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.


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 …

 


Understanding the Dutch export licence requirement for publishing life science research

[Cross-posted from The Trench]

During the Meeting of Experts of states parties to the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) last August, the Netherlands organised or co-hosted three side events relating to safeguarding the life sciences. A significant incident, in which the Dutch virologist Ron Fouchier and his team were required to obtain an export licence to publish their research on how they had mutated H5N1 into an aerosol-transmissible avian influenza virus variant, undeniably informed the need to clarify national policies and approaches to biorisk management. A month earlier the Appellate Court had annulled the ruling by a lower court in support of the government position on procedural grounds. Does this annulment validate the Dutch government’s position or does it imply that the whole debate about the publication of so-called dual-use research in the life sciences is back to square one? Moreover, in the meantime the debate had evolved from a terrorist proliferation risk to one of health security in which the ethics and utility of this type of gain-of-function research stand central. In other words, do biosafety worries warrant biosecurity policy measures, such as the imposition of non-proliferation export controls?

Some background to the Netherlands decision

In September 2011 the European Scientific Working Group on Influenza (ESWI) held its fourth conference in Malta. Europe and the world were then confronting an outbreak of avian influenza caused by the H5N1 virus. Its rapid spread among birds over long distances caused governments worldwide to order drastic measures in efforts to stem the epidemic. Over 500 humans (representing some 60% of all people who had contracted the disease) had already died, but all deaths thus far had resulted from direct interaction with fowl and not from human-to-human transmission.

In Malta Ron Fouchier announced that he and his team at the Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam had succeeded in transforming H5N1 into a viable aerosol virus. According one conference report he applied rather colourful language: his team ‘mutated the hell out of H5N1’. The discovery that it required as few as three single mutations to gain the ability to latch onto cells in the nasal and tracheal passageways, he described as ‘very bad news’. Transmission among ferrets, a mammal that offers the best laboratory model to study influenza in humans, still did not occur easily when, in Fouchier’s recorded words, ‘someone finally convinced me to do something really, really stupid’. They provoked two further mutations by transferring mutated viruses from the nose of one sick ferret to that of a healthy one, in the process creating the viable aerosol virus.

Initial articles on the gain-of-function research did not suggest any link with bioterrorism, but sometimes carried dramatic titles evoking cataclysmic consequences reminiscent of the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic that killed tens of millions worldwide. However, Fouchier’s dramatic speech caught the attention of counter-terrorism officials on both sides of the Atlantic. When he offered his research results for publication in Science, the  US National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) intervened and eventually accepted publication provided some methodological details were removed from the text. (A parallel paper on H5N1 submitted to Nature by a team led by US scientist Yoshihiro Kawaoka fared a similar fate.) NSABB considered the biosecurity risks outweighed any scientific merit in this type of research: rogue laboratory researchers or terrorists might wish to unleash the deadly virus on the human race to devastating effect.

NSABB’s intervention caused controversy with one side calling it censorship and the other side up in arms that publication had been authorised at all. In the United States, self-publication on the internet was not legally restricted at the time. In the Netherlands too the affair had caught the attention of authorities, many of whom wanted to block publication outright, but lacked the appropriate legal tools to do so. The only way to appraise the risks for malfeasance posed by information in the research manuscript was to implement non-proliferation export controls, which according to European Union regulations must be enforced for applied (but not fundamental) research in the life sciences.

The Netherlands decision caused shockwaves among European life scientists. After initial defiance, Fouchier and his team eventually applied for and received an export licence. Otherwise he might have faced up to six years imprisonment and $102,000 in fines.  The Erasmus Medical Center subsequently took the government to court to have the principle of export licences for scientific research overturned. On 20 September 2013 the District Court of North Holland ruled in favour of the government, but on 15 July 2015 the Appellate Court in Amsterdam annulled the ruling, saying that the case was without merit in view of the application and granting of an export licence. Put differently, the lower court should have never taken up the case. As presented during the BTWC Meeting of Experts in August 2015, the Dutch Government believes that the juridical process vindicated its approach to research with potential dual-use implications.

