President Bashar al-Assad has repeatedly deflected accusations that the Syrian regime was responsible for the chemical-weapons attack Aug. 21 that killed hundreds of civilians. Instead, Assad and his allies such as the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, allege that the Ghouta attacks were carried out by rebels who deployed homemade sarin gas in an effort to discredit the government and spark an international intervention in the civil war.
As Assad put it in an interview with former Representative Dennis Kucinich broadcast Sept. 18 on Fox News: “First of all, the sarin gas is called kitchen gas. Do you know why? Because anyone can make sarin in his house.”
That statement should be met with disbelief.
In my professional career, I studied the U.S.’s industrial production of sarin during the 1950s and in the late 1980s. Through my work in chemical counterterrorism, I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what malfeasants would have to do to make sarin on their own. I worked it out for myself in 2001 using a number of unique references including classified documents left over from the Cold War. I can say with certainty that it isn’t feasible in a household setting.
First, there’s the issue of ingredients. Some, such as sodium fluoride, are easier to get than, say, methylphosphonyl difluoride, which has little or no legitimate application other than the production of chemical weapons. (Nevertheless, in 2001, a writer for Scientific American managed to order the ingredients on the Internet.)
Even if the precursors are obtainable, anyone trying to make sarin in an at-home lab would face a challenge because, in many ways, the ingredients are more dangerous than the final product. An intermediate step in the production, for example, requires the use of hydrogen fluoride gas at a high temperature. Hydrogen fluoride is nasty stuff, and a lot of it is needed to make sarin. Even in its more stable liquid form, the smallest leak would destroy all the chemistry equipment and almost everything else in a modern kitchen. Anyone trying to combine these ingredients may kill or seriously harm himself and anyone nearby.
Most of the ingredients for sarin are extremely sensitive to water, and some are highly flammable. There is great potential for explosive reactions. Another difficult step is refining the excess hydrogen fluoride out of the mix, which makes the gas storable. A short shelf life may not matter to a terrorist, but it certainly matters if the gas is being produced a little at a time to prepare a major attack.
Another impediment to artisanal production is that the process will produce substantial waste, some almost as noxious as the gas itself.
The “kitchen sarin” hypothesis also presents a problem of scale. Based on the most generous assumptions, the Ghouta attacks would have required large amounts of sarin. Using old U.S. offensive chemical target analysis charts, I calculated that one phase of the attack -- in Zamalka -- required at least 1 ton of sarin. It is unlikely that a small production facility could produce that much.
To get a sense of the challenges, consider the only large-scale example of non-state sarin manufacturing. Aum Shinrikyo, the Japanese cult, used sarin twice: in a 1995 attack on the Tokyo subway that killed 13 people and in an earlier attack in Matsumoto.
What is most striking about the documents related to Aum’s production facility was the scale of the undertaking. The plant was a free-standing three-story building, staffed by workers with chemistry and chemical-engineering expertise who designed and built proper process controls. It was a complex, expensive operation, and its production capacity was approximately 2 gallons of sarin per batch. This tells me that a kitchen-size micro-sarin production line, even if it were safely run, could never produce the quantity of sarin used in the Syria attacks.
Even if the Syrian regime’s claims of homemade sarin are almost certainly false, they do provide a valuable lesson: Don’t try this at home.
(Dan Kaszeta is a former officer in the U.S. Army Chemical Corps and former member of the U.S. Secret Service now working as an independent consultant. He has 22 years’ experience in the field of chemical defense.)
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