Bellingcat

Sunday, 1 September 2013

Chemical Weapons Specialists On Claims Linking Rebels To Chemical Attacks in Damascus

This week there's been a lot of discussion about an article written by veteran journalist Dale Gavlak and Yahya Ababneh which claims the Syrian opposition in Damascus were behind the chemical attacks in Damascus on August 21st after an accident with Saudi supplied chemical weapons.
I've asked a number of chemical weapons specialists for their opinion on the claims made in the article.

Hamish de Bretton-Gordon is the Former Commander of UK CBRN Forces and COO of SecureBio.

I’m sure the Saudis would not do this without any training or support, protective equipment etc – I can’t in my wildest dreams believe they would do it anyway – they are still very close to US, who [US] even in the ‘Blackest ‘of operations are very very unlikely to go this far.

I think highly unlikely that a few ‘gas bottles’ would kill 1400 plus people over a wide area of Ghouta.
I’m pretty certain the UK and US Intel is on the money.

The rebels could possibly have small amounts of CW.  But the attack in Gouta last week was probably via 20 or so rockets (Kerry’s statement) and this is way beyond what is inferred here – mixing precursors etc – Sarin degrades very quickly in its attack form – the ratio of casualties are similar to Halabja and what you would expect from a well planned and prepared attack, beyond the rebels in my opinion.  Al Nousra allegedly had some Sarin in Turkey in April 13 (I think) but it turned out to be anti-freeze.

Gwyn Winfield works for specialist magazine CBRNe World.

The contention is a Saudi Prince decided to topple Assad, got(made?) chemical agent from Saudi (somewhere else?), and then shipped it to the Ghouta front, stored it in tunnels, where it was damaged by the barrage and the agent released.

The big question is why? Why did he ship pressurised containers? Why did he transport them to an area where they might get damaged?

If they aren't in munitions then the odds are that there is going to be an old fashioned line dispersal - where you wait for the wind to blow it towards the enemy. This is the worst of all chemical releases, the wind frequently changes direction and blows the agent back into friendly forces - which is sub optimal! If he was going to decant it into a different delivery system why ship it to the front lines?

Where is this agent supposed to have come from? Why risk escalating the conflict, especially when Assad has more agent and better protection and training?

The Saudi Prince thing seems feasible, but the addition of the chemical agent seems bolted on to add veracity.

Steve Johnson is Lead for Explosive and Hazardous Forensics at Cranfield university

Hmm. There's a lot to follow up. Key though is that Saudi have never been seen as a possessor of chemical wapons so where would they get it? It wraps the plausible (Saudi support for opposition and wrangling with Russia) around the slightly harder to gauge (chemical weapons provided by ....)

How plausible is the tunnel accident scenario?  It depends but certainly less simple than the rocket scenario.

Dan Kaszeta, a US Army Chemical Corps veteran, provides some very detailed answers on sarin.

1. Article is very thin on facts. It's assertions and a few quotes.
2. Assad's forces far more trained and equipped for CW defence.
3. Saudis are many things, but they are also very politically astute. Can't envisage a scenario where they'd want to get caught out with CW.
4. Flies in the face of the material evidence you've been painstakingly collating.
5. We've seen no actual footage or other indicators of rebel CW use.
6. All my various concerns about the need for whoever did the attack to operate in a manner so as not to kill their own troops... Rebels are far poorer equipped to not kill themselves playing around with chemical munitions.
7. Where, according to this theory, did the Saudis get the stuff? Does this imply that SA has a CW program under everyone's noses and that the Saudi military, which is lousy with foreign advisors and contractors has CW without word leaking out?

Despite my cynicism and skepticism, I do think the regime or it's proxies did the bad deeds last week. I just think we need to prove it better. The current lack of clarity and rush to judgement serves no useful public policy end and leaves a vacuum where other theories can thrive.

-------------------

More interviews and details about Syria and chemical weapons can be found here, and collected details of the August 21st attacks can be found here.

