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U.S. Suspects Al Qaeda Got Nerve Agent From Iraqis

Only once has a chemical weapon been used successfully in a terrorist attack. During the morning rush hour on March 20, 1995, the Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo placed packages on five subway trains converging on Tokyo's central station. When punctured, the packages spread vaporized Sarin through the subway cars and then into the stations as the trains pulled in.

In all, the Sarin contaminated 15 stations of the world's busiest subway system, putting 1,000 riders in the hospital and killing 12 of them. Though the attack spread great terror in Japan, it took fewer lives than its authors expected because the Sarin reached many victims in a form that was not sufficiently concentrated.

"Psychologically, use of nerve agent in the United States would send people over the deep end, but it probably wouldn't kill very many people," said an official whose responsibilities have included the assessment and disruption of the threat.

Others said the panic induced could have serious economic consequences, rendering many Americans unwilling to enter a facility of the sort that had suffered a chemical attack.

In general, al Qaeda's pursuit of chemical and biological weapons is well known to U.S. intelligence. A central player in the effort has been Midhat al Mursi, an Egyptian who is among the most-wanted al Qaeda operatives but who remains at large. He ran a development and testing facility for lethal chemicals in a camp -- in Derunta, Afghanistan -- that was eventually renamed "Abu Kebab" after Mursi's nom de guerre.

The Derunta operation is not thought to have progressed beyond unsophisticated poisons, including the cyanide used in videotaped experiments on dogs. Unconsummated plots by al Qaeda and its allies in Jordan just before the turn of the millennium, and in Britain last month, also involved cyanide.

CORRECTION-DATE: December 18, 2002, WednesdayDecember 13, 2002, Friday


Citing U.S. government officials, a Dec. 12 article misidentified as Asbat al-Ansar an al Qaeda-affiliated group in northern Iraq. The group is Ansar al-Islam. A Dec. 12 article incorrectly reported that the United States possesses no more VX nerve agent. The Army destroyed the last of its VX stocks on Johnston Atoll in November 2000, but other stocks await destruction elsewhere.

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