Homebrew Chemical Weapons

Nice article discussing the hype, and reality, over the threat of homebrew chemical weapons.

Posted on June 6, 2006 at 11:51 AM • 21 Comments

Comments

royJune 6, 2006 3:00 PM

'poison suicide vest of death'?

That sounds like a George Carlin line.

Are these people all idiots? Idiots with badges, guns, and the license to kill?

MikeJune 6, 2006 3:46 PM

@ roy:

"Are these people all idiots? Idiots with badges, guns, and the license to kill?"

How glib. Actually; they're probably not. They're people with a very hard job to do who will be damned by a different elements of the politcal spectrum depending on the outcime in almost all cases.

After 7/7 the security forces have to be seen to not be taking any chances. Where there's smoke ...

Paul CrowleyJune 6, 2006 4:13 PM

Interesting. One counter to the point about Aum Shinrikyo though - those weren't suicide attacks. If they had used a pump spray (as you might use to spread water on plants) the more effective dispersal might have killed many more, but they couldn't then have run to their getaway cars.

JustinJune 6, 2006 4:42 PM

The Register isn't the most reputable media outlet; I'd be cautious linking their articles. They've been caught out several times writing thinly disguised hatchet jobs for their reporter's personal hobbyhorses.

TorreyJune 6, 2006 7:03 PM

The Register article concludes that manufacturing and weaponizing chemical weapons would be very difficult to do in dangerous quantities.

I'm not sure I'm convinced. What about mercury? The metal is easily obtained from old thermostats and other soruces, and easy to store until you're ready to create your poison.

Once you're ready, produce dimethyl mercury, which is extremely nasty stuff. (See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dimethylmercury).

I wasn't able to find out a simple chemical reaction online to create it from mercury (and honestly, this is a relief!) although I didn't try very hard. It's a really simple compound though and I can't imagine it's difficult to synthesize. I would guess that someone with a few kilos of mercury metal who was willing to take some risks could produce a large container full of the poison using a single continuous reaction and store the result in a large sealed container. (Glass or metal!)

The liquid has a high vapor pressure, so poisoning a large group of people would just involve opening the container of the stuff in a contained area. Or pouring it into ventilation ducts. Choose your movie plot.

RalphJune 7, 2006 12:34 AM

@Paul Crowley
"Taking no chances" might work until the money runs out. Then we might sit around wondering if we could have spent it in a more useful way.

@Justin
Media has a bias - surely you jest. All media articles should be read on their merits regardless of past reputation.

I think a reasonable case was put that the money spent in this instance was poorly spent.

Ian EiloartJune 7, 2006 4:31 AM

Another aspect of the story background is that the police raided this house on the basis of what they called "credible evidence". They shot a resident without warning. Although he wasn't badly injured, it's incredibly rare for police to shoot someone in the UK - the last incident that I remember was the Brazilian plumber mistaken for a suicide bomber.

Turns out, they've got the wrong guy again. In fact, the police here seem to shoot as many innocent people as guilty.

Mr. PondJune 7, 2006 7:34 AM

As with all articles such as the one linked to, 75-80% of the content is pure conjecture regarding an attack in Japan that had a totally different background to anything concerning Islamic fundamentalist terrorism.

As such perhaps it would be best if everyone (any by that I don't necessarily mean the good people here), including senastionalist elements in the media, ceased the conjecture, groundless speculation and awaited whatever report eventually results from the investigation.

HugeJune 7, 2006 7:45 AM

Ian Eiloart says "In fact, the police here seem to shoot as many innocent people as guilty."

Actually, Ian, the police everywhere shoot as many innocent people as guilty.

HugeJune 7, 2006 8:00 AM

Torrey muses about dimethylmercury. As an ex (bio)chemist, I believe he way underestimates the difficulty of handling DMM. As a subsequent poster has pointed out, Karen Wetterhahn knew what she was doing and was still killed by handling minute quantities of the stuff, never mind kilos of it. Hell, members of the IRA have poisoned themselves with nitrobenzene, and that's a hell of a lot safer to handle than DMM. Believe you me, ANFO is easier, cheaper, quicker, safer (to handle!) and provably effective (it's what Timothy McVeigh used). Personally, I think the Register article is spot on. You'd be a lot better off (as a terrorist) hijacking an LPG tanker and crashing it into a building (In 1978 in Los Alfaques, Spain a tanker delivering propane to a camp site exploded; 216 people died and another 200 were injured) than mucking about with hard to get and dangerous to handle chemicals.

Ghaith NasrawiJune 7, 2006 8:34 AM

in yesterday's the "Evening Standard" they released more info about why one of the suspects was shot. Ironically, the policeman who shot him didn't know that he fired a bullet from his gun until they were back to the station and found a bullet missing from his machine. A bulky kit (and gloves) was used to protect the policemen from any chemical attacks.

