Acid Attacks: Protecting Against a Resurging Threat
By TorchStone Senior Analyst, Ben West
On Jan 31, a corrosive substance attack in South London injured nine people, five of whom required treatment at a major trauma center. While details are still emerging, initial reports suggest that the attack may have been part of a domestic dispute—eyewitnesses reported seeing a man trying to assault a woman with his car with children nearby. One key detail important to first responders is the fact that several of the injuries in the attack involved several responding police and bystanders who got the corrosive substance on themselves and required medical attention. This detail highlights the importance of responding carefully to an attack using acid or other corrosive substances to contain and mitigate it.
After declining since 2018, there are signs that so-called acid attacks are making a comeback. Recent attacks against high-profile individuals that appear to be ideologically motivated highlight the risk that chemical attacks pose to executives and other protected individuals. While chemicals used in such attacks are easy to acquire and difficult to detect, executive protection teams should already possess the skillset required to recognize an attack before it occurs.
A Return to the Bad Old Days?
There are signs that attacks using acid and other chemicals are seeing a troubling resurgence after declining from a peak in 2017. In 2017, the London Metropolitan Police recorded 465 attacks that involved corrosive substances. In previous years, criminal elements adopted the tactic of spraying corrosive chemical substances in people’s faces to steal their possessions or settle criminal disputes. Chemical substances are typically easier to obtain than controlled items like firearms or edged weapons. Chemicals like lye, bleach, or ammonia can be purchased at most supermarkets. The clear liquid substances can be secreted into secure areas in innocuous containers, allowing attackers to evade stop and searches even when police started to crack down on the problem. Attacks using chemical substances were also seen as less damaging to victims and therefore less likely to attract police and prosecutors’ attention.
Public uproar in 2017/2018 led London authorities to crack down on the tactic and hand out lengthier sentences. While rarely lethal, chemical attacks are extremely painful for the victims and can cause lifelong injuries and disfigurations—often after multiple, expensive medical procedures. The crackdown led to a steady decline in chemical attacks starting in 2018.
However, that downward trend appears to have reversed in 2022 when the Metropolitan Police reported 107 attacks involving chemical substances in London—a 45% increase from the 74 attacks reported in 2021. The rest of England and Wales saw an even more dramatic 69% increase in chemical attacks from 2021 to 2022.
While most chemical attacks in the UK are related to criminal attacks and disputes, they have also targeted high-profile individuals. In November 2023, an advisor to the controversial former Prime Minister of Pakistan, Imran Khan, suffered injuries from chemical substance attack. Mirza Shahzad Akbar posted on social media that a man attacked him at his home in Hertfordshire, UK with chemical substances, causing injuries to his body. Akbar had recently fled Pakistan with his family due to threats to individuals associated with former Prime Minister Imran Khan. It’s unclear if the chemical attack against Akbar was linked to his association with Imran Khan, but Akbar claims to have received numerous related threats in recent months.
The threat of attacks involving chemical substances is not limited to the UK. India reported 124 attacks in 2022—a number that is widely acknowledged as being much higher due to underreporting. In April 2023, an unidentified person threw a chemical substance in the face of Colombian woman’s rights activist Lilia Patricia Cardozo when she was walking through a park in her hometown. The attack caused burns and injuries to her face. Like Akbar’s case above, Cardozo had also received multiple threats for her work to end domestic abuse and gender violence in Colombia.
For decades, chemical attacks were associated with gender-based violence against women—mostly in South and Central Asian countries. So-called “acid attacks” have been measured by police in India and Pakistan for decades and were predominantly motivated by men against women who had rejected their romantic advances. Attacking them with chemical substances typically physically disfigured them in a way that made them traditionally less attractive—a way for spurned men to take their revenge. However, the chemical attack tactic has been expanding in India to target men as well as women for reasons well beyond romantic rejection. In the West, chemical attacks tend to not discriminate between men and women and have been conducted for a variety of motives.
Unlike more lethal weapons such as firearms or edged weapons, corrosive chemical substances are easier to obtain and harder to detect at screening points. According to a 2017 UK investigation, most chemical attacks involved readily available household cleaners such as bleach or low-concentrate ammonia. Despite common reference to chemical attacks as “acid attacks,” most substances used are base. The distinction is important when it comes to treating affected areas of the body. They are invisible to magnetometers and only X-ray checkpoints that screen all liquids have a chance of detecting them. According to the 2017 UK investigation, even when police carried out stop and searches, they couldn’t always identify harmful chemical substances—they were clear and in small amounts that could be concealed in any innocuous-looking container.
