VX murder in Kuala Lumpur?

[Cross-posted from The Trench.]

According to an overnight statement by the Malaysian police, Kim Jong Nam—half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un—was assassinated with the nerve agent VX at Kuala Lumpur International Airport.

VX is one of the high-end chemical warfare agents developed and produced in large quantities by the USA, USSR and some secondary powers during the cold war. Former military chemical weapon arsenals are being eliminated under the Chemical Weapons Convention. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), of course, is together with Egypt, Israel and South Sudan one of the four hold-out states. It is widely believed to have a significant chemical warfare capacity, but how militarily effective it might be is anyone’s guess.

Commentators will happily inform you that it possesses the world’s largest stockpile, which is as good as meaningless given that all other arsenals have been almost entirely eliminated under international supervision. BBC World already broadcast a report in which an unidentified ‘expert’ said it had to be a nation-state because its synthesis is far too complex for your backroom.

Statement by the Malaysian Police on the identification of the VX nerve agent (24 February 2017)

However, the substance is not unknown in terrorism: Aum Shinrikyo synthesised somewhere between 100 and 200 grammes of the substance between 1993 and 1995. It tried to assassinate several opponents by spraying it in the face of the victim with a syringe. Only one person died; the others survived. It always appeared technological overkill: had the cult used more ‘traditional’ assassination weapons, such as knives or guns, their attacks would have been far more lethal.

Many questions; few answers so far

As the information stands right now, the Malaysian police’s claim is remarkable for what it does not say. The preliminary toxicology report reportedly states that traces of VX were detected on swabs of the dead man’s face and eyes. If this is the case, then the following questions require an answer:

  • Why were there no previous descriptions in press reports of symptoms typically associated with nerve agent exposure (spasms, foaming, discolouration, etc.)?
  • Why did it take 9 days since the assassination on 13 February before the poison was confirmed?
  • Why did the preliminary toxicology report (or at least the police officer) not mention physiological consequences of nerve agent exposure, such as increased acetylcholine levels (which is responsible for the spasms)?
  • What is meant by ‘traces’? Residue? Or small amounts? VX is a pretty persistent agent that can last for days. Rubbing the agent in the face suggests an area with a rather high concentration of the agent, even if the amount was limited.
  • Why did the assassin not display any of those symptoms? Was she wearing gloves or was the agent contained in a capsule? (And if she was wearing gloves, were they then not found? Or frangments of a capsule?) Did she receive a nerve agent pretreatment antidote? There were some reports of vomiting, but was this reaction related to nerve agent exposure? Any splash of a tiny droplet anywhere on her body would have resulted in some symptoms of varying degree. She was jailed, but nothing to such effect was reported.
  • There was apparently no decontamination effort at the airport. So, were first responders or medical staff at the airport clinic, police officers and other persons who came to the victim’s assistance or were in his vicinity affected through secondary contamination? No reports, thus far.
  • Have samples been sent to one of the top-level OPCW certified laboratories, such as the Verification Laboratory, Defence Medical and Environmental Research Institute, DSO National Laboratories in neighbouring Singapore (with or without involvement of the OPCW)?
  • Why did the Malaysian authorities say earlier today that they would sweep the airport and other locations for radioactive material? And apparently not for VX traces?

These, and I am sure, many more questions require clear answers before we can arrive at reasonable conclusions. More to come over the next days and weeks …


Allegation of chemical warfare in Darfur

[Cross-posted from The Trench]

Warning: contains extreme graphic images of injuries and infection

Last September Amnesty International (AI) issued a 105-page report entitled Scorched Earth, Poisoned Air alleging the use of chemical weapons (CW) among other atrocities committed by Sudanese forces in the Darfur region. The chemical warfare section contains numerous images of civilian victims with horrifying skin lesions. It suggests that these are the consequence of exposure to a vesicant, possibly a mustard agent. The report is accompanied by a 4-minute video on YouTube. Several press articles and contributions to on-line media after the report’s publication have reinforced the allegation of mustard agent use.

To AI’s great frustration some countries have expressed reservations about the allegations, and so has the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). The non-governmental expert community on CW matters has remained silent. After the initial buzz of interest in the press, the ripples caused by the investigation have all but faded. No fresh chemical warfare allegations seem to have surfaced since the report’s publication.

