- The Washington Times - Monday, April 15, 2002

With everyone worried about terrorism, and "nerve gas" a subject frequently broached, I got in touch with a buddy of mine from a former life, an organic chemist who has worked on chemical terrorism issues as a governmental consultant.
People usually think of "nerve gas" (actually thick liquids) when the subject comes up, but there are others, less lethal but applicable to the creation of chaos.
Basically, there are three types of weaponized gases: vesicants, which cause blistering (which can be fatal if it is the lungs that are being blistered); blood gases such as the cyanides; and nerve agents. The latter are by far the most lethal per size of dose. And they are definitely suitable for use by terrorists.
But you don't need nerve agents for terrorism. Says my friend, "Mustard gas, not a nerve agent, would kill some people, blind a lot more, wreck lungs and disfigure everyone it touched. It would be a fine terror weapon, and it's a lot easier to make than G-agents."
The nerve agents, which have names like GA (otherwise known as Tabun) and GB, were developed between World War I and World War II in various countries, particularly Britain and Germany. They are widely stockpiled but rarely used by military forces.
One reason is that if the wind shifts, you can end up gassing yourself. This is not a problem in terrorism.
Here's how they work: Nerve cells connect to each other across tiny gaps called synapses. When a nerve impulse reaches the end of one fiber, a minute amount of a chemical called a neurotransmitter diffuses across the synapse, which starts the impulse traveling down the next fiber. The neurotransmitter is then reabsorbed by an enzyme so it doesn't continue stimulating the nerve. If this occurred, the constantly firing nerves would cause convulsions and death.
The primary neurotransmitter in most of the nervous system is called acetylcholine. The enzyme that cleans it up is acetylcholinesterase. Nerve agents prevent the enzyme from functioning. The victim's nervous system fires out of control, with fatal results. The amounts necessary to cause death are extremely small.
The nature, formulas and synthesis of nerve agents are not particularly mysterious. Structurally, they are fairly simple. The Merck Index, a standard chemical reference, gives the formula for Soman, a nerve agent called GD by the United States and widely weaponized in the former Warsaw Pact. The Internet is awash in detailed information. Your 10-year-old could find it.
My friend estimates that on average it would take a graduate organic chemist (or a very bright lesser being) to be able to synthesize the stuff. ("If he wanted to survive, he'd have to be a bit better.")
The equipment, he says, is standard laboratory gear, so that buying it would not be a giveaway of bad intentions.
Precursors the chemicals you have to have to make the final gas are another thing. Some of them are giveaways, and buying them, like buying drug precursors, might lead to a lot of attention from the FBI.
On the other hand, you can make the precursors from simpler compounds.
"When I was working on this problem, we assumed that terrorists would work on the same principle of illicit drug chemists: Instead of starting with obvious precursors, you start with precursors to precursors to precursors, until you get far enough back in the chain that what you are buying doesn't have an particular association with nerve agents."
Why haven't nerve agents been used more often by terrorists?
"They're easier to make than they are to weaponize. It is difficult to distribute it in an efficient manner. If the gas used by the Japanese terrorists [Aum Shin Rikkyo] when they attacked the subway had been well-distributed, huge numbers of people would have died. But they didn't distribute it well."
For obvious reasons, we don't need to go into details of efficient use of nerve agents. However, if the terrorists were aided by a national government Iraq comes to mind lack of technical knowledge would not be an issue. People who know the ins and outs of the field are not that rare.
Nerve gases are overrated in the movies, my friend says. A small rocket of a nerve agent bursting over San Francisco would not kill everyone in the city, or even close. However, an attack with gas wouldn't have to kill more than, say, a hundred people to spook a city. No one could ever be sure that there wouldn't be another attack. The psychological effect could cripple a society.
"Think Grand Central Station."

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