You can contact the author on Twitter @brown_moses or by email at brownmoses@gmail.com

31 comments:

  1. Everyone ignores the BritAm leaks. You know the email that read:

    "Phil We’ve got a new offer. It’s about Syria again. Qataris propose an attractive deal and swear that the idea is approved by Washington. We’ll have to deliver a CW to Homs, a Soviet origin g-shell from Libya similar to those that Assad should have. They want us to deploy our Ukrainian personnel that should speak Russian and make a video record. Frankly, I don’t think it’s a good idea but the sums proposed are enormous. Your opinion? Kind regards David"

    So to me, the fact that you all are trying so hard to identify the munition is laudable, it will not be able to really prove anything.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Both emails and phone calls are easy to fake. No wonder both international camps are flaunting those first while trying to gather and/or fabricate more credible evidence.

      Delete
    2. Actually that is not true. There is ample evidence that this e-mail is a manipulated version of an actual e-mail between two employees at the company. Dig around on Google a bit. See http://www.diffchecker.com/ic3zb40l for instance.

      You may not have faith in the British justice system but the Daily Mail published the same exact allegations as you and ended up being taken to court. The court agreed that the e-mails were faked and the Daily Mail conceded this, paying out over £100,000 in damages.

      Delete
    3. Even if this is true, as it is 3rd or 4th degree removed from the source, a single shell cannot affect 7,000 people in multiple locations.

      And where is the false flag video? It should have come out by now.

      Delete
  2. Both this, the discussion about who did it, and the previous ones, about with what type of munition, are such good examples of manipulation by diversion.

    Instead of trying to find out IF and WHICH was the chemical agent used, to see if any discussion about "chemical weapons" is even worth having, you are - voluntarily or not - sidetracking the issue.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. If indeed it was a nerve agent attack, then the logical next step is to determine the munition of delivery. It is called multitasking.

      How this sidetracks the UN or other neutral sources from sampling and laboratory analysis I don't understand.

      Delete
  3. Is a bit incredible because simultaneously , rebels suffering 12 accidents with chemical weapons in 12 diferent places of Damascus , separated by kilometers away

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    Replies
    1. No proof at all on 12 different CW scenarios.

      And "accident" may mean hit by artillery barrages, which indeed happened in different Gouhta places at once.

      Delete
  4. Main expert doubts seem weak at best, and may be summarized in:

    1. "Saudis not being so stupid." However, alas, we must assume Syria gov actually IS so stupid as to do this knowing that it would be impossible to hide and that everybody would automatically blame them. Not a very sharp argument.

    2. "Al Nousra (i.e. Al Qaeda) jihadists will never try to store or use CW because they risk being hit by the spilling of those CW." Mmmmh, we are talking about people that go suicide bombing... I doubt very much te "own safety and lack of proper protection" argument has any weight.

    3. "Syrian army is better prepared to CW than AlQaeda guys". So, does this imply that AQ will never try to use CW against syrians, US, Israel or anyother army just because those enemies are better trained and equipped for CW? They should stop using machine-guns and artllery too, since opposing armies tend to be better trained on that, shouldn't they?

    4. "They wouldn't store those weapons in Ghouta area". Why not? Gouhta is a resilient rebel stronghold near the main rebel war objective: Damascus. If you actually think on potentially using this weapons in the future in a major strike against strategically-relevant Syrian army forces, you better mass them near Damascus front than near out of the game places like Palmyra for example. More so if for months, Syrian army artillery barrages have not being so intense or effective as to disrupt the tunnel system under Ghouta. Until the major and unprecedented artillery shelling of August 21st...

    4. "Kerry statements". Oh this is good evidence, sure.

    Actually, the hypotheiss that the more-massive-than-ever artillery onslaught on Gouhta on August 21st hit CW dumps belonging to Al-Qaeda linked rebels seem a lot more plaussible and logical than the unsubstantiated hypothesys that the Syrian regime got crazy and gassed hundreds of civilians in front of UN inspectors despite knowing that such a fool attack was the only thing that could get the US might to smack their army.