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Inserting useful tools into the BTWC

[Cross-posted from The Trench]

Since that fateful year of 2001, when the Ad Hoc Group (AHG) negotiations on a legally binding protocol to strengthen the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) collapsed and the 5th Review Conference failed following an attempt by the Bush Administration to terminate the AHG mandate, states parties have been trying to develop useful activities to keep the ailing treaty alive.

A lot of what has been going on since then I would qualify as Beschäftigungstherapie—you know, engaging in games, energising dexterity and developing practical skills to strengthen and motivate an ailing patient. It worked to a large extent. But like any treatment continuing for too long, its efficacy dwindles and the patient begins to question why he has to go to yet another session.

And then there are moments when inspired creativity flickers. Moments when one senses that some tangible, meaningful progress could be made. Such a moment occurred on 7 August, when the BTWC Implementation Support Unit (ISU) and the UN Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR) organised a one-day workshop on ‘Implications and lessons learned from the Ebola virus disease outbreak for the Biological Weapons Convention’ at the Palais des Nations in Geneva. The theme was closely linked to the item of Article VII of the BTWC on the agenda of next week’s Meeting of Experts. A packed room, overwhelmingly from missions to the UN, joined in the discussions. The event was structured around a research project run by the US Departments of State and Health and Human Services. Investigators are looking into how the recent experiences with the Ebola epidemic in West Africa have challenged existing understanding of international assistance and how such assistance might be affected if the outbreak had been determined to be a biological weapon (BW) attack. The researchers will present their report at the December Meeting of States Parties (MSP).

Based on close analysis of events in West Africa and the evolving mobilisation of international assistance, the researchers designed a scenario around an Ebola epidemic caused by non-state actors. Outbreak characteristics included the impossibility to link the virus strain epidemiologically to earlier cases and the location of some of the affected people in areas not under government control. Furthermore, in the opening stages the deliberate nature of the outbreak was not entirely clear. The researchers sent the scenario to government officials, intergovernmental and other international or non-governmental organisations (NGOs) involved with health or assistance and relief, financial donors and other concerned parties. The survey yielded preliminary results regarding the opportunities and issues for NGOs, safety and security of medical staff, command and control, and confusion about the involvement of militaries or peacekeepers.

These issues informed the two breakout sessions, each of which covered three themes. I participated in the one on military engagements and facilitated the one on the role of international cooperation and capacity-building efforts. The notes below are personal impressions rather than a comprehensive report on the discussions. They highlight certain issues as they pertain to the BTWC.

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Chlorine: A weapon of last resort for ISIL? (Part 2)

[Cross-posted from The Trench.]

From September 2014 on several reports have alleged chlorine use by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in Iraq. The claims began shortly after the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) had released its first report on its investigation into the chlorine attacks in Syria earlier in the year. In a politically highly charged atmosphere in which supporters and opponents of the regime of President Bashir al-Assad use any incident to blame insurgent forces of atrocities or call for regime change, one must necessarily view accusations of chemical warfare with a healthy dose of scepticism. This is particularly the case if allegations disappear as quickly as they surface.

However, during the autumn of last year there was some consistency in the albeit irregular reports. Furthermore, on 10 February, OPCW Director-General Ahmet Üzümcü confirmed that the Iraqi authorities had notified the OPCW of chlorine gas attacks against Iraqi soldiers. At present it is not known which steps, if any, the OPCW will undertake with regard to these allegations.

Last October I described how al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), a precursor organisation to ISIL, applied chlorine in a campaign of car bombings between October 2006 and June 2007. While many people in the vicinity of the detonation required medical treatment for exposure to the agent, nobody was actually killed by the gas. This posting looks into the various allegations of insurgent chlorine attacks in Syria and Iraq since 2013.

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Chlorine: A weapon of last resort for ISIL?

Over the past few weeks several press reports have suggested that the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) have resorted to chlorine use in attacks in Iraq and Syria.

