Bellingcat

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Three Chemical Weapon Specialist Answer Questions About Chemical Weapons In Syria

With the focus on chemical weapons in Syria in recent weeks I decided it was time to talk to some experts on the subject, in an attempt to make sense of some of the reports of chemical weapon use in Syria.

Paul from Allen Vanguard.  Allen Vanguard have a long established reputation for reporting on Threat Intelligence.  They recently rolled-out a new web portal that offers on-line access to their products and services.  The portal can be found here.  (Qualifying businesses and organizations can obtain guest accounts upon request, using the “Subscribe” button on the top right hand side of the page.)

Recently images from alleged chemical attacks in Saraqeb, Idlib, and Sheikh Maghsoud, Aleppo have shown a device that local activists claimed were used in both attacks, with the same device appearing in a photograph being worn on the tactical vest of an opposition fighter.  In your opinion what do you believe these devices could be?


The devices are white handheld canisters with a ‘lid’ and fly off lever.  There is a circular hole on one side of the cylinder, with discolouring around the hole.  It would appear that this device is designed to be thrown and discharge a smoke which would explain the discolouring around the hole.  The single hole suggests that the cylinder is designed to emit smoke for a longer period of time rather than quickly and in multiple directions which would be the likely effect if there were more holes.

If these canisters were dropped by helicopters, the purpose could have been to indicate/mark the area.  The design of the canister would also support this as the smoke would visible for longer and emerge for a longer duration.

The fact that these canisters have only been seen on opposition fighters and in areas held by the opposition, it is likely that they have been sourced or produced by people/organisations sympathetic to the opposition.

The design, the areas in which they have been found and the condition of the ‘spent’ containers suggests that these cylinders are smoke canisters designed to emit a screening agent for use in tactical situations or as ‘markers’.  The colour of the canister and the way it has been manufactured suggests that it is improvised or locally made.  It is possible that it has been commercially made for public disorder scenarios. 

Are you aware of any specific models of these devices that matches what's been seen in Syria?

No.

Do you believe chemical agents such as sarin, VX, etc, would be delivered in such a device?

In short, no.  Vx is a ‘persistent’ nerve agent and would render the area in which it had been used contaminated for a significantly longer period of time than other nerve agents.  It is designed to deny entire areas from both the enemy and friendly forces and for this reason would not be deployed in hand thrown weapons and would not be handled by individuals not wearing individual protection equipment (IPE).  Vx is also a liquid and would not be suited to be deployed from hand thrown canisters and nor would it leave a trace next to the cylinder’s hole, like shown in the image.

Sarin is a ‘non-persistent’ nerve agent.  One of its characteristics is that it is an odourless liquid and the spent canisters would not be handled in the way that they are shown in the images.  Like Vx, Sarin is not suited to being deployed in hand thrown canisters and would not leave marks next to the hole in the canister as shown in the image. 

This video shows victims from the Sheikh Maghsoud attack.  In your opinion would you be able to draw any solid conclusions about the chemical agent used from the information in that video alone?

None of the people in the hospital are wearing IPE (individual protective equipment); they are not being affected by the same condition as the patient on the stretcher.  The first ‘victim’ is not in pain and does not have any visible symptoms beyond a non-moving fresh thin, white trail of foam leading down his face from each nostril.  This is not a recognised symptom of nerve agent attack and the early signs (pinpointing of pupils, running nose, tight chest & difficulty of breathing) are absent.

The second ‘victim’ is a woman.  She has no visible symptoms of nerve agent attack.

The third ‘victim’ is a man.  He has thin bright white foam at the left hand side of his mouth.  The foam is not moving and no more is emerging.  There are no symptoms of a nerve agent having been ingested by this man.

The third ‘victim’ is a woman.  She appears to have red blotches on her face and has breathing apparatus in her mouth.  She is not moving.  I don’t think that this is a nerve agent.  However, red blotches and shortness of breath (patient requiring artificial respiration) is a symptom of a blood agent, such as hydrogen cyanide.

The presence of a camera person, lack of IPE worn by the staff, lack of general panic and lack of recognised symptoms amongst the ‘victims’ makes me think that the event has been staged.  The symptoms that have been presented have probably been elaborated with single applications of foam; the foam has stopped emerging by the time the camera is shown at them.  Only the third ‘victim’ has recognisable symptoms of a chemical attack but even so, it is unlikely that a blood agent would be dispersed using a hand thrown canister because of the unreliability of the container and risk to the thrower of being contaminated by the blood agent.

There's been reports in the Turkish press that ricin was used in the April 29th attack in Saraqeb, Idlib.  Knowing what you know of the attack, how likely do you think it is that ricin would have been used?

Ricin is unlikely to react well to heat which would be required to vent smoke from the hole in the canister seen in the image.  As stated before, the canister is totally unsuitable to disperse a chemical or biological attack.   An attacker would be more inclined to use cheaper, more conventional weapons (such as a grenade or rifle) if they were in such close proximity to their enemy.

