Lack of nerve gas

Launching a sarin or cyanide attack is not as easy as some fear.

Rob Lyons

Topics Politics

The scare story about a potential gas attack on the London Tube (1) has been given credence because such an attack has happened before.

On 20 March 1995, 10 members of the Japanese Aum Shinrikyo cult released sarin gas into stations on the Tokyo Underground system. The gas was homemade and placed in plastic bags wrapped in newspapers. To start the attack the cult members punctured the bags with umbrellas and then made their escape (2). Twelve people were killed and 5000 were reportedly affected by the gas (though this figure has been challenged as a large overstatement) (3).

Sarin gas was developed in Germany in 1938. It is a relatively simple chemical that interferes with the transmission of signals in nerves, causing paralysis. If the muscles around the lungs are affected, it can lead to respiratory failure. It can be breathed in or absorbed through the skin, inducing nausea and convulsions (4)

Sarin can be made from publicly available chemicals – but specialist knowledge is required, and it is difficult to make in the pure form that causes most harm. The gas should be odourless and invisible when pure, but the gas used in Tokyo apparently smelled of paint thinner (5).

It is not generally considered to be a very good weapon. One reason for this is that it is difficult to handle. A nerve agent should ideally be deployed in two separate parts (in ‘binary’ form), which are mixed at the moment of the attack. But even with a crude method of doing so, the cult members themselves were still affected by the gas to some degree. Another problem is finding a method of deployment that can deliver a lethal dose to a sufficiently large number of people.

As one commentator puts it: ‘If the objective was to create a reputation, a panic and the arrest and conviction of all its leaders, the cult’s attack was a ripping success. If the aim was to kill a lot of people while eluding detection it failed. Eleven containers of poison, approximately one death per volume, does not qualify as a weapon of mass destruction. Vests of dynamite do more damage.’ (6)

The chances of other groups pulling off a similar gas attack are small. Aum Shinrikyo members had everything you might need for a ‘successful’ gas attack: they were operating in their own country, a highly-industrialised nation; they were wealthy, with millions of pounds at their disposal for the purchase of equipment (bizarrely, they also had a chain of cut-price computer shops across Japan…) (7); and they had a high degree of technical know-how.

According to David Tucker of America’s Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs: ‘Aum was fanatical and well financed and better staffed with good scientific talent than any other terrorist group has been. Yet, it still had little to show for its efforts to develop the kind of mass casualty weapon we hear so much about now.’

Tucker continues: ‘In fact, Aum turned to gas after failing to make effective weapons out of botulinum and anthrax. It actually spread some of these agents but they failed to work. The case of Aum shows how difficult to overcome are the technological barriers to the development of mass casualty weapons.’ (8)

Sarin and cyanide are poisonous substances in the right doses, but that doesn’t make them effective weapons. But they do play on our sense of powerlessness and squeamishness – and it seems to be this, rather than any real threat, that guarantees their place in the headlines.

Read on:

Poison gas and hot air, by Brendan O’Neill

(1) MI5 foils poison-gas attack on the Tube Sunday Times, 17 November 2002 [registration required]

(2) What did Aum Shinrikyo have in mind? by Ian Hacking, London Review of Books, 19 October 2000

(3) Gas peddled by George Smith, Village Voice, 3 October 2002

(4) What is sarin gas? Rainbow Pediatrics Knowledgebase

(5) What did Aum Shinrikyo have in mind? by Ian Hacking, London Review of Books, 19 October 2000

(6) Gas peddled by George Smith, Village Voice, 3 October 2002

(7) It gassed the Tokyo subway, microwaved its enemies and tortured its members. So why is the Aum cult thriving?, Guardian, 15 July 1999

(8) Terror, terror, everywhere by David Tucker, Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs, February 2000

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Topics Politics


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