This makes me feel very safe next time I see a policeman pointing his gun to me in London's underground.

Appearently, there are people who are even worse than Dick Cheney, they shoot w/o knowing.

RvnPhnxJune 7, 2006 12:05 PM

@Mr. Pond
"As with all articles such as the one linked to, 75-80% of the content is pure conjecture regarding an attack in Japan that had a totally different background to anything concerning Islamic fundamentalist terrorism."

Um, really now......last time I checked it didn't matter whom the terrorist was (or what religion they adhere to)--it only mattered how good they were at scaring the sh!t out of people.
As for that figure about how much of that is conjecture, I'm not sure where you got that. The Aum Shinrikyo attacks are fairly well documented (and have been all along btw).
If you're going to be a naysayer then please do put up a good argument for your counterclaim instead of a straw man paired with a thinly veiled ad-hominem attack.

Paul CrowleyJune 7, 2006 5:43 PM

@Ralph: @Paul Crowley "Taking no chances" [...]

Er, I didn't say anything about taking no chances - I think you're replying to someone else.

JustinJune 7, 2006 6:08 PM

@Ralph: "All media articles should be read on their merits regardless of past reputation."

Nonsense. A media outlet caught lying has less credibility than one not yet caught. Reputation isn't a guarantee, but you'd be foolish to give full credence to a well-written article by an outfit that boasted well-written but unsupported-on-investigation articles.

RogerJune 7, 2006 6:47 PM

It isn't a "nice" article, it's largely spin-doctoring to support the author's preconceived notions, with just one or two good points.

Good points:
* correctly pointing out that Aum Shinri Kyo's attempts show that nerve gas production is a lot harder than was feared, and was not a success (but I don't know of these straw men who are claiming otherwise);
* correctly pointing out that for biological and chemical weapons, effective delivery mechanisms have a huge effect on lethality.

Rather bad points:
* A lot of weasel words and spin-doctoring, e.g. the classic ``sources were quoted as saying there were "questions...''
* ``not hundreds of deaths, but the possibility of casualties in up to three figures''. For the benefit of the innumerate like John Lettice, three figures IS hundreds. Of course the lower limit is zero in the case of the device failing completely or going off when no-one is about, but only an idiot would plan on that basis.
* Claiming that the dissemination mechanism could not be effective by *speculating* about an ineffective dissemination mechanism. This technique is commonly known as a "straw man". Obviously it is possible to create an effective dissemination mechanism, and with relatively primitive technology too; see World War I for details.
* Claiming that a "poison vest of death" could not work because ``it's got a would be-suicide slap-bang where you'd want to put the charge.'' This is silly so many ways it would bore people to list them, but a key point is that a dispersion charge is only a small fraction of the weight of the agent, perhaps a couple of ounces in this case.

Very bad points:
* Claiming that a device is inconsequential, and a raid of 250 officers was overkill, because the death toll might only reach three figures. This isn't even spin-doctoring, it is foamy mouthed gibbering idiocy.
* ``Iraq's chemical weapons efforts failed to achieve results from 1971 to 1978, according to the CIA's Iraq Survey Group''. The context and phrasing of this statement seems calculated to give the casual reader the impression that CW production is incredibly hard because it stymied an emerging industrial state for 7 years. But it would be generous to call that even a misrepresentation; it is quite false, and not at all what the ISG said. The only comparable statements in the report, which are on page 5 of volume 3, refer to a small scale defensive research program started for "familiarisation and training" by a small group of army officers and not even involving any academics until 1974. It successfully produced "gram quantities of mustard, Tabun, CS and organophosphate pesticides like Malathion and parathion" but was shut down due to mismanagement and fraud. Iraq only began serious attempts to mass produce CW agents on the 8th of June 1981 after their invasion of Iran suffered serious setbacks, yet those efforts had produced 85 tonnes of mustard gas by the end of 1982, 160 tonnes of mustard in 1983 and 60 tonnes of tabun in 1984. So on the contrary, ISG concludes that the Iraqi program was very successful within months of being started. Throughout the Iran-Iraq War, Iraqi chemical weapons caused tens of thousands of Iranian deaths and about 100,000 casualties. If you'd like to read it for yourself, the final report of the Iraq Survey Group can be found here: http://www.globalsecurity.org/wmd/library/report/...

RalphJune 8, 2006 5:01 PM

@Paul
You're right; whoops sorry about that.

@Justin
I may be cynical here but I'd love to meet the mainstream media outlet that hasn't printed a lie.

I choose not to spend my time tracking thousands of media outlets into some kind of reputation based system. Although I do tend to notice when people like Amnesty International challenge mainstream credibility, so to a degree you have a point. Mostly though I prefer to play the ball and not the man.

erasmusJune 8, 2006 5:35 PM

@Roger: don't let preconceptions cloud your ability to take in what you read. "Obviously it is possible to create an effective dissemination mechanism, and with relatively primitive technology too; see World War I for details."

