Westgate Attack: what if sleeping gas was used

(For a related post please read: Westgate attack; Kenya must up technology adoption).

We have discussed the Westgate Attack in relation to the need of Kenya’s security agencies upping the adoption of technology to enable them better tackle similar situations in the future. We have also recommended proper up to date training on combat techniques, use of advanced information, communication and intelligent gathering technologies and techniques, and adoption of the very best weapons and devices to manage similar terrorists and criminal activities.

Despite advanced training and use of high-tech technologies, security agencies will still be faced with the dilemma of speedily terminating a terrorism or criminal attack and at the same time saving the innocent lives held as hostages by the criminals or terrorists. Faced with this dilemma, several people have enquired on the social media on the possibility of using sleeping gas for putting everyone to sleep (including the hostages) for easy neutralization of the attackers.

If sleeping gas had been used at the Westgate attack, Kenya could not have been the first to use a similar substance. InĀ October 2002 about 40 militants who claimed Ā allegiance to a Chechen’s Islamist militant group seizedĀ Dubrovka Theater holding over 900 civilians hostage. The militants demanded that the Russian forces be pulled out of Chechnya. After two and a half days the Russian Alpha group raided the Theater, pumped an unknown gas into the theater, captured all the militants and killed them. About 130 civilians died from adverse reactions to the gas.

Moscow hostages being carried away from the theater sleeping

The particular gas used by the Alpha group to raid the Theater has remained a mystery to date. A number of gaseous and liquid substances have been suggested as the possible chemicals that was used. The list range from normal anesthetics morphine to more dangerous weaponized fentanyl. The Russian authorities provided information that the substance used was a derivative of fentanyl. Ā For information about the speculations read here.

The fact that Russia has used a chemical in a Westgate like scenario means there indeed exist substances that can subject both attackers to hostages to sleep. Then why didn’t our security forces use a gas to contain the Westgate attack? As already mentioned, the Russian case ended up killing about 130 innocent civilians which is roughly 15% of the hostages. In Kenya the civilian fatality has been reported as 72 and we are yet to know the total number of people who were in the mall at the time of the attack. Given that the attack happened on a Saturday and that since the mall can hold well over 12,000 shoppers at a time, we may assume that the number of people at the mall was significantly higher than those who were in the Russian Theater. Given these facts, one major reason that could have deterred our security agencies from pursuing a similar approach is the uncertainty surrounding possible civilian fatalities that could have been caused.

The second problem is associated with how fast the hostages could have received revival treatment. The hospitals were overwhelmed by 175 casualties who had sustained gun wounds and related injuries. Could they have managed over 5000 casualties? Most of those who died from the Russian incident died in the hospitals or on their way there. Despite not having a prior arrangement with hospitals dealing with casualties, the Russian government declined to disclose to the doctors what gaseous substance they had been used thereby compounding treatment, although most of those who were revived were injected with naloxone, a common antidote for neutralizing fentanyl.

The third problem that even the Russians faced is the correct substance and dosage rate that could provide the following properties as outline in the document;Ā Non-Lethal Technology (NLT) Approaches to Hostage Situations:

1. Dynamic parameters:

  • time of onset of effect ———-should be immediate,
  • duration of effect —————-should be sufficient for the operation required (the longer the better but too long might lead to very many fatalities).
  • recovery time ——————— as soon as possible
  • reversibility ————————- complete.

2. Therapeutic Index (ratio of lethal dose to effective dose LD50/ED50)————very broad.

3. Physical Parameters — easy to store, easy to handle, liquid or gas as required, and

4. Sensory Quality — invisible, inodorous, tasteless, neutral in temperature.

The forth problem is how to blow the gas into the hall so that the concentration is well distributed to avoid a situation whereby some of the hostages and attackers are over affected while others remain conscious. Even though the optimal distribution method of the substance might be found, the divergent composition of hostages (gender, age, body size and weight that all contribute to respiratory rate) further compounds the problem.

The final problem would be how to deal with the possibility of the attackers having with them gas masks. The attackers ofĀ Ā Dubrovka Theater did have the gas masks though they were not able to put them on in time.

The best solution to the aforementioned problem would be to have a substance that meets the properties outlined above and such a substance can be said to be ideal but as nature has it, ideal things do not exist!

The documentĀ Non-Lethal Technology (NLT) Approaches to Hostage SituationsĀ that examined the Russian case concluded that “The use of an incapacitantĀ in this setting was a novel courageous attempt at saving the most lives.”

By Washington Odipo


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