The grouping is no stranger to chlorine. In some earlier incarnation it was known as al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and later it rebranded itself as the Islamic State of Iraq when it explicitly began trying to control territory. Harsh imposition of its strict interpretation of Sharia law and extreme violence towards anybody refusing total subjugation to its rule soon had Sunni tribal leaders uniting in resistance early in 2007. They also began cooperation with forces of the US-led coalition occupying Iraq since 2003 and the Shia-dominated Iraqi government. AQI started mounting large-scale operations involving several hundreds of fighters to capture local seats of power. During the first half of 2007 suicide attacks with lorries rigged with a large quantity of explosives evolved from isolated incidents to terrorise and destabilise societies to a tool integrated in assaults against government centres and fortified positions. After an isolated attempt in October 2006, AQI launched almost 20 chlorine attacks in the first half of 2007.

This posting is a first effort to understand the dynamic behind ISIL resorting to chlorine and perhaps some other toxic chemical substances in military operations in Iraq and Syria. If current chlorine attacks can be confirmed, then some interesting parallels with the brief episode in Iraq may be discerned (but the hypotheses do require further study to be confirmed):

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Threat posed by Islamic State’s capture of Iraq’s Muthanna CW site

In a letter dated 7 July 2014 Iraqi Ambassador to the United Nations Mohamed Ali Alhakim notified UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon that ‘armed terrorist groups’ had entered the Muthanna complex on 11 June. The next morning  a project manager observed them looting of some equipment via the camera surveillance system before the ‘terrorists’ disabled it. The document, as cited by the Associated Press, explicitly referred to the capture of bunkers 13 and 41, two locations still holding chemical weapons (CW) so severely damaged during the 1991 war to liberate Kuwait that until today they could not be disposed of in a safe way.

The capture of two CW storage bunkers at Muthanna by Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, now shortened to Islamic State) has raised fears of chemical warfare in Iraq as well as Syria. The insurgent grouping’s habitual resort to extreme violence in combat, its strict upholding of Sharia law, and uncompromising attitude towards ‘non-believers’ leave many a commentator convinced that it will stop at nothing in its pursuit of the Islamic state.

Analysis of documents relating to the dismantlement of the Muthanna complex in the 1990s and the subsequent monitoring of the site however demonstrates that it would be all but impossible for ISIL to acquire and use Iraq’s former CW, or for that matter, the toxic residues of warfare agents.

Should the ISIL fighters still find sarin, then the probability of the agent’s degradation below any useful degree of purity is extremely high. An additional 20 years have passed since the UNSCOM Chemical Demolition Group sealed the storage bunkers. Mustard agent is far more stable, but both UNSCOM and UNMOVIC reported significant degradation. 155mm artillery rounds were found to contain hydrogen gas and other breakdown products leading to considerable internal pressure. Moreover, the thick-skinned shells proved particularly difficult to penetrate and drilling risked ignition of the built-up gases.

UNSCOM selected two bunkers at Al Muthanna for their solid structure. After completion of destruction operations, it sealed the structures. They blocked off all entrances with two brick walls and a 5cm layer of tar in between them. A third brick wall was erected at a distance of 1 metre from the second wall and the space in between was filled with reinforced concrete. Together, the overall thickness of the entrance seals amounts to 1.5 metres. The hole at the top of bunker 13 containing the sarin rockets and precursor chemicals from a US bomb in 1991  was closed by filling the whole inner room with soil through that hole and then plugging it with reinforced concrete.

Any penetration of the bunker by ISIL fighters would require major dismantling and rubble removal, all the while not knowing the exact location of the toxic chemicals, propellants and explosives and facing potential exposure to contaminated soil or air. Even the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) is still considering how it might proceed to determine the bunker’s exact contents.

More technical details on the state of Iraq’s former CW and tables on the contents of the bunkers are in an article I wrote for the August edition of CBRNe World. Registration may be required, but it is for free.

[Cross-posted from The Trench.]