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THE WORLD AFTER 9/11 : The Chemical Threat

An Easier, but Less Deadly, Recipe for Terror

By Joby Warrick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 31, 2004; Page A01

If you can get past the guards and fences, the ingredients for a chemical attack are available off the shelf at a crumbling military base called Shchuchye in south-central Russia. There, stacked like dusty wine bottles on wooden racks, is a collection of 1.9 million artillery shells filled with nerve agents such as VX, an oily yellow liquid so deadly that a single drop on the skin can kill.

The smallest shells, each containing enough poison for at least 85,000 lethal doses, could be slipped easily into a backpack. But while U.S. officials fret about possible theft, Russia insists that the weapons are secure and that none are missing.

During a visit to a Russian military base, Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) shows how easy it is to fit a small chemical weapon into a briefcase. (Courtesy Of Sen. Richard G. Lugar)

About This Series

Today's article on the threat posed by chemical weapons in the hands of terrorists concludes a year-long examination of the challenges the United States faces three years after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. An article yesterday examined the obstacles to obtaining and using biological weapons, and a story Tuesday looked at the likelihood of terrorists exploding a nuclear bomb. Earlier articles in the series can be found with the online version of today's article at www.washingtonpost.com/nation.

_____The World After 9/11_____
Technical Hurdles Separate Terrorists From Biowarfare (The Washington Post, Dec 30, 2004)
Nuclear Capabilities May Elude Terrorists, Experts Say (The Washington Post, Dec 29, 2004)
Attack With Dirty Bomb More Likely, Officials Say (The Washington Post, Dec 29, 2004)
U.S. Unprepared Despite Progress, Experts Say (The Washington Post, Nov 8, 2004)
Va.-Based, U.S.-Financed Arabic Channel Finds Its Voice (The Washington Post, Oct 15, 2004)
Moroccans Gain Prominence in Terror Groups (The Washington Post, Oct 14, 2004)
From a Virtual Shadow, Messages of Terror (The Washington Post, Oct 2, 2004)
Facing New Realities as Islamic Americans (The Washington Post, Sep 12, 2004)
In Search Of Friends Among The Foes (The Washington Post, Sep 11, 2004)
U.S. Eyes Money Trails of Saudi-Backed Charities (The Washington Post, Aug 19, 2004)
Impervious Shield Elusive Against Drive-By Terrorists (The Washington Post, Aug 8, 2004)

Half a world away, the same kinds of weapons are obtainable in the U.S. chemical capital of Houston, for those savvy and brave enough to attempt the assembly. Last year, a Texas gun enthusiast named William J. Krar was able to legally purchase the materials to make a highly lethal gas called hydrogen cyanide, which he stored at home in a green metal box. Krar might have killed hundreds of people, but a botched package delivery exposed his plans and led to his arrest.

As security officials contemplate the possibility of a chemical attack by terrorists, examples such as these are sources of both concern and comfort. The concern stems from what weapons experts describe as a widespread availability of raw materials for chemical terrorism. The materials include millions of military-grade chemical weapons scattered in at least a dozen countries. They also include vast quantities of hazardous industrial compounds, as well as chemical factories and transports that can be transformed through sabotage into deadly weapons.

Because of the abundance of possibilities, many experts believe the odds for a chemical attack are relatively high, compared with biological or nuclear terrorism. Of the three, the chemical route is widely regarded as the easiest.

"A crude chemical attack is within the reach of any reasonably professional terrorist group," said Jeffrey M. Bale, a senior researcher at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, Calif. "With a sufficiently toxic substance, you will succeed in killing some people."

But whether terrorists could manage a catastrophic attack is another matter, experts say. Somewhat comforting, they say, is the fact that assembling and dispersing deadly chemicals remain complicated and dangerous for amateurs. A review of foiled cases of chemical terrorism shows that the plotters often fall into police dragnets, bungle technical details, or expose themselves to death or injury.

Even a successful release of chemicals, many experts believe, would probably kill relatively few people compared with a sophisticated biological or nuclear attack. The only deadly chemical attack by terrorists in the past decade -- the release of sarin gas on a Tokyo subway in 1995 -- killed a dozen people, not hundreds or thousands, as envisioned by the leaders of Japan's radical Aum Shinrikyo cult.

Terrorist groups such as al Qaeda have professed a desire for chemical weapons, but for now they probably lack the expertise to use them in a catastrophic way, numerous U.S. officials and weapons experts say. As time passes, however, the odds increase that they will try -- and perhaps succeed.

"Fortunately, this kind of thing is hard to do: It requires scientific knowledge, some sophisticated technology and skill," said Joseph Cirincione, director of the Nonproliferation Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "The bad news is, it's not hard enough. And you don't know how well these groups have learned the lessons of past failures and improved on them."

Poison Plots

Of all the ingenious devices humans have developed for slaughtering one another over 10,000 years, only two have been deemed repugnant enough to merit an outright universal ban. Chemical weapons, together with biological weapons, appear to touch something deep within the human psyche, stirring up feelings of revulsion and fear. Even Gen. Berthold von Deimling, a German field officer who first ordered their use in World War I, found them "repulsive."

Mustard gas, one of a group of 19th-century-vintage weapons known as blister agents, caused the bulk of the deaths and injuries from chemical warfare during the war. In the 1930s, German scientists searching for a better pesticide created the first nerve agents, a class of potent killers that attack the central nervous system. Over the next 50 years, deadly new weapons such sarin, tabun, soman and VX were stockpiled by great powers such as the United States and the Soviet Union and even smaller countries such as Iraq, South Korea and India.

The deep revulsion felt by many toward chemical weapons only increases their appeal to groups such as al Qaeda that seek not to kill troops but to sow fear and panic, intelligence analysts say. After al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden advocated the use of unconventional weapons in 1998, the group built makeshift chemistry labs at its training camps in Afghanistan. An unclassified CIA report in November said al Qaeda had acquired "crude procedures for making mustard agent, sarin and VX."

Fortunately, al Qaeda appears to have made little progress.

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