    ReplyDelete
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    1. Syrian army is losing the war and time is against them. They are badly stuck in Damascus at these fronts with no progress for months, while they lose towns and bases in the north and south. Even personnel under their control are defecting when they see indiscriminate shelling and bombing of neighborhoods.

      What you are saying is that the artillery barrage on 8/21 hit the tunnels simultaneously in at least 6 different places, resulting in the binary pre-coursers to mix at the right ratios and then the gas was somehow emitted high enough in the atmosphere to affect 10,000 people.

      The barrage continued for 3 or 4 days. But the chemical dispersal at 6 or more locations were all between 3 to 4 AM 8/21.

      And theoretically monkeys can type out the Bill Of Rights by accident.

      Delete
    2. 1. Syrian army is not losing the war. They are now a lot better than 6 months ago. More so in Damascus and central Syria, where rebels are slowly losing ground. So no sense at all to deliver CW in this precisse moment. 6 months ago syrian gov were declared dying but it did not use cw. Why should do it now when it has recovered a lot in Homs and Damascus?

      2. No proof at all in the multiple CW attack locations. Yo said 12 locations before... now you say 6... may be tomorrow you reduce this to just 2, and after tomorrow..
      Lot of confusion between HOSPITAL locations where wounded were ferried and actual locations of attacks.

      3. There is no need at all to have a good mix of components to provoke a chemical disaster. If the sarin stored in the tunnels where hit by HE explosives, it is obvious that this would have spread the sarin all over the neighborhood. This is how chemical disaster occur.

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    3. Malcom, you are wrong on all 3 counts. The only advance that the regime has accomplished in the last 2 months is Qusayr with the help of Hezbollah and Iran. All other advances have stalled, in particular in Damascus and Homs.

      On the other hand the rebels have: Made major gains in Aleppo, Taken over the northern part of the coast almost to Latakia and Qunaytra, Taken over the major town of Nawa in the south, The Kurds have taken over northeast Syria, the loss of critical territory at Safira, loss of Mennegh AFB,loss of strategic town of Ariha, and just 2 days ago loss of sprawling Armored base 81.

      I never said 12 CW attack sites. I always said 6 or more. Others have said 12. When interviewing injured patients, they have arrived from multiple locations. This has been confirmed.

      There is no evidence of bottled Sarin being transported by rebels. Rebels don't have a secret police to stop information from leaking. If Sarin bottles were being used, there would be indications of that.

      There was rocketing and shelling of the area before the insident at 3 AM and mostly after the incident. Rockets and shells do not impact tunnels, they are surficial. A few bottles going off inside a tunnel will not rise to the atmosphere affecting 10,000 people.

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    4. Malcolm, Bottled Sirin does not last for too long. Therefore it cannot be transported in bottles. So you say it was stored in the tunnel as binary precursors. The bottles of precursors were interlaced as opposed to stored separately. Then somehow a shell misses all the concrete buildings and descends in a near vertical trajectory right on a tunnel which is under exposed ground, and hits right at the batch of precursors that eventually mix and after an hour or so of mixing, a tornado comes along at the very same location and sucks the Sarin up from below ground and spreads it.

      All possible. But it reminds me of monkeys randomly typing on typewriters and accidentally creating the Bill Of Rights.

      Delete
    5. Hmmmm, Khalid you guys saying the Assad and the Syrian army will not hold for more than two weeks and its now almost 3 years!!!!

      any way...

      i have some questions since am looking for the truth:

      1- did any body saw the 1400 ppl killed?? do u have names? do you have any info about where the 1400 dead ppl Buried?

      as im following all the news since the day one of this conflict in Syria am sure that the FSA giving a fake numbers of dead ppl

      and am sure if that ppl we saw on the TV is really dead then those are all the dead ppl and no more not shown on the videos

      2- the rocket used by the Syrian army is a typical to the US version as mentioned http://www.military-today.com/engineering/slufae.htm

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bjUwkNaJgJs

      http://www.google.com/patents/US4273048

      so we are talking here about FAE

      before we try to connect between those rockets with the sarin gas we should get a prove about the 1400 ppl who they said they get killed over there!!!