It took many, many attempts and a lot of practice to produce an effective dissemination mechanism in WW1. Identifying dispersal mechanisms suitable for the chosen substance was also not easy. Even with 2-3 years of experience, e.g. at 2nd Gaza in 1917 the targets did not even realise they had being gassed!

Spend a few weeks reading up on WW1 "Specials" - there was quite a lot written if you know where to look and can get a reader's ticket - and you will *start* to understand the pitfalls and the enormous logistic effort needed for unconventional weapons.

Certainly they would not be my preferred weapon of terror, though I guess the printed media gets to sell more column inches on them.

RogerJune 9, 2006 2:23 AM

@erasmus:
> don't let preconceptions cloud your ability to take in what you read.

OK, thanks for the implied insult.

> It took many, many attempts and a lot of practice to produce an effective dissemination mechanism in WW1.

Firstly, even if this was true, it does not speak to my point. The methods used in WWI have been public knowledge for decades, they used technology nearly a century old, and they worked. Lettice's suggestion that it would be impossibly difficult for a terrorist group to come up with an effective dissemination method today, is clearly nonsense. Would it be a challenge? Maybe, maybe not. Would it be optimally efficient? Almost certainly not. But could it work quite well? Quite likely.

Secondly, you greatly exaggerate the difficulty had in development. It is true that there were difficulties and setbacks even quite late in the war; but on 22nd April 1915 the VERY FIRST attack with a lethal agent wiped out French resistance on a 7 km wide front. This attack used the most primitive dissemination method, and the least toxic lethal agent used during WW1, yet was the single most successful CW attack on the Western Front in that war, and possibly in history.

It was so successful for the simple reason that the French troops under attack had no defences at all. By the time the British and Canadians were attacked a few days later, they had at least been warned to cover their faces with urine-soaked handkerchiefs; not very effective, but quite a bit better than nothing. As masks and later respirators were introduced, an ever more complex arms struggle between defensive and offensive chemical warfare developed, in which CW never regained the devastating effects it had in April 1915. That status remains today:
* against prepared troops, CW is an area denial munition, capable of degrading operations and hampering movement but unlikely to cause more than light casualties; but
* against civilians or ill-equipped troops, CW is a weapon of mass destruction, capable of causing mass casualties indiscriminately across wide areas.

> Spend a few weeks reading up on WW1 "Specials" - there was quite a lot written if you know

I have read an immense amount about chemical warfare, thank you. I have also studied the possibilities of chemical terrorism at length. There is surprisingly little overlap. I don't propose to discuss the differences in detail, but two significant differences include:
* an agent for use in terrorism must either be very fast acting, or else insidious, since civilians can flee once they detect the gas (whereas against soldiers, flight would be considered a success); but
* a much higher LCt_50 is acceptable, in comparison to a military agent, since civilians congregate at much higher densities than do soldiers in combat.
From those two points alone at least one obvious choice is hydrogen cyanide -- although largely rejected as a military agent [1].

In addition, while the lethality of hydrogen cyanide is no joke, it is manageable enough that any moderately competent lab tech should be able to prepare and deliver it without killing himself, thereby obviating the objections that terrorists would not be able to handle such extremely toxic (and percutaneous) materials as sarin.

Finally, sodium cyanide is fairly readily available in large quantities, especially in developing countries (in the Philippines, it is estimated that 150 tonnes per annum are used illegally for fishing), and the process of converting it to hydrogen cyanide is trivial and well known.

Despite being rejected as a military agent, guess what, HCN is OBL's number one choice... Apparently, someone has been actually thinking about solving the "problem" instead of coming up with objections.

> Certainly they would not be my preferred weapon of terror,

If I was remotely inclined to be a terrorist, which I am not, they most certainly would be mine.

They also happen to be OBL's, but his organisation got all disrupted before they got any working.

Despite the dangers of underestimating your opponents, I do think that al-Qaeda had only a few deep thinkers. Back in the nineties they came up with a variety of innovative terrorist strategies. Since then their communications have been severed, or at least seriously degraded, and they are no longer able to effectively command the organisation. Since then, AQs tactics have almost completely lacked innovation, just doing the same things over and over. I suspect this is the main reason their chemical plots have stalled.

> though I guess the printed media gets to sell more column inches on them.

I think you mean, "sell more papers". Column inches get sold to advertisers, and wasted by journalists!

____
1. It was briefly experimented with in WW1, but found to be infeasible to generate effective concentrations on the battlefield. Iraq also used it, but probably only to murder dissident civilians, not against Iranian troops; and of course the Nazis used it to murder concentration camp prisoners. No other military has ever stockpiled it.

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