History of nerve agent assassinations

[Cross-posted from The Trench]

 

On 20 August, the Russian anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny fell ill during a return flight to Moscow and was hospitalised in the Siberian town of Omsk after an emergency landing. Members of his travelling party immediately suspected poisoning, an impression hospital staff reinforced when they refused Navalny’s personal physician access to his medical records.

Following his airlifting to Berlin for further examination and specialist treatment, the Charité hospital issued a statement on 24 August that preliminary findings indicated exposure to ‘a substance from the group of cholinesterase inhibitors’. Even though the hospital could then not name the specific poison used, it added that multiple tests by independent laboratories had confirmed the effect of the poison. The hospital was also treating him with the antidote atropine. The references to a cholinesterase inhibitor and atropine were the first strong indicators of a neurotoxicant, to which nerve agents like sarin, VX or the novichoks belong.

A week later, on 2 September, German Chancellor Angela Merkel confirmed the assassination attempt with a novichok agent at a press conference. She drew on the conclusions from biomedical analyses by the Institut für Pharmakologie und Toxikologie der Bundeswehr (Bundeswehr Institute of Pharmacology and Toxicology), one of the top laboratories designated by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to investigate biomedical samples.

From natural poisons to warfare agents

Poisoning political opponents or enemies is not new. In his almost 600 pages-long ‘Die Gifte in der Weltgeschichte’ (1920) the German pharmacologist Louis Lewin detailed chapter after chapter how besides criminals and spurned lovers, rulers, leaders, undercover agents and conspirators applied the most noxious substances in pursuing domestic political or international geopolitical objectives. Reviews of chemical and biological weapons (CBW) usage through the 20th century similarly list successful and attempted assassinations with mineral poisons or animal and plant toxins in and outside of war.

Modern chemical weapons (CW) – typically human-made toxic compounds standardised for use on battlefields – have rarely been selected to target individuals. Observers and journalists reported first use of nerve agents by Iraq against Iran in 1983, almost five decades after their initial discovery in Nazi Germany. In March 1995 the world learned of Aum Shinrikyo after its members had released the nerve agent sarin in the Tokyo underground. However, during the previous eight months the extremist cult had also resorted to both sarin and VX in attempts to assassinate judges about to rule against Aum Shinrikyo and individuals who posed a threat or had defected from the religious group. These were the first and for more than a decade and a half the only reports of neurotoxicants used to murder individuals.

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) eliminated Kim Jong-nam, half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, with a binary form of VX in February 2017. Just over a year later, in March 2018, Russian operatives attempted to murder a former double agent Sergei Skripal in Salisbury, UK with a nerve agent belonging to the lesser known family of so-called ‘novichoks’ (newcomer). Skripal’s daughter and a police officer were also exposed to the toxicant. They too survived. In June two British citizens fell ill in the nearby town of Amesbury because of exposure to the agent in a small bottle discarded by the Russian agents. One exposed person succumbed.

Novichok family of nerve agents (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Following the Skripal case the Bulgarian Prosecutor General reopened a poisoning case in October 2018 at the request of the victim, arms manufacturer and trader Emilian Gebrev. The assassination attempt dated to April 2015. Also exposed were his son and the production manager of the Dunarit munitions factory. The Prosecutor General confirmed that a Russian operative linked to the Skripal attempt had visited Bulgaria at the time of the incident. Subsequent forensic analysis of serum and urine samples from Gebrev by the Finnish laboratory VERIFIN confirmed the poisoning. According to the UK-based CW expert Dan Kaszeta, who read a copy of the report, the Finnish institute intimated that Gebrev might have been exposed to an organophosphate pesticide. A Bulgarian news outlet has suggested the agricultural insecticide Amiton (also known as Tetram). Now commercially banned because of its high toxicity, in the 1950s the UK investigated its use as a nerve agent under the code VG.

Some reports have also claimed that Aum Shinrikyo murdered around 20 dissident members and defectors with VX in one of the cult’s compounds. To the best of my knowledge no documentary evidence to support the claim has been published.