      3- do any body have any information about the sarin get caught with al Qaeda in turkey as the Turkish government admit about that


      sorry for my bad language i hope u can understand all the points i mentioned there

      Delete
  5. Me thinks the experts doth protest too much. Carla del Ponte said in May that the contras had used chem weapons.

    http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/uns-carla-del-ponte-says-there-is-evidence-rebels-may-have-used-sarin-in-syria-8604920.html

    Prince Bandar could have gotten chem weapons from Israel. The idea that the Syrian regime made a large-scale (or any-scale) attack with chem weapons a few kilometers from the hotel where the inspectors were staying, when the regime was winning the war, is preposterous.

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  6. A reaction to Dan Kaszeta's seven points:
    1. Article is very thin on facts. It's assertions and a few quotes.
    >> I agree that more details are needed.
    2. Assad's forces far more trained and equipped for CW defence.
    >> many rebels have served in the Syrian army, Without doubt some also in the CW department. Equipment may have been stolen/conquered.
    3. Saudis are many things, but they are also very politically astute. Can't envisage a scenario where they'd want to get caught out with CW.
    >>Seems that king Abdullah is hell bent on getting rid of Assad. Look also how Saudi Arabia supported the statements of Qaradawi.
    4. Flies in the face of the material evidence you've been painstakingly collating.
    5. We've seen no actual footage or other indicators of rebel CW use.
    >>There have been quite a few accusations and one may assume that Del Ponte had at least some concrete indications for her accusations. It is also rather suspicious that the US has obstructed investigations in Khan al-Asal twice. First by demanding a level of access that it knew wouldn't be granted and later by shortening the Damascus mission.
    6. All my various concerns about the need for whoever did the attack to operate in a manner so as not to kill their own troops... Rebels are far poorer equipped to not kill themselves playing around with chemical munitions.
    >> This is World War I stuff. Not high tech.
    7. Where, according to this theory, did the Saudis get the stuff? Does this imply that SA has a CW program under everyone's noses and that the Saudi military, which is lousy with foreign advisors and contractors has CW without word leaking out?
    >>There was a lot of this stuff available in Libya. There have also been reports of an Al Qaeda CW laboratory in Iraq being busted.

    SecureBio made some other points:
    - I’m sure the Saudis would not do this without any training or support
    >>> I wouldn't be surprised when the Saudi's employed some of Saddam's experts. Fellow Sunni's who have nowhere else to go.
    – I can’t in my wildest dreams believe they would do it anyway
    >>> recently it turned out they have a rocket base from where they can reach Israel.
    - I think highly unlikely that a few ‘gas bottles’ would kill 1400 plus people over a wide area of Ghouta.
    >>> the same could be said about "15 to 20 rockets". How much gas can they transport?

    In summary: I am far from convinced that the MintPress article is true. But the experts have done little to convince me of the opposite.

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  7. The Assad regime just lost another major military base to the freedom fighters. This is the 81st Armored Brigade north of Damascus. Video shows tens of tanks and armored battle vehicles have been captured.

    Any wonder why Assad has been acting desperate lately? How are they going to take East Ghouta when they cannot even defend a major base?

    The freedom fighters have become more effective and seem to be cooperating better. A snowball effect is taking hold.

    Assad must be panicking.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=vV6-5enM8wY

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  8. Anyone who uses the term CW is clearly full of shit.

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  9. Article on British Signals Intelligence picking up conversations within SAA regarding deployment of CWs, just prior to the massacre.

    http://www.express.co.uk/news/uk/425981/Senior-Syrian-military-chiefs-tell-captain-fire-chemicals-or-be-shot

    If it is determined that Sarin has been used, Cameron will seek another vote.

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  10. French intelligence have now said the chemical weapon was delivered by Grad (BM14) rockets, and followed by a heavy barrage of other artillery to "destroy the evidence". Actually, I think it would be to disperse the gas cloud once it had done its job and BEFORE it moved onto areas the perpetrators didn't want cleared of all life. The "evidence" is largely self-destroying after two to three days, it's the hazard that needs a heavy barrage of explosive.