Were the reservations warranted? This posting reviews the report.

The allegation

The AI report documents several atrocities allegedly committed by Sudanese government forces against civilians in Jebel Marra, an area east of the town of Zalingei in south-west Sudan. Zalingei is the state capital of Central Darfur State. For decades famine and war have ravaged Darfur, causing immense human suffering and displacing millions. Humanitarian concerns about people living in camps set up by the United Nations or in the most squalid conditions in remote villages are immense. Access to Jebel Marra is as good as impossible, meaning that the plight of the local population and war crimes remain under-reported. According to AI, even the United Nations–African Union Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) cannot access the region.

It is in this context that AI alleges CW attacks against civilians. According to the report summary (p. 5):

Amnesty International interviewed 56 residents of Jebel Marra, 46 civilians and ten members of SLA/AW, who alleged that Sudanese government forces utilized “poisonous smoke” during attacks in Jebel Marra between January and September 2016. These individuals, all of whom are either survivors of the alleged attacks or cared for survivors and victims, provided Amnesty International with substantial testimonial and photographic evidence in support of the allegations. The evidence strongly suggests that Sudanese government forces repeatedly used chemical weapons during attacks in Jebel Marra.

Survivors and caregivers described a wide variety of ailments that victims of alleged chemical weapons attacks experienced during the hours and days after exposure to the alleged chemical weapons agents.

Based on testimony from caregivers and survivors, Amnesty International estimates that between 200 and 250 people may have died as a result of exposure to the chemical weapons agents, with many – or most – being children. The vast majority of survivors of the suspected chemical weapons attacks have had no access to adequate medical care.

Amnesty International documented alleged chemical weapons attacks in and around at least 32 villages in Jebel Marra between January and September 2016. Several of the villages were attacked multiple times. The earliest attacks occurred during the start of the government’s offensive in mid-January. The attacks are ongoing. The most recent attack recorded by Amnesty occurred on 9 September 2016.

Exact identification of the specific chemical agents allegedly used in the attacks documented in this report would require the collection of environmental samples and physiological samples from those directly or indirectly exposed to the alleged chemical agents. An identification would also require an analysis of weapon remnants used during the attacks. Given that access to Jebel Mara is severely restricted, it was not possible for Amnesty International to obtain such samples.

Amnesty International asked two chemical weapons experts to independently review the clinical signs and symptoms revealed by the photographic and video evidence and interview notes. They are both respected experts with experience in unconventional munitions, including biological and chemical warfare agents, and are experienced in the diagnosis of exposure to chemical weapons agents.

Both experts found that there was credible evidence to strongly suggest that chemical weapons agents were used in the attacks documented in this report.

Both experts concluded the clinical signs and symptoms were most consistent with exposure to a class of chemical warfare agents called vesicants or blister agents, which include lewisite, sulphur mustard and nitrogen mustard. However, they also asserted that it was possible that survivors were exposed to a combination of chemicals in addition to blister agents.

These claims the report elaborates in chapter 6 (pp. 69–94), which includes numerous pictures of the effects of the alleged warfare agents on the victims and transcriptions of interview notes. Supporting evidence comes essentially in three forms: witness narratives, pictures, and expert assessment.

Witness narratives

AI collected statements from three categories of witnesses: caregivers, civilian victims and members of Sudan Liberation Army/Abdul Wahid (SLA/AW). It conducted most of its interviews pertaining to the chemical warfare allegations between June and September 2016. Five statements were recorded earlier: one in April and four in May. The earlier assertions thus appear to have been registered while investigating other atrocities such as the deliberate targeting of refugees and local civilians. They likely prompted AI to expand its probe so as to include possible chemical warfare.

Unsurprisingly, many witness accounts are confusing and descriptions of experiences do not easily match academic and medical treatises on CW exposure. They often reveal an interviewee’s subjective linkage between cause and effect, something not uncommon in crisis situations. Equally striking is the rapid sequence of symptoms suffered by victims in various witness accounts. Unfortunately, at no point did the interviewers attempt to establish as precise as possible intervals between the noted incident and the onset of particular symptoms, or the sequence of manifestation of symptoms (e.g., in the eyes, miscarriages, etc.). Consequently, the AI report can but enumerate indicators (p. 70):

Survivors and caregivers reported a variety of changes to skin [Sic]. The changes included severe blisters, rashes, and itchiness. The victims’ skin reportedly hardened, changed colour to white, black, or green, and subsequently fell off. Changes to the skin often occurred very soon after exposure, normally within an hour; however, many caregivers reported that changes to the skin occurred the following day.