When it comes to executive protection, chemical attacks are a serious concern. Due to the ease of acquiring them and secreting them into sensitive areas, it is relatively easy for a motivated person to target a high-profile individual at a public appearance with chemical substances that could cause serious physical injuries. As environmental activist groups debate whether the use of violence is justified in countering global warming, chemical attacks could be seen as an incremental escalation in the severity of non-lethal tactics. In September 2023, Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary laughed off environmental activists who threw pie in his face in Brussels, but more radically inclined activists could have just as easily attacked him with chemical substances. O’Leary most likely would have survived a chemical attack but required hospitalization. Perpetrators of chemical attacks would certainly face stiffer penalties than pie throwers, but environmental activists have demonstrated increasing willingness to serve prison time for their disruptive actions.
In 2018, the CFO of a German energy company, Bernhard Gunther, suffered injuries after two individuals attacked him with chemicals at a park near his home. Authorities arrested and sentenced a Belgian man to 12 years in prison in 2021, but his motive for the attack remains a mystery as he claimed innocence. However, speculation focused on environmental activism due to Mr. Gunther’s work. Mr. Gunther himself has said he is convinced that the motivation for the attack was “professional.”
Defending Against Chemical Attacks
As with nearly all forms of personal attacks, the most effective way to defend against chemical attacks is by watching for demeanor. People who intend to carry out an attack tend to give signals that can telegraph their intentions as they move through the attack cycle. Unlike a bomber, shooter, or even edged weapon attacker, it is very difficult to detect a chemical attacker during the weapons acquisition stage of the attack cycle due to the ease of acquiring household cleaners typically used in chemical attacks. However, a person preparing to carry out a chemical attack is likely to behave similarly to someone about to carry out a firearm or edged weapon attack: EP teams need to look out for nervous or fidgety individuals who display a fixation on their target. Attackers are likely to move swiftly towards their target and with purpose in the lead-up to an attack—regardless of what weapon they use. Attacking with a chemical substance means that an attacker needs to get within a few feet of their target, so maintaining even a small standoff distance between a principal and a crowd can mitigate the threat of a chemical attack.
As demonstrated in the cases of two chemical attack victims above, attacks do not occur in a vacuum. There are typically warning signs that can alert an individual that they are at risk, such as receiving threatening letters or phone calls. Increasingly aggressive protest activity and attention from activists, including denouncement and doxing on social media are also strong indicators of a growing threat of violence targeting an executive. Monitoring activist activity and rhetoric is imperative to anticipating changes in tactics that could pose a greater threat to a principal.
TorchStone is not aware of any chemical attacks that affected a principal under executive protection.
What To Do in the Case of a Chemical Attack
Prevention is always better than reacting, but if an attack cannot be prevented a quick and effective reaction can help to mitigate its impact. One important step executive protection teams should take before an incident is to ensure their first aid kits are stocked with materials to help flush chemicals from eyes and skin.
Once an attack does occur, we recommend the following steps:
- Get off the X
Get the victim to a safe spot where they are protected from follow-on attacks.
- Protect Yourself
If you are responding to a chemical attack against someone else, be sure to avoid suffering burns yourself. Ensure there is a substantial protective layer between your own skin and any corrosive substance.
- Dilute the Substance
Some attacks use powder—in which case you can brush the corrosive substance off the skin before washing with water. If the chemical substance is liquid, flush the area with water. Be sure to allow the rinse to drain away from the victim and others to avoid expanding the harm done. Note that victims of chemical attacks typically have no way of knowing what kind of chemical was involved, so using neutral fluids like water or saline is the best way to wash affected areas.
- Prevent Spreading the Substance
Depending on what part of the body the attack impacted, cover surrounding skin with a towel cloth, or gauze to prevent chemicals from burning other areas. For example, if chemicals get in one eye, cover the other eye before flushing out the affected eye to avoid harming the rest of the face.
- Seek Medical Attention
Get the victim to a hospital as quickly as possible to minimize the damage.