Are Chemical Assassinations in Vogue?

Stimson Spotlight

Are Chemical Assassinations in Vogue?

Are Chemical Assassinations in Vogue?

On 4 March 2018, Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were taken to hospital after they were found slumped and unresponsive on a bench in Salisbury, England. Three days later, Scotland Yard confirmed the event was “a major incident involving attempted murder by the administration of a nerve agent.” The two, along with a police officer who was one of first responders on the scene, remain in serious condition. The incident comes a year after Kim Jong-nam, the half-brother of North Korea’s leader died from VX after an attack at Kuala Lumpur airport. Are chemical assassinations in vogue?

What are Nerve Agents?

Nerve agents belong chemically to the group of organo-phosphorus compounds which are among the most lethal of chemical weapons (CW). As the name suggests, nerve agents attack the nervous system, leaving victims disoriented, gasping for air, losing control of bladder and bowels, vomiting with convulsions, muscular paralysis and cardiorespiratory failure. At high doses, the process accelerates, leaving no time for early symptoms to develop.

In general, nerve agents are stable, easily dispersible, and highly toxic with swift effects (whether inhaled, ingested or absorbed through the skin). There are a variety of kinds: soman, sarin, tabun, and cyclohexyl methylphosphonofluoridate (GF) and O-ethyl S-diisopropylaminomethyl methylphosphonothiolate, better known as VX. There are numerous other variants and compounds that also attack the nervous system with their volatility varying widely. Sarin for example is an easily volatile liquid, soluble in water whereas VX is persistent with adhesive properties, meaning it lingers and sticks to surfaces. The persistence of compounds in between can be elevated by adding a thickener. Depending on the dosage, symptoms show up within minutes and upwards of 18-24 hours after contact.

A number of nerve agents fall into the classification of ‘Schedule 1’ chemicals under the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), meaning they have been or can easily be used as a chemical weapon and have very limited or no civilian purposes – and therefore are heavily controlled. Some Schedule 1 chemicals are used in pharmaceutical preparations or diagnostics. The chemical saxitoxin (a neurotoxin that can damage the nervous system but not a nerve agent) is used as a calibration standard in monitoring for paralytic shellfish poisoning and in neurological research. They can also be produced and used for protective purposes, such as for testing protective equipment and detection.

States party to the CWC are not allowed to produce more than one metric ton annually of these chemicals and must report Schedule 1 transfers (only allowed for research, medical, pharmaceutical or protective purposes) to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). In the U.K., the 1996 Chemical Weapons Act places legal requirements on all entities or individuals that work with such toxic chemicals.

Many other chemicals related to nerve agent precursors fall into the Schedule 2 class. For example, dimethyl methylphosphonate (DMMP) is used as a flame retardant in textiles and foamed plastic products, but also related to specific nerve agent precursors. Schedule 2 chemicals can only be transferred between States Parties.

The OPCW states that nerve agents can be manufactured by means of fairly simple chemical techniques and that the raw materials are inexpensive and generally readily available. So is the science. The world produced at least 600,000 metric tons of chemical weapons during the 20th century, including choking agents (such as chlorine), blistering agents (such as mustard agents), and nerve agents. States know how to make them and individuals capable of chemical synthesis could carry out recipes readily available in scientific papers.

Brazen and Public[1]

The attempted murder of the Skripals follow the same pattern as other political assassinations: done very publicly, during broad daylight and involving chemical or (more recently) radiological agents. One of the most legendary is the 1978 death of Georgi Markov, a Bulgarian defector and BBC journalist, who died after being pricked by an umbrella tip loaded with a ricin pellet while waiting for a morning bus on London’s Waterloo Bridge. Twenty-eight years later, also in London, former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko died from acute radiation poisoning after sipping tea laced with polonium-210 at a hotel. Last year, the half-brother of North Korea’s leader died en route to the hospital after complaining that two women had rubbed chemicals into his face at Kuala Lumpur airport. Ten days later, the Malaysian police identified the substance as a chemical weapon, specifically the nerve agent VX.

Although political assassinations carry similar characteristics in their brazenness, the Malaysia case (currently being tried in court) would be the first one publicly known to employ a nerve agent for a state-sponsored assassination. It however would not be the first use by a non-state actor to carry out theirs. In 1994 and 1995, the apocalyptic cult, Aum Shinrikyo, carried out a series of successful (and failed) VX attacks in Japan. One individual was killed; two others were injured but survived. More well-known, and successful, is the attack carried out by cult members on the Tokyo subway system on March 20, 1995, releasing sarin on train cars killing thirteen people and causing an estimated six thousand to seek medical attention.

Banned but Used

The Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) entered into force in 1997, formally banning the use, possession, manufacture and transfer of chemical weapons. Afterwards the world would enter its longest reprieve from their use in conflict since WWI. In 2013, this ‘chemical peace’ was broken by the confirmed use of sarin on a relatively large scale in the Ghouta area of Damascus in Syria. Two years later, after numerous allegations, investigations and confirmations followed by U.N. Security Council (UNSC) resolutions stressing those responsible should be held accountable, the UNSC unanimously called for an official inquiry to identify whodunit.

The OPCW-UN Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) identified the Assad regime as responsible for chemical attacks in Syria and Islamic State militants responsible for the use of mustard gas in Syria and against Kurdish forces in Iraq. Coupled with the use of VX in Malaysia last year and now a chemical attack using nerve agent in the U.K., the threat of chemical weapons not only endures in the 21st century, but is spreading. At the same time, chemical diplomacy is at an all-time low. The UNSC failed to extend the mandate of the JIM last fall. The U.S., France and U.K. wanted to renew the JIM for another term while Russia claimed the methodology was flawed and had to be revised if continued, maintaining the Assad regime was innocent. Neither side budged. It seems the chemical peace is not just broken; it is shattered.

More details are needed in the U.K. incident before fingers can be pointed. Such investigations are methodical, requiring tireless tracing, tracking and triangulating of data whether from the lab, the field, witnesses, or other sources of information. The UK can also consult and cooperate directly, or through the OPCW, with other CWC States Parties and the OPCW on matters related to the Convention, including alleged use of chemical weapons. As concluded in a similar post a year ago, the involvement of the OPCW in any case involving the use of chemical weapons is vital. This is not only because of the likelihood that CW agents crossed international borders, but also because, if there is to be no impunity for perpetrators of chemical attacks, international procedures of investigation should be the standard practice in addressing the alleged use of chemical weapons.


Cindy Vestergaard is the Director of Stimson’s Nuclear Safeguards Program.

[1] Part of this section is taken from the piece ‘Chemical Assassination: The Role of International Organizations’