If the agent were to have been a vesicant, as is often suggested in the AI report, then some time frames are short.

Certain witness statements appear consistent with mustard agent exposure. However, the random listing symptoms, lack of time frames for their appearance, or the generalisation of observed symptoms from multiple casualties all make it difficult to attribute causality (p. 86):

“These are the most common symptoms from the bombardment and the rocket fire, which diffused poison, which changed the colour of eyes and induced vomiting and diarrhoea, which was sometimes bloody and caused many miscarriages… Sometimes people with diarrhoea get a high fever and then their diarrhoea becomes bloody… Sometimes you can see the colour of the body change and the colour of the eyes and then, all of a sudden, they die… their skin becomes dark black and there are rashes and blisters and they turn into wounds… Some people’s eyes become yellow/green, some become yellow/orange, and some become maroon… and if you open the eyelid, the inside changes to red with black spots… In two cases it looked like [the eyes] were going to pop out of the head… Some children suffered hair loss… The patients’ urine changes to different colours. To orange and then red. Sometimes [the urine] is mix of black and dark blue…. Some people have trouble breathing… and they have a very fast heartbeat… Sometimes the blood pressure is low and sometimes it is very high… Many children have swollen bodies… [In three cases] adults had seizures. Two died… Once we noticed the sick person shaking uncontrollably… we needed three or four people to keep him on the bed until one part of the body became paralyzed. Fifteen minutes later, he passed away.”

While passages such as this one each represent a single interviewee, the AI report does not lay out any individual case studies detailing the evolution of symptoms. Even when allowing for the difficulties in collecting testimonials, two other methodological issues also affect the quality of the claims.

First, as the quote above illustrates, many sentences are not written out in full. Combined they do not leave the impression of having been transcribed from a recorded interview; they rather seem handwritten notes transposed into sentences. As a consequence the reader has no inkling how the interviewer pursued his questions, whether and when he followed up replies with additional questions to collect more detail, or if he attempted to corroborate, correlate or disambiguate individual witness accounts. This inevitably opens AI’s estimates of the number of CW incidents and fatalities to critical questioning.

Second, which communication framework was established to ensure that interviewer and interviewee share a common interpretation of signifier and signified? More specifically, how were concepts transposed from a local language whose speakers are unlikely to have assimilated vocabulary of chemical warfare during the interviews?  Chapter 2 on methodology (p. 7) describes the difficulties AI encountered trying to acquire information and evidence from the Jebel Marra region. It also outlines the general methodology:

Amnesty International’s investigation was carried out by two researchers with extensive contact networks inside Jebel Marra, one of whom is from the area and fluent in Fur, the main local language’.


Amnesty International interviewed the survivors and witnesses individually. Interviews generally lasted between 30 and 120 minutes. The majority of the interviews were conducted in Fur, a minority were conducted in Arabic, and a few were conducted in English.

Fur is unlikely to contain specific chemical warfare vocabulary. The report does not reveal who translated the interview notes: the interviewer himself or a specialised translator? Since the report does not list the questions put to witnesses, it is not possible to assess how the interviewer communicated his questions on chemical warfare. Similarly, the reader has no sense whether and how he assisted witnesses when they did not fully comprehend a question. Finally, the reader also lacks insight into possible interpretation bias by the questioner and what steps were undertaken to avoid it from occurring as much as possible.

I noted earlier that the bulk of interviews concerning CW use took place in the later stages of the investigation. So, at what point in the project and how did AI become convinced that Sudanese government forces had resorted to mustard agent or another vesicant? Were chemical warfare experts already at this stage involved in this assessment? At what point in the investigation did AI begin to receive pictures suggesting possible exposure to chemical warfare gents? The latter question is of particular importance to know how the pictures in the report correlate in time and place with the narrative or individual testimonials.

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