Tuesday, June 27, 2006

IMPROVISED CYANIDE MUNITION: Prototype by government agency

In the original blog entry on the Mubtakkar of Death, it was mentioned that many could design, with little effort, a plan or mock-up of a cyanide-producing machine. Indeed, poison gas-producing shells and contraptions are present in the literary favorites of the domestic terrorist. The book, Silent Death (Festering Publications, 1997), for example, contains a few plans for them. However, whether they would work as advertised entails another set of questions entirely. (And why should anyone waste time correcting the errors of omission and commission in these sorry excuses for books, anway?)

Today, what is presented below is a picture of an improvised cyanide bomb, circulated in a memo from the North Dakota Department of Health Health Alert Network in September of 2003. The NDDH cites the information as a relay from the Department of Homeland Security, citing a possible terrorist threat and the ease with which the device can be made. It does not resemble the Mubtakkar of Death as described by Ron Suskind here.

Presumably put together by government agency for purposes of show and tell (the document isn't clear on this matter,) the photograph shows a large paint canister with holes drilled in it, soda bottles containing a chemical -- probably hydrochloric acid for the case of cyanide gas production -- and two glass jars, one with a white crystalline material -- a salt of cyanide for the sake of the discussion, and one containing an explosive. A detonator is also included. [The third compound is described in the follow-on story, linked at the foot of this entry.]

Without going into a great deal of technical detail, the immediate limitations or drawbacks of it are these: (1) It's not particularly concealable; and (2) it purports to produce a contained explosion which serves to initiate the chemical production of cyanide gas without rupturing the larger canister which is the improvised outer casing.

A number of things could happen, some of them working against the production of significant amounts of a poison gas. These could be but are not limited to -- the bursting of the canister and the scattering of its chemicals (in which case, shrapnel would be a bigger hazard), the ignition and consumption of amounts of the desired product, and an entire variety of efficiencies in production of gas from hopeless failure to more optimistic yields, depending on a significant number of variables.

Attributed to DHS
" . . . gas readily dissipates," reads the memo. "[T]herefore it would need to be generated quickly to avoid lethal levels . . . " And this is one detail which influenced the Japanese and US military in their production of cyanide munitions during the World War II period. They chose large bombs because of the difficulties in achieving lethal concentrations of gas under ambient conditions. The US government's improvised device from 2003 is not a 500 or 1,000 pound, or even one three hundred-pound cyanide bomb.

That said, it might do something. And if it produced even small quantities of cyanide gas, the news and impact of such an actual thing in action would probably be substantial.

The reader should also be aware that the actual design pictured could might as well have been in response to a domestic "terror" case. In April of 2003, the FBI had raided a storage unit in Texas owned by a dangerous gun nut, William Joseph Krar. Krar was said to have built an improvised cyanide munition from a military ammunition box, about two pounds of sodium cyanide, and two vials of hydrochloric acid. By November of 2003, he had copped to one plea of possession of a chemical weapon. (Reynolds, The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Nov/Dec 2004.)

The alert reader will also notice that neither descriptions for the Mubtakkar of Death and the Krar device fit the government-made cyanide munition. And none of these, of course, are the equivalent of "the splitting of the atom" in the world of terrorist chemistry.

Continued Update: Improvised Cyanide Munition, II: Translated jihadist plan (with error), identical in design to Department of Homeland Security physical prototype. Which came first?

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