its direct flight from Rotterdam airport where the weapons inspectors had already flown in with the first consignment of samples from Syria. Out stepped two OPCW couriers who had accompanied the consignment to ensure that the samples were not tampered with en route. With them they had two styrofoam insulated boxes containing 37 blood samples and 16 urine samples preserved in test tubes packed in dry ice.
“The couriers then accompanied the samples to FOI’s laboratory where a colleague was waiting. Together with the couriers we checked that all the paperwork, and the samples themselves, were in order. Enclosed with the samples was a list of what we should look for and in what order. First we were to look for traces of sarin. If we did not find that, we were to test for other nerve gases, then pesticides and finally other substances that affect the transmission of nerve impulses, so-called cholinergic substances,” explains Yvonne Nygren.
Working round the clock
Around a dozen laboratory personnel then worked in shifts round the clock. From a purely technical point of view this was no more difficult than many other tests carried out by the laboratory. Nor was it as dangerous as it might seem. But the group were under considerable pressure, not least from the UN because United States forces were at readiness to strike Syria as soon as they had the results. With so much at stake, it was necessary to ensure ample security round the laboratory based on assessments made internally within FOI and in conjunction with the Security Service.
Searching for traces of the nerve gas sarin in blood and urine involves two partially different methods of working. In blood the sarin attaches itself to proteins. In urine the body is already able to convert the sarin. To make sure that no mistakes were made, such as the accidental contamination of samples with sarin, parallel blank testing was also carried out using plasma from other samples that should yield negative results if everything was as it should be.
It did not take long for the position to become clear to the analysis group in Umeå. After just a week the FOI scientists were so certain that they were able to inform the OPCW in a registered letter that they had found definite traces of sarin. Four days later they submitted a report with the results finally confirmed. By 15 September, only 13 days after the arrival of the samples at Umeå, Åke Sellström, the weapon inspector, was able to present a report to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon in New York.
In the Middle East, meanwhile, the dramatic situation had quietened somewhat. The Syrian government had admitted that the country did possess chemical weapons and had now agreed to the destruction, in collaboration with the UN and the OPCW, of these weapons. Thereupon, the United States withdrew the threat of armed intervention which the results from Umeå would otherwise have triggered. In Umeå the work resumed a slightly more everyday tempo as those who had worked on the analysis of the Syrian material now began to compile a full report containing technical details and other matters of relevance to the task.
Life has not, however, yet returned completely to normal. On 11 October it was announced that the OPCW had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. In connection with the award ceremony in December, Yvonne Nygren and FOI colleagues Rikard Norlin and Anders Lindblad, flew to Stockholm to take part in a panel debate together with the Peace Prize recipients and to join them for lunch with the Foreign Minister.
At the same time, there is growing awareness that this was a major event for FOI and personally for those concerned. The fact that FOI and its sister organisation in Finland, were the two laboratories, with back-up laboratories in Germany and Switzerland, that carried out this task of such importance to the world is about as good as it gets.
“For FOI it was fantastic to be chosen as one of the laboratories at the heart of an event of such great political significance in which the United States stood ready to attack Syria. For me personally it was a very big deal. It is something that I shall probably never experience again, being so closely involved in an event of global significance,” says Yvonne Nygren.
And should a new request for new tests in comparable circumstances arise again, the answer according to Mats Strömqvist is simple.
“The answer “No” is inconceivable. We undertake a whole range of tasks that are useful to society as a whole, but assignments of this nature we must and will take on. This is something that we are uniquely qualified to undertake,” says Mats Strömqvist.