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Terror Attacks that Never Were

Myths of Poison Gas Attacks in History and More Recently on Afghan School Girls

“Of all our passions, fear weakens judgment most.” —Bertrand Russell1

FOR THE PAST EIGHT YEARS, ANNUAL REPORTS of Taliban atrocities involving the mass poisoning of Afghan schoolgirls have caused outrage around the world. In 2009, The Statesman proclaimed: “Afghan schoolgirls targeted in ‘Taliban gas attack.’”2 The next year, the International Herald Tribune reported: “Poison Gas Sickened Afghan Schoolgirls.”3 In 2012, The Hindustan Times stated: “Taliban Suspected of Poisoning 120 Afghan Schoolgirls.”4 During August 2015, the New York Daily News published the headline: “More than 100 Afghan Schoolgirls, Teachers Poisoned in Suspected Taliban Attack.”5 In May 2016, the Afghan newspaper the Pajhwok Reporter carried the story of nearly 200 students who were supposedly poisoned after smelling an unfamiliar odor in Zaranj, despite no evidence of poison and the girls rapid recovery.6

Between 2009 and 2016, several thousand casualties have been reported in dozens of schools in at least seven Afghan provinces: Balkh, Bamyan, Farah, Herat, Khost, Nimroz, and Takhar. During this period, numerous suspects have been arrested and charged with carrying out these attacks, while Afghan newspapers have called for harsh penalties for the perpetrators.7 Yet, the further one delves into these claims, the more dubious they become.

Illustration by Simone Rein

The WHO Report

In 2012, the World Health Organization (WHO) investigated reports of mass poisonings at 22 girls’ schools over the previous four years. Among the symptoms were nausea, vomiting, headaches, dizziness, fainting, and weakness. Curiously, not a single patient died and all recovered rapidly. While the domestic folk theory attributed the incidents to Taliban militants intent on preventing girls from going to school, in line with their ultra-conservative religious views, WHO concluded that these were cases of mass psychogenic illness. Episodes were typically preceded by a foul odor, which gave rise to a belief that their school was the subject of a chemical or biological attack. Some incidents were triggered by rumors that the water supply had been poisoned. Classic psychogenic indicators included the rapid spread of transient and benign symptoms, a quick recovery, poisoning rumors, high states of anxiety (feeling shaky, rapid heartbeat), the absence of environmental or biological agents, and a preponderance of female victims.8

While a one-page summary of the WHO findings was published in 2012, the full report has never been publicly released. Afghan journalist Matthieu Aikins obtained a statement from a WHO spokes-person familiar with the report, who noted that there was “No conclusive evidence of deliberate poisoning” based on blood, urine and water samples.9 In 2013, Aikins became aware of unreleased reports indicating that the United Nations, WHO and the International Security Assistance Force “had investigated the incidents for years and had never found, despite extensive laboratory tests, any evidence of toxins or poisoning—a fact that may explain ISAF’s conspicuous silence on the issue.”10

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About Skeptic

INTERNET PORNOGRAPHY SPECIAL SECTION: IS PORNOGRAPHY BAD FOR YOU?; How Porn Is Messing with Your Manhood; Skeptical of Porn Skeptics; Hazards of Herbal Medicine: Lessons from Aristolochia; What is Sexual Orientation?; Did a Teenager Discover an Ancient Mayan City on Google Earth?; Paleo Diets and Utopian Dreams; Does AA Work? Alcoholics Anonymous, 12-Step Programs, and What We Really Know About Substance Abuse Treatment; The Clash of Eschatologies: The Role of End-Times Thinking in World History; Nightmares from the Id: The Neurophysiology of Anomalous Psychological Experiences; Terror Attacks that Never Were; Electromagnetic Fields and Parental Panics: A Case Study in How Science Can Bring Comfort; REVIEWS: Who Invented Science?; Science and the Creation of the Modern Mind; Heaven Is Not For Real; When Scientific American Put Psychics to the Test; JUNIOR SKEPTIC: MammothMysteries! Part One. The Hidden History of Mammoths and Mastodons