    While I think that the M130 copy rockets COULD carry sarin or other chemical weapons, I think the primary FAE version would be more efficient, and certainly more cost-effective, for this dispersal phase than the HE version of the same rocket, let alone ordinary HE artillery shells.

    In the past, it was standard soviet doctrine that incendiaries would be used after a chemical strike, but those strikes, where actually carried out (during an Egyptian incursion into Yemen in the fifties and during ethnic cleansing by the communist regime in Laos in the seventies) probably pre-date the availability of a cheap and simple FAE round, let alone the realization it would serve this purpose.

    So I think the M130 is indeed being used as an FAE in this context, but the remains of them are likely to be found around the scene of chemical strikes, if the chemical was sarin.

    The French mention "Yperite" and (nitrogen) mustard gas, these would need to be delivered in 38KG quantities to be effective. It would take an inordinate number of BM14 rounds to deliver an effective concentration of Yperite, 2.2KG at a time. That will arrive in the M130 rockets, or by fighter or helicopter-dropped munitions of quite some size.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sulfur_mustard

    People have reported foul-tasting orange-yellow clouds: this could be marker smoke, or it could be Yperite (Sulphur mustard).

    Musatrds, as well as VX, will not use used anywhere the perpetrator does not want a persistent hazard, because the explosive dispersal trick simply will not work.

    This is why I keep thinking that sarin is the most likely agent to be sued: it's effective and lethal, but it does disperse (and oxidise) and this allows some measure of control over the area that is killed.

    The British Chancellor has made it clear that in his view Parliament voted against military action because of skepticism about whether military intervention would do any good, and not about any real doubts that a sarin attack had happened or who was responsible. Therefore, he does not see a new vote happening unless something major changes.

    Endless ranting about the evidence, horror and so on, will not affect the matter of whether or not a bombing campaign will do more good than harm.

    Analysing, exposing and hopefully dealing with the source of the regime's weapons, and those of other extreme militias, may be slow but it's a way that's open and it's what Brown Moses has been doing all along.

    Two former cabinet ministers have called for a period of silence from Tony Blair, and that would be a blessed thing.

    There are questions he needs to answer, but nothing more that he really needs to proclaim.

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    1. Have you got a link to the French claims?

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    2. See:

      http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2408439/Assads-1000-ton-chemical-arsenal-sarin-lethal-nerve-agents-say-French-spies.html

      This isn't quite what was in the print edition: I think they jumped the gun publishing this before the official release, tonight.

      http://www.france24.com/en/20130902-france-present-syria-sarin-evidence-usa-obama-assad

      Look on France 24 later on, I think.

      I think the Soviets gave them lots of stuff for the Yom Yippur war in 1973, which was never used. They would have had Sarin munitions, but any actual sarin filling being used four decades later must be new manufacture.

      Yyperite and Nitrogen Mustard keeps for a long time, though. UK's WW2 delivery system for this (not actually used of course) was an 8,000lb dispersal bomb for the Halifax and Lancaster bombers. That's monumentally large compared to Grad rockets, or even Scuds.

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  11. sued should have been typed as used, of course.

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  12. A few thoughts..
    #1. Would it be possible that both scenarios occurred.. that the syrian army did launch the attacks on Ghouta, but that saudi intelligence is also paying rebels and that rebels do have limited amounts of CWs. Is it possible that the attacks where made up of some sort of degraded chemical that will not be pure sarin? What happens if the US congress votes down Obama's plan? NATO and its allies appear dedicated to regime change, damn the consequences.