After the chemical attack in Khan al-Assal Alex Thomson of Channel 4 News reported various claims made by the Syrian government about the attack.  This includes the claim that "a relatively small amount of chlorine gas, namely CL17 which was dissolved into saline solution in a home-made rocket."  Considering the number of casualties do you believe it is a realistic scenario that chlorine delivered in such a fashion could cause that number of causalities?

‘Chlorine gas’ is dispersed by the wind; it is unsuited to missile warheads, as described in the article because of its likely destruction by any explosion but also the lack of knowledge of wind direction in the target area.  The wrong wind conditions would result in the attackers bearing the brunt of their own attack.  The survivors of a chlorine gas attack would still display chlorine gas attack symptoms, such as chronic breathing problems.  I’ve only heard about dead victims from this attack; it is unlikely that chlorine gas delivered in this manner would kill everyone in its vicinity and not leave any injured.  Chlorine was used in a few attacks in Iraq but it was reported that most of the casualties and deaths were caused by the effect of the blast rather than the effects of the chlorine.  I’ve not heard of long-term injuries caused by the chlorine attacks in Iraq and this may indicate the difficulty in dispersing a chemical weapon in an open environment with explosives. 

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Steve Johnson is Deputy Editor of CBRNe World, a magazine published bi-monthly serving the information needs of professionals around the world charged with planning for or responding to a chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear or explosives (CBRNe) threat or incident.

Could you tell me your thoughts on the recent BBC reports from Saraqeb?

The dropping of material from helicopters has been a regular theme in Syria – it being one of the earliest allegations. This footage is a lot clearer than that early footage.  It still seems very strange to drop a small box with a brick from such a height.  The military purpose of this seems confusing to take such risks for dropping a single, short acting agent at a time.

The artillery and helicopter attack appear unconnected. The round on video explodes on impact and was part of a salvo.  Again small use of helicopter dropped munitions in the midst of an artillery scenario seem strange – the logic of trying to get people out in to the open using gas, or suppressing air defence with artillery while the helicopters go in makes sense. But a single package from a single helicopter?

Helicopter dropped munitions are not unprecedented – the Iran-Iraq war saw them used from altitudes of 3-4000 feet ranging from 220 litre containers that detonated on contact with the ground and 55 gallon drums. Some mixed, and generally unsubstantiated reports, suggest limited use by Iranians of predominantly captured Iraqi resources, including throwing barrels out of helicopters over troops. 

Recently images from alleged chemical attacks in Saraqeb, Idlib, and Sheikh Maghsoud, Aleppo have shown a device that local activists claimed were used in both attacks, with the same device appearing in a photograph being worn on the tactical vest of an opposition fighter.  In your opinion what do you believe these devices could be?

The device does not have a fragmentation jacket and so is most likely a carrier grenade or some type. These include CS, CN, Smoke, WP. Its an unusual design with the fixing screw and small port in the side. It bears resemblance to devices used earlier in the conflict by security forces, which emitted CS.  Notably the man with it on his vest had no apparent protective equipment.  Which suggests it's more likely to be smoke or a riot control agent (would you trust your ability to throw a nerve agent to keep you safe?)

Are you aware of any specific models of these devices that matches what's been seen in Syria?

I have looked through my resources and have be unable to find a match.  The high resolution picture suggests that one of the holes may be a filler port (if so for something liquid most likely given the gauge).  They seem very small for emission ports – though they could be.

The lack of markings though potentially suggest something homemade, particularly what looks like a cross head screw holding the carrier portion to the fusing mechanism.

Do you believe chemical agents such as sarin, VX, etc, would be delivered in such a device?

While it is not impossible that someone may have put a fill such as sarin or vx in to such a grenade it would be much less likely than CS/CN or smoke. The main reason for this is that CS, for example, is easily distributed by a pyrotechnic emission. Sarin would be quite rapidly evaporated by the intense heat of the grenades detonator – and a great deal would be decomposed or destroyed by the explosion. Field techniques usually consider a ratio of 5:1 explosives to CW sufficient to destroy all agent. VX would be more stable – but would still be sensitive to the ratio of explosives to fill.

This video shows victims from the Sheikh Maghsoud attack.  In your opinion would you be able to draw any solid conclusions about the chemical agent used from the information in that video alone?

I can see ER room chaos and an extremely unusual foaming at the mouth. Doubly unusual as the person, despite being able to move makes no attempt to remove it.  No solid conclusions one way or the other could be made from this video. Although it does raise a suspicion of faking symptoms with the highly uniform, highly white foam.

There's been reports in the Turkish press that ricin was used in the April 29th attack in Saraqeb, Idlib.  Knowing what you know of the attack, how likely do you think it is that ricin would have been used?

Syria is a relatively large producer of castor oil – and as such its not impossible that soil and human samples may give positives for Ricin.  It is inappropriate for explosive dissemination because it gets ‘inactivated’ by temps over 80 degrees C.

