TOXIC SUBSTANCES, IN WAR AND ASSASSINATION, ARE HARD TO TRACE. ELITE CHEMISTS ARE HELPING ID THE PERPS.
The Chemical Weapons DETECTIVES
By Bryan Gardiner
The first bomb landed shortly after sunrise on April 4, 2017, in Khan Shaykhun. Unlike the three that would explode moments later in other parts of the rebel-controlled Syrian town, this one produced little noise and even less physical damage, leaving behind a jagged 5-foot-wide-by-20-inch-deep crater in an otherwise empty road. Minutes earlier, a group of volunteer rescue workers in town had received an ominous alert: Spotters had observed a Syrian Armed Forces bomber taking off from Shayrat airbase 68 miles away, and it was likely carrying a chemical payload. “Guys, tell people to wear masks,” the voice on the other end of the walkie-talkie implored.
Most of the town’s 16,000 residents were in bed or getting ready for work when a milky-white cloud began to spread near the bombed-out bakery and grain silos shortly after 6:30 a.m. The first people on the scene arrived to find bodies lying on the ground outside and in homes, with no signs of blunt trauma. Some had bluish lips and were convulsing. Others foamed from the mouth and nose. Nearly all of them had pinpoint pupils.
As news of the attack appeared on his computer screen, Stefan Mogl felt a horrible sense of déjà vu. Sitting in his office at Switzerland’s premier national-defense lab, the analytical chemist was all too familiar with the images coming out of Syria that spring morning. Four years earlier, he’d watched hours of similar footage originating from the Damascus suburb of Ghouta, and helped the German magazine Der Spiegel determine that the attack’s victims likely had been exposed to an outlawed nerve agent. He worried that a similar weapon had been used in Khan Shaykhun; a
U.N. fact-finding mission would soon confirm the attack had used sarin. Strikes like these are not uncommon in Syria. This past April, the U.N.’s Human Rights Council reported 34 confirmed chemical assaults since the civil war began in 2011 (more than 80 have been reported). Most reputable sources would eventually estimate that up to 100 civilians, including as many as 32 children, died during the Khan Shaykhun attack that day in April 2017—or shortly thereafter.
As it turned out, the soft-spoken 52-year-old chemist was a few weeks away from joining the leadership panel of the Joint Investigative Mechanism, a kind of elite international Justice League established in 2015. Formed through a partnership between the United Nations Security Council and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons—the independent intergovernmental body created to oversee compliance with 1997’s Chemical Weapons Convention—the team was tasked with identifying the perpetrators, organizers, and sponsors of chemical attacks in the Syrian conflict. Now that Mogl would be in charge of the technical side of this investigation, he was aware that he and his new position were about to get a lot more attention. “I wouldn’t just be investigating this incident,” he says. “If there’s enough information, I’d be one of the people who would determine responsibility.”
After a nearly two-decade absence from the world stage, banned nerve agents such as sarin have re-emerged as modern-day tools for dictators, assassins, and other malefactors. Whether it’s the Russian nerve agent Novichok, used to poison ex-spy Sergei Skripal in the U.K. in March, or the brazen use of VX to murder North Korean despot Kim Jong-Un’s half-brother in broad daylight at the Kuala Lumpur airport in 2017, we are once again living in a world where invisible molecules are regularly being deployed as murder weapons.
From a forensic perspective, it’s easy to see why these illicit agents are attractive. In its purest form, sarin is colorless, tasteless, and odorless, and can kill in minutes. It’s also volatile, meaning it will evaporate from liquid into vapor, and, depending on environmental conditions and the quantity used, murder and maim lots of people before gradually vanishing over the course of days or weeks. While it’s relatively easy to tell if a nerve agent killed or hurt someone, figuring out who deployed it can be notoriously difficult.
Difficult, but not impossible. As any forensic chemist will tell you, every crime leaves behind traces of molecular evidence. In the same way DNA can provide essential clues about the identity of an individual, toxic substances like sarin and the ingredients used to make it can also provide distinctive signatures. Today, with the help of an increasingly sensitive array of chemistry tools such as gas and liquid chromatography, nuclear magnetic resonance
The target for the deadly chemical attack in Khan Shaykhun (above); scenes from the Syrian civil war (previous pages).
spectroscopy, and mass spectrometry, experts are finding subtle but persistent impurities and other so-called marker compounds in a variety of poisonous weapons. These compounds can be used not only to determine how the toxic chemicals are made and under what conditions, but in combination with other evidence, they might help identify the culprit.
Within three weeks of the Khan Shaykhun attack, Mogl was on a plane headed for The Hague, home of the OPCW and soon to be his base of operations for the next five and a half months. He would be working against a deadline; the U.N. had authorized the JIM team’s work only through November 17, 2017. After that, it would be case closed, no matter what the investigation turned up. “We had one critical element, and that was time,” Mogl says. After poring over U.N. documents outlining the parameters of his new investigational powers, Mogl met with colleagues in the Netherlands and formulated a plan for investigating the attack. It would be a crucial set of decisions, particularly since the U.S. had already rendered its own judgment in the form of 59 cruise missiles launched at the Shayrat airbase on April 7.
ENLISTING THE HELP OF DEADLY
chemicals and poisons to kill and maim is a time-honored tradition for humans. Hunters in South Africa were shooting ricin-tipped arrows at least 24,000 years ago. No one knows when we first turned our poison-making skills to warfare, but until the beginning of the 20th century, military use of this noxious stuff was fairly small scale. Then World War I happened. In 1915, Germany released some 5,700 pressurized cylinders of greenish-yellow chlorine gas across 4 miles of the Western Front, changing the world’s perception of chemical weapons. The attack killed more than 5,000 French and Algerian soldiers in a particularly gruesome and painful way: literally corroding the insides of their lungs and throats. Within 10 years, nearly every nation that had deployed poison gas during WWI signed the Geneva Protocol, which prohibited the “use in war of asphyxiating, poisonous or other gases, and of bacteriological methods of warfare.” It didn’t entirely stop the utilization of these lethal agents, but it did lead to a much more comprehensive treaty: the Chemical Weapons Convention.
Today, 193 countries have signed that agreement, which took effect on April 29, 1997. The treaty bans the development, production, acquisition, stockpiling, and transfer of all chemical weapons. Using them on combatants or civilians is also prohibited, and countries must destroy any stockpiles they have when they sign on (or if they have a lot, like the U.S., provide a timeline for destruction).
Twenty-one years in, it’s hard to argue with the results: By the end of 2016, 94 percent of the world’s declared and now-banned stockpiles had been destroyed. That’s 67,753 metric tons of poison gone from Earth. But before you start feeling too good about that statistic, note the word “declared.” After an August 21, 2013, sarin attack on Ghouta—still the deadliest chemical-weapon attack in the country—Russia and the U.S. brokered an agreement for the Syrian government to hand over its chemical weapons to the OPCW for destruction. As is evidenced by the continued attacks, Syria clearly neglected to declare some part of its chemical-weapons arsenal.
This is the bleak irony organizations such as the U.N. and OPCW are now grappling with:
Despite the elimination of global stockpiles of poisons, chemical-weapons use is higher today than it’s been in decades.