Chem­i­cal weapons

TOXIC SUB­STANCES, IN WAR AND AS­SAS­SI­NA­TION, ARE HARD TO TRACE. ELITE CHEMISTS ARE HELP­ING ID THE PERPS.

Popular Science - - CONTENTS -

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.

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