Ricin needs to be ingested or inhaled to have effect (or to pierce the skin).  The effects are slow (8 hours plus). It wouldn’t be very effective in the way in which the devices were constructed – which doesn’t mean that someone wouldn’t try that, but it would be unusual for a country with a mature CW program to do something so ineffective.  Ricin has traditionally been more favoured by terrorists who see it as an accessible material.
After the chemical attack in Khan al-Assal Alex Thomson of Channel 4 News reported various claims made by the Syrian government about the attack.  This includes the claim that "a relatively small amount of chlorine gas, namely CL17 which was dissolved into saline solution in a home-made rocket."  Considering the number of casualties do you believe it is a realistic scenario that chlorine delivered in such a fashion could cause that number of causalities?

Chlorine rockets seems a bit bizarre, especially a solution of chlorine that would be pretty weak once vaporised on impact. It suggests that an improvised filling, perhaps of a hypochlorite in water, was used, or some bleaching materials.  

It's not impossible, and as I pointed out lots of groups have tried putting all sorts of weird things in rockets.  Frankly these mainly just cause problems with their balance and performance and have little to no impact

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Hamish de Bretton-Gordon is the Former Commander of UK CBRN Forces and COO SecureBio.  He recently appeared on the BBC talking about the alleged chemical attack in Saraqeb.

Recently images from alleged chemical attacks in Saraqeb, Idlib, and Sheikh Maghsoud, Aleppo have shown a device that local activists claimed were used in both attacks, with the same device appearing in a photograph being worn on the tactical vest of an opposition fighter.  In your opinion what do you believe these devices could be?

The plastic device shown in your blog and as carried by the JAN fighter appears to be a riot control grenade, usually filled with a tear gas (eg. CS).  A very similar grenade, Indian DRDE version, can be found here.

These grenades will usually flash and then smoke shortly after being initiated but are unlikely to burn for prolonged periods; unless filled with phosphorus however, the body of the grenade would not be made from plastic if it had a WP fill.

CS Grenades are usually filled with a powder/solid version of CS, which is then heated in the grenade to off-gas.  Interestingly enough the Irish Medical Times conducted a study about the lethality of CS in high concentrations/purity.

There is some evidence in some of the photographs that the canisters have been tampered with – look at the screw seating.  This suggests they could have been opened and refilled with something other than CS gas.

Do you believe chemical agents such as sarin, VX, etc, would be delivered in such a device?

It is possible that the grenade may have been refilled with something other than CS.  Unlikely to be liquid so not Sarin or VX, but could be OP or CL17 in powder form.

This video shows victims from the Sheikh Maghsoud attack.  In your opinion would you be able to draw any solid conclusions about the chemical agent used from the information in that video alone?

Not really, there are some inconsistent symptoms with nerve Agent poisoning in this attack.  There is however some evidence to suggest that this attack is where the samples that the UK and US  Govts and others, analysis comes from, which reported microscope traces of Sarin.

There's been reports in the Turkish press that ricin was used in the April 29th attack in Saraqeb, Idlib.  Knowing what you know of the attack, how likely do you think it is that ricin would have been used?

It is entirely possible that Assad has Ricin however, there is little tactical benefit from using it as described.  It is therefore assessed to be unlikely that Ricin has been used in Syria at this stage.

But that is not to say it will not be in future.  Assad is believed to have a BW programme and potentially significant stocks of Anthrax.  However, delivery of BW is a challenge, but even hint at its use is likely to incite fear and panic.  The potential for BW to all into terrorists’ hands is a major concern as they are easy to conceal and hence move.

After the chemical attack in Khan al-Assal Alex Thomson of Channel 4 News reported various claims made by the Syrian government about the attack.  This includes the claim that "a relatively small amount of chlorine gas, namely CL17 which was dissolved into saline solution in a home-made rocket."  Considering the number of casualties do you believe it is a realistic scenario that chlorine delivered in such a fashion could cause that number of causalities?

It is entirely possible that the rebels have been able to develop an improvised rocket, as seen frequently in Iraq.  However, a liquid fill of this type would be inherently unstable, resulting in the rocket flying erratically if at all.

It is therefore, assessed as unlikely that the rocket claim is true.  Furthermore, the casualties are inconsistent with chlorine poisoning.

It is entirely possible that either side could produce Improvised CW, and using CL17 to produce an effective, in propaganda terms, chemical weapon.


2 comments:

  1. Defecting Syrian Officer Brigadier-General Zaher Al-Saket: I Was Ordered to Use Chemical Weapons

    www.youtube.com/watch?v=jB_43l9Hb6c

    he gives also an overview of the regime's chemical arsenal and explains the incapacity of the opposition to use it even if it possesses it.

    ReplyDelete
  2. AMERICANS WANT TO TALK ABOUT WMDS? A BIT LIKE SATAN TALKING ABOUT SIN!


    http://www.commondreams.org/view/2013/05/15-7

    the end of effective social movements

    http://www.cnn.com/2013/08/17/us/four-ways-to-beat-the-man/index.html?hpt=hp_c2

    TAM 2013 APOSTASY

    http://www.amazingmeeting.com/

    FIGHTING THE FAKERS

    http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2013/08/16/james-randi-the-amazing-meeting-and-the-bullshit-police.html

    OH, THE IRONY!

    how we won the James Randi Million Dollar Paranormal Prize

    http://storify.com/deltoidmachine/how-we-won-the-james-randi-dollar-1-000-000-parano

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