Previous assassination operations involving nerve agents

Nerve agents were battlefield weapons, mostly liquids of different viscosity. The volatile sarin could prepare the pathway of an attack, whereas the oilier tabun and VX had their greatest utility as area denial weapons for defending terrain or protecting flanks during an advance. Their manufacture in large volumes is complex and maintaining their stability during longer-term storage is a hurdle that even few states have satisfactorily crossed. In laboratory volumes, a skilled chemist may be able to synthesise agent of high purity. But this person would have to take the greatest precautions to avoid inadvertent exposure to its noxious properties. While the relatively high toxicity of nerve agents may appear attractive to terrorists or assassins, the marginal benefit they offer over other terrorist or criminal tools is usually too small to make the investments or risks worthwhile. Hence, their use by terrorists or criminals has been rare.

Until recently, their use in assassination operations would have been considered even rarer, especially because of the poor results obtained by the Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo in the first half of the 1990s.

The following table summarises known assassination operations with neurotoxicants.

 

Date Perpetrator Comments
27 June 1994 Aum Shinrikyo Sarin released in Matsumoto from a converted lorry to kill three judges who were to rule in a land dispute. They survived. However, the drifting sarin cloud eventually killed eight persons and injured over 500.
Autumn 1994 Aum Shinrikyo Suspected VX attack against Taro Takimoto, lawyer for Aum victims. The agent had been applied on the handle of his car door. Failed, reasons unknown
Autumn 1994 Aum Shinrikyo Second suspected VX attack against Taro Takimoto. The agent had been inserted into a keyhole. Failed, reasons unknown. (Aum reportedly also attempted to murder this person with botulinum toxin around this time.)
28 November 1994 Aum Shinrikyo VX squirted from a syringe onto Noboru Mizonu in retaliation for offering shelter to former Aum members. Failed.
2 December 1994 Aum Shinrikyo Second attack on Noboru Mizonu with VX delivered drop by drop from a syringe. Hospitalisation for 45 days required.
12 December 1994 Aum Shinrikyo VX injected with a syringe into Tadahito Hamaguchi in Osaka, having been misidentified as a police spy. First person ever to have been deliberately killed with VX.
4 January 1995 Aum Shinrikyo VX syringe attack against the head of the Aum Victims Society, Hiroyuki Nagaoka. Hospitalised for several weeks.
28 April 2015 Russia Bulgarian arms trader Emilian Gebrev poisoned with an organophosphorus compound. Two other persons present also suffered consequences. Following the Skripal case in March 2018, a possible link to novichok has been suggested but not confirmed. Bulgaria charged three Russian operatives with attempted murder in January 2020, one of whom is also a suspect in the Skripal case.
13 February 2017 DPRK Attack with binary VX on Kim Jong-nam, half-brother of Kim Jong-un, DPRK leader, at Kuala Lumpur International Airport, Malaysia. Killed.
4 March 2018 Russia Assassination attempt with a novichok agent, presumed to be A-234, on former Soviet/Russian intelligence officer, Sergei Skripal, in Salisbury, UK. His daughter Yulia was also exposed to the neurotoxicant, which Russian operatives had applied to the door handle of Skripal’s home. Detective Sergeant Nick Bailey too suffered effects from exposure. All three persons recovered after multiple weeks in hospital.
30 June 2018 Russia Charlie Rowley and Dawn Sturgess were hospitalised in the nearby town of Amesbury following inadvertent exposure to novichok after having recovered a vial discarded by the Russian operatives. Sturgess died on 8 July; Rowley recovered after hospitalisation.
20 August 2020 Russia Assassination attempt on Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny with a novichok agent, presumed in powdered form, at Tomsk airport, Russia. Still hospitalised in Berlin at the time of writing.
[Sources: Anthony T. Tu, The use of VX as a terrorist agent (2020); Monterey Institute of International Studies, Chronology of Aum Shinrikyo’s CBW Activities (2001); and assorted press reports.]

There have been 12 incidents with neurotoxicants. Eleven persons were the direct target, of whom two died.

Around 520–530 other individuals in total suffered exposure to the poisonous substances. Nine among them died. Aum Shinrikyo’s sarin cloud attack against the judges’ dormitory in Matsumoto caused almost all collateral casualties.

Six persons other than the immediate targets fell victim to Russian operatives, one of whom succumbed to the poisoning.

Only in one listed operation (Gebrev) remains the use of a military type of nerve agent unconfirmed.