    #2. My thoughts on the war strategies. It appears to me that both sides have sought to go after the weaker targets that they have surrounded, and where it make strategic sense to commit their limited reserves. A poster above mentioned many of the rebel locations captured, but he did not mention that the government not only retook Qusayr, but many of the surrounding villages, and also without a fight regained Talkalakh on the border with Lebanon. I agree the government and rebels appear to be in a stalemate in Damascus, but SAA clearly has upper hand in Homs.
    The rebels have focused on capturing all the smaller gov towns and bases around Aleppo, totally surrounding the city, and launching other offensives to harass government positions. Both sides are trying to isolate enemy locations that are far from their enemies core areas. But its clear without foreign intervention this will stay as a stalemate, but I personally do not believe that a rebel victory is what the majority of syrians want. I believe the majority of syrians want peace and for both sides to stop shooting. Lets move to Geneva 2, study the history of Lebanon's peace, Ireland's peace, etc.

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    1. Lebanon's peace is pretty fragile, and violated the instant either Syria or Israel sees fit.

      Ireland's peace may last, but it took longer to come about than necessary, because American private citizens and some police and fire brigade union chapters, kept funding the belligerents long after even Gadaffi had stopped. Ex patriates can be the worst sponsors of violence, because they don't see their old country the way it is, but the way their parents or grandparents told them it was, or should be.


      One important thing to note is that the British Army was deployed in Northern Ireland to protect the Catholic community from the larger and strong Protestant community, and ended up in a war with the Catholics who turned on them -and started terrorist activity on the UK mainland, initially of an intensely ruthless nature. This is why Parliament didn't want a military involvement in a civil war with so many factions. Western troops are almost bound to get shot at by the people they are supposed to be there to help.

      And there's no doubt that the Kosovo war turned the Albanian mafia into a major power with global reach, which wasn't what was supposed to happen.

      And nobody in Ireland has got anything out of the recent peace settlement that couldn't have been had agreed in 1968. It's just that now they know that nobody is going to get anything more, while in 1968 both sides thought they might see most of their demands met if they dug their heels in. Blatant corruption in Dublin actually helped Sinn Fein shelve some of its long-standing demands, because not even the nationalists still wanted to be governed from Dublin, at least not yet...

      There was never any personality or dynasty in Ireland like President Assad and the dynasty from which he comes.

      Yugoslavia would be a better model, but even there the peace in Kosovo is not a just peace, even if Bosnia and Croatia don't look too bad. In Kosovo, I fear that unfair domination by Serbs has been replaced by unfair domination by an Albanian Kosovo faction that's not really separate from the Albanian mafia, so what's there is a kleptocracy.

      It's probably worse in the long run to let the mafia have its own country than to let Al Qaeda have one.

      Delete
    2. Al Qaeda having a country is better than a corrupt gov with mafias having a country? huh? seriously? you actually believe that? You'd rather live under the Taliban than under a secular statist regime like syria?
      Mafias can be dealt with overtime. Once a long cease fire was established, if they had internationally monitored elections and pressure to carry this out we would see how the people really feel.

      Yes, you can point out all the problems with Ireland and Lebanon, but would you rather live in Lebanon and Ireland of today or of 20 years ago? Yes, Lebanon is getting worse now but thats because of the proxy war in syria that we are not putting enough pressure on to resolve into peace negotiations.

      I think both rebels and gov have bad groups and more honest groups within them- cease fire would allow these groups to take a bigger role hopefully- whereas continued war will continue to increase the power of the most bloodthirsty on both sides into tit for tat killing. Its clear that the house of Saud and its backed groups are not interested in peace negotiations, and I'm sure some of the hardline assadists as well would violate it, so I am not sure where this will go.. It would need significant pressure and would be crisis/problem prone- but the only other option is the continued total destruction of the country.

      With much of the country still in gov hands it seems though that Nato and its allies are content with letting it all burn. How many more people need to die?

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  14. Great questions raised. I think you are one of the few that have questioned the Rebels story!

    ReplyDelete
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  17. This week there's been a lot of discussion about an article written by veteran journalist Dale Gavlak and Yahya Ababneh which claims the Syrian opposition in Damascus were behind the chemical attacks in Damascus on August 21st after an accident with Saudi supplied chemical weapons.
    I've asked a number of chemical weapons specialists for their opinion on the claims made in the article.

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