Wednesday, July 12, 2006

IMPROVISED CYANIDE MUNITION (continued): Jihadist drawing - complete with error

Continuing the interest, perhaps misplaced, in Ron Suskind's story of the Mubtakkar -- the improvised cyanide-making munition that was the terror equivalent of "splitting the atom" -- another terror-hunter has furnished a diagram.

Can you spot the mistake? A certified NoPrize if you do.
The diagram to the left, was spotted here in a discussion that likens it to Suskind's book and story for TIME magazine. As published there, and in another article on the site from February of this year, it contains an error. While the error isn't apparent to people not familiar with basic chemistry, it's glaring to those who are.

But before Dick Destiny blog gets to it, we'll discuss the basic thrust, and give you some time to spot the mistake before giving the game away.

This diagram is not like Suskind's much-publicized Mubtakkar. The Pulitzer-winner did not know the basic science involved and so described its design very poorly. But he did define it as a two-compound munition, even blutzing that bit on National Public Radio's Fresh Air, saying one of its reagents was "sodium chloride" -- simple table salt. However, the diagram at left is virtually identical to the photograph of the Department of Homeland Security prototype -- a three compound design -- distributed nationwide in cyberspace and discussed in "Improvised Cyanide Munition." (We've included the photo again at the foot of this entry.)

This raises the legitimate question: Which came first? And this is a very important question.

In other words, is the "jihadist" diagram from 2006 inspired, and this calls for repeating -- is it inspired -- from the photograph and description of a Department of Homeland Security-made prototype in 2003, or is it an original? It's a good question because this blog has shown repeatedly how jihadists are imitative and inspired to take their cues in biological and chemical warfare recipes, whether accurate or nonsensical, from US literature and news.

In manner of comparison, the US-government made cyanide-bomb prototype, as a photo and accompanying explanation, is superior to the simpler jihadist diagram of what is exactly the same weapon. The DHS-prototype used four Coke bottles bound together with tape. So does the jihadist diagram. The US-made prototype uses the hydrochloric acid in the bottles, packed into a canister filled with a mixture of the cyanide salt and potassium permanganate. So does the jihadist diagram.

In any case, on to the ERROR in the jihadist diagram. Look at the translation: "A metal cylinder containing 4 Coca Cola bottles (each filled with 250 mg of hydrochloric acid . . . " the 'mg' is scientific shorthand for milligrams and it's the mistake. Why precisely this is a laugher is left to the reader, but suffice it to say, it has to do with amounts needed to sustain a noticeable strong acid/cyanide salt reaction.

Of course, it would be interesting to know where the error originated -- from the translator of the diagram, or its jihadist creator? If the former, the translator/proofreader/explainer/analyst is operating from a knowledge deficit. If the latter, it shows some of the same ineptitude displayed by jihadist authors of chemical and biological weapons recipes discussed previously.

One could also reason that if it's the latter, the mistake of the jihadist, it argues for the improvised cyanide munition's origin again as a western, or more precisely -- an American design, since someone who actually knew something about chemistry -- like the someone who put together the prototype of the cyanide-bomb (pictured below) for the US government -- would have been less likely to have made the blooper.

In any case, the munition as pictured has all the same drawbacks as the Department of Homeland Security's munition. It's a bomb in which the canister would likely burst and scatter its chemicals, or consume amounts of the desired product -- hydrogen cyanide, if much was produced at all.

"What you would get, in all probability, is a big bang, a big splash, but very little gas," said arms control expert Milton Leitenberg of Suskind's original Mubtakkar, in this debunking story, published by United Press International, here.

The design, as prototyped by the Department of Homeland Security, would be somewhat more explosive and less efficient, because of competition between chemicals, than whatever was described by reporter Ron Suskind. As pictured, it contains potassium permanganate, hydrochloric acid and a cyanide salt. And the permanganate would react violently with hydrochloric acid, producing some chlorine gas. Since the hydrochloric acid is also necessary for the generation of hydrogen cyanide during reaction with the cyanide salt, one can deduce that a competition between reagents must occur within the weapon, reducing its efficiency in producing hydrogen cyanide, which is presumably the desired payload.

The DHS-authored bulletin does not mention potassium permanganate specifically, but does contain a reference to dark crystals. It shows one jar filled with them, and mentions the device would possibly produce chlorine. And therefore it can be inferred that the author of the US government bulletin, while not wishing to name all the reagents in its prototyped cyanide bomb, had made it apparent to observers, anyway.

In any case, none of these designs are the terror equivalent of the "splitting of the atom" as claimed by Suskind. In any case, no such devices have as yet been recovered.

The astute reader may ask the question: Why all this folderol? If the jihadists are suicide attackers, why do they simply not manually and more efficiently try mixing hydrochloric acid from a couple Coke bottles and a jar of potassium or sodium cyanide? The answer may or may not be plain. If you're going that far, it's simpler to use a regular improvised bomb, like the kind blowing up each day in Iraq.

Update: Who designed the cyanide bomb, an answer


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