Novichok between opinion and fact – Part 2: When alternative facts become blatant untruths

[Cross-posted from The Trench]

On 18 April 2018 the Executive Council of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) held its 59th meeting, which was wholly dedicated to the assassination attempt with a nerve agent of the Novichok family. The Technical Secretariat presented its classified full ‘Report on Activities Carried out in Support of a Request for Technical Assistance by the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (Technical Assistance Visit TAV/02/18)’. A summary released by the Technical Secretariat on 12 April, although lacking in detail, stated that:

  • Two OPCW designated laboratories confirmed that the three hospitalised individuals had been exposed to a toxic chemical;
  • Another two OPCW designated laboratories confirmed the presence of the toxic chemical in environmental samples;
  • The results confirmed the UK’s findings relating to the identity of the toxic chemical; and
  • The TAV noted the high purity of the agent because of the almost complete absence of impurities.

Russia’s unprecedented revelation of the identity of a designated laboratory in an investigation

Prior to the Executive Council meeting Russia caused an uproar when Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov publicly identified one of the designated laboratories involved in the analysis of samples (Spiez laboratory, Switzerland). In his address to the Assembly on Foreign and Defence Policy on 14 April, he also confirmed the identification of Substance A-234 (a Novichok agent) and furthermore claimed (from Russian via Google Translate):

Based on the results of the examination, the traces of the toxic chemical BZ and its precursors belonging to the chemical weapons of the second category in accordance with the Convention on the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons are found in the samples. BZ is a nerve agent temporarily disabling a person, psycho-toxic effect is achieved in 30-60 minutes and lasts up to four days.

This recipe was in the arsenal of the US Army, Great Britain and other NATO countries, there were no developments or accumulations of these chemical compounds in the Soviet Union and Russia.

The statement as such contains two errors.

Read the rest of this entry »


Novichok between opinion and fact – Part 1: Deconstruction of the Russian denial

[Cross-posted from The Trench]

Since the assassination attempt on Sergei and Yulia Skripal with a nerve agent now just over one month ago, so much has been written about ‘Novichok’; so much has been opined about what ‘Novichok’ is meant to be (if it exists at all); and so much smoke has been spewed about what the identification of ‘Novichok’ suggests about culprits. This blog posting is the first of several to look into a specific aspect of the discussions concerning Novichok in the hope of clarifying where certain positions come from and what factual knowledge exists about this group of nerve agents.

Facts have been scarce. In fact, as a member of the public with long-time interest in chemical and biological weapons, I know very little about what took place in Salisbury on 4 March. I still have to see the first statement from British authorities—government officials, police, scientists at the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL) at Porton Down—in what form the Novichok agent was delivered. Was it a liquid? A solid in powdered form? A binary concoction? Delivered in a gel or ointment? Anything else?

‘Novichok’ as we know the family of nerve agents today was researched, developed, produced and field-tested in sizeable quantities in the Soviet Union and at least during the early years of Russia as an independent state. Little else beyond this basic information given by some of the chemists involved in the armament programme is available. Those researchers are not always in agreement with each other, especially as regards the skill levels required to synthesise the agent.

Meanwhile, government officials from both the United Kingdom and the Russian federation have launched a war of hyperbole. London overstated the nature and quality of evidence from forensic chemistry; Moscow, amid a broad smoke-and-mirrors campaign, used the exaggerations to poke holes in the British narrative. Just like with allegations of chemical weapon (CW) use in Syria, Russia has released a barrage of denials concerning the assassination attempt in the UK through disaffirmation of any involvement, construction of spurious logic and citation of any ‘expert’ willing to entertain conspiracy theories. It furthermore rejects any outcome unfavourable to its world view and questions procedures and methodologies applied by investigative bodies. Moscow, however, never supplies any physical evidence in support of its claims.

Yet, over the din there are two steadfast Russian positions: (1) Russia is not responsible for the Soviet Union’s actions, and (2) CW declarations concern only ‘produced’ toxic chemicals for use in warfare. In the specific context of the CWC, it places the three Schedules central to the prohibitory regime.

Read the rest of this entry »


Geopolitical manoeuvring behind Skripal

[Cross-posted from The Trench]

On 4 April the Executive Council (EC) of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) will meet in a special session. Russia called the extraordinary meeting. It has been a month now since former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia had been exposed to a nerve agent in Salisbury. The United Kingdom (UK) government identified it as a member of the ‘Novichok’ family, once researched and developed by the Soviet Union. Russia is believed to have continued the programme at least during the first years after the breakup of the USSR. It has never come clear on the nature of the programme or identified the agents’ characteristics. As no other country has ever been associated with the Novichok family of agents, London’s finger-pointing at Moscow was not difficult.

War of loud words

Since the assassination attempt a war of loud words has erupted. The UK has continued with its investigation and called in the OPCW’s expertise with a view of validating its analyses of the nerve agent. By the latest indications, the results from the OPCW-certified laboratories will not be available before the middle of this month.

Meanwhile, London also launched a diplomatic offensive to isolate Russia internationally (for an overview, see the dedicated UK government web page), which so far has ended with tit-for-tat expulsions of diplomatic staff. The rhetoric strayed off course. The assassination attempt got linked to similar incidents over the past years and decades, Russia’s actions in its near-abroad and Syria, its cyber campaigns against the institutions of Western democracy, and the country’s more assertive stance against Western interests, particularly those of the European Union (EU) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). And, of course, the post-penultimate British schoolboy’s meme had to be called forth for domestic consumption: a mention of Nazi Germany.

Battle royale for the internet’s heart and minds

The British government’s (quite necessary) quietness about the investigation, the dearth of factual information beyond some generalities, and the distraction-causing verbal digressions into unrelated issue areas presented Russia with an open playing field. It was an opportunity it could not, and did not ignore.

Beyond the stacks of concealing black smoke and initial ridicule spouted by the government-sponsored international media and its diplomatic representatives to the UK, OPCW and EU, Moscow stayed much more focussed on the Skripal case. It was testing messages fast, discarding the ones failing to gain immediate traction and pursuing those that got picked up. Together, they addressed several issues simultaneously to drown out or cast doubt over any possible counterargument. That Russian officials or media contradicted themselves or seemingly confessed to total ignorance about past chemical warfare programmes did not matter. Speed was of the essence to avoid a coherent ripostes.

So, they challenged the notion that Russia was the sole originator of Novichok agents; they denied that there had ever been a Novichok programme; they suggested that the agent came form the British chemical defence laboratories at Porton Down or from similar facilities in other European countries; they questioned the OPCW’s legitimacy in the investigation while embracing the procedures foreseen in the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) to discuss the matter; etc. They upbraided the UK government for not releasing details about the nerve agent while the investigation is going on. And then Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov proffered motive for the British using a Novichok agent against the Skripal family: covering up difficulties over Brexit.

However ludicrous some of the arguments, Moscow ultimately turned the tables on London. Russia now portrays itself as the victim of the attack because the UK was unable to guarantee the safety and security of its citizens, in addition to which it now refuses Russian consular access to Yulia. And exploiting both British silence on the heart of the matter and the waiting period for the OPCW test results, it called for an special session of the OPCW EC after having publicly released two sets of questions (1st set; 2nd set), some of which it could use to initiate the clarification process under CWC Article IX, 2. Quite a few of these questions Moscow has field-tested via its global megaphone. (A subset of questions Russia addressed to the French government too.)

Will Britain’s hand be forced?

How will the EC meeting tomorrow pan out? Difficult to say, but if the debates over Syria’s chemical weapon (CW) use offer any guidance, then the following broad lines may re-establish themselves: the Western countries will decry the violation of the CWC and seek justice; Russia will play out a geopolitical strategy based on nominal pledges of cooperation to influence the votes of members of the Non-Aligned Movement who are wary of being caught up in a new hegemonic struggle between Moscow and Washington.

Russia has definitely laid the groundwork for triggering Article IX, 2. But will it trigger it tomorrow? This is far from certain. Moscow’s core aim may be to place some of the key questions it has already publicised into the formal record, thereby forcing the UK to respond. Any reluctance or avoidance by London would feed a certain narrative, at least until the OPCW submits its own laboratory findings to the UK. That narrative will anticipate those findings; at a minimum it will place the British government under great pressure to release the analyses to other OPCW members, including Russia. That pressure might also compel the British government to follow OPCW procedures rather than pursuing the case through other diplomatic means, in which case Moscow’s gambit may already be anticipating crucial votes further down that path. (For an overview of the Article IX process, see my earlier blog posting Novichok and the Chemical Weapons Convention.)

Remains one question in all this: Where is Washington? в кармане?


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 …