Fear of terrorists behind increase in gas mask sales PERSIAN GULF SHOWDOWN

January 25, 1991|By Michael A. Fletcher | Michael A. Fletcher,Evening Sun Staff

After war broke out in the Persian Gulf, Baltimore-area Sunny's Surplus stores quickly sold out of gas masks, something that completely befuddles Andrew J. Duncan, the chain's vice president for operations.

"I can't comprehend that," Duncan said. "I wouldn't buy a gas mask unless I was going to a party tonight and wanted to wear it as a costume."

But the people who bought the masks were not thinking about costume parties. They are worried about the possibility of an Iraqi-sponsored terrorist attack.

Some anti-terrorism experts say the chances of being a victim in such an attack are remote. But every day the war continues, the chance of a terrorist attack grows, they say. If terrorists decide to unleash a poison gas attack, they add, a gas mask will be virtually useless.

Fear of terrorism recently prompted jittery school officials in Carroll and Frederick counties to prohibit field trips to Baltimore and Washington. Anne Arundel school officials banned such trips to the nation's capital.

Meanwhile, Baltimore officials have beefed up security and stepped up testing water at reservoirs and treatment plants.

The demand for gas masks is an apparent reaction to Saddam Hussein's record of using chemical weapons and his vow to launch terrorist attacks against U.S. citizens.

"We ran out of them real quick," said William Haransky, a clerk at the Sunny's Surplus store in Catonsville. "Right before the war started, we had quite a few. But once it got going, we sold what we had in a day or two."

Haransky and clerks at other Army-surplus stores say they are getting many phone calls about the availability of masks, an item that they say normally moves only during the days preceding Halloween. The masks retail for anywhere between $14 and $24.

Oddly, sales of another survival item, water-purification pills, have not surged, store clerks say.

Some experts say people who buy gas masks and other survival gear to shield themselves from terrorists are wasting their money.

"They are grossly overreacting," said Louis Mizell, a former Marine and State Department intelligence officer who heads a Bethesda-based international security firm.

But Mizell also says the possibility of a pro-Iraqi terrorist action in America is "highly likely" -- especially if the war drags on.

"As Saddam Hussein's military is diminished, terrorism will become his primary weapon," Mizell says. "He will reason that since the United States is hitting his people in Iraq, he will want to hit our people in the United States."

But, he adds, the odds of being involved in such an attack are minuscule and the best protection is an overall awareness of existing security provisions.

Mizell, who is in the business of assessing the security procedures of multinational corporations, courts and hospitals and even the U.S. government, says terrorism is more common in this country than many people think.

"Nearly 50 domestic and international groups have committeover 1,000 terrorist incidents in the United States over the past 15 years," Mizell says.

Those incidents include the bombing of military aircraft and the assassination of a diplomat.

Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert with the Rand Corp., says the terrorism risk in this country is real, but adds, "it is certainly far below the need for gas masks."

"As radical as terrorists are in their politics, they are very conservative in their tactics," Hoffman says. "The threat of an attack is remote. But the longer the war continues, the less remote that becomes as Saddam becomes more desperate."

Hoffman says that if terrorists were to strike they most likely would use the weapons they have employed for the past century: guns and bombs. The chance of their using biological or chemical weapons, he says, is extremely slim.

"Those really aren't in their repertoire," he says. "There is really no good way for them to employ those weapons."

If chemical or biological weapons were used, he adds, a gas mask would probably not offer any help.

"Unlike a Scud missile, where you have maybe five minutes' warning, any kind of chemical attack by terrorists will come with no warning time," Hoffman says. "Because of that, you'll have no time to put a gas mask on. It will be completely useless."

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