How easy is it to make sarin?

“It’s not hard to make sarin. You could mix it in the backyard. Two chemicals melded together.”Seymour Hersh interviewed on CNN, December 9, 2013.

The idea that the chemical warfare agent, sarin, is easy to make is central to Seymour Hersh’s claim that the August 21 attacks killing hundreds of Syrians could have been carried out by the rebel group, the Al Nusra Front. (With unquestioning confidence in the reliability of his source(s), Hersh rests this claim on classified intelligence reports none of which he claims to have seen.)

Hersh’s backyard sarin production appears to be concocted from fiction. The only non-state actor known to have engaged in large-scale sarin production was the Japanese cult, Aum Shinrikyo. They invested $30 million in this endeavor which included the creation of a production facility.

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.

Dan Kaszeta, a former officer in the U.S. Army Chemical Corps and former member of the U.S. Secret Service, estimates that the August attack would have required one ton of sarin — far more than Aum Shinrikyo was able to produce even with their dedicated facility.

Hersh says “there’s two inert substances” used for producing sarin. But Kaszeta points out that the precursors are neither easy to obtain nor inert. Methylphosphonyl difluoride is both reactive and corrosive and as a Schedule 1 substance under the Chemical Weapons Convention, is tightly controlled.

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.

Amy E. Smithson, a researcher on chemical and biological weapons at the Henry L. Stimson Center in Washington, who investigated the Aum Shinrikyo attacks in Japan emphasized that in assessing the capacity of non-state actors to use chemical weapons there is a huge gulf between the “theoretical possibility” and the “operational reality.” And keep in mind that Aum Shinrikyo was operating in the tranquility of peacetime Japan — it’s obstacles were all technical with none from the battlefield.

“By almost any standard, Aum was a terrorist nightmare – a cult flush with money and technical skills led by a con-man guru with an apocalyptic vision, an obsession with chemical and biological weaponry, and no qualms about killing,” Smithson writes.

But by almost any standard, Aum Shinrikyo’s chemical weapons program, and an earlier attempt to develop biological agents, failed to produce anything close to the killing power the group desired.

The cult started off by trying to simply acquire chemical weapons from a rogue U.S. operation peddling nerve gas on the black market – but found itself dealing with a front for the U.S. Customs Service.

For terrorists, the lesson here is plain: Worldwide law enforcement and intelligence agencies represent no small obstacle.

When Aum Shinrikyo then turned to producing its own stockpiles of chemicals in 1993, it soon ran into complex problems involved in dispersing nerve gas in ways that kill lots of people.

“Weaponizing” chemical agents requires munitions that disperse the substances in droplets, which can kill on skin contact, or vapor, which can be lethal if inhaled. But most explosive devices within the technological reach of terrorists would either destroy most of the chemical agents upon detonation or fail to effectively disperse them.

Spraying also can effectively disperse chemical agents. But most experts believe that 90 percent of any agent sprayed outdoors will not reach its intended targets in lethal form, given the vagaries of temperature, sunlight, wind and rain. Pumping chemical or biological agents into a building’s indoor ventilation system is no easy task either, requiring detailed knowledge of how air is distributed from floor to floor.

In Aum Shinrikyo’s first attempt to attack a rival group by spraying sarin gas from a moving van, Smithson notes, “the sprayer completely malfunctioned and sprayed backwards.” The second attempt ended up exposing the group’s security chief to the toxic nerve agent.

When the cult finally executed its climactic subway attack, its dispersal method of choice was poking holes in plastic bags with sharpened umbrella points. Noxious fumes then seeped from the bags into the subway cars.

The resulting chaos and death shocked the world. “Rescue crews found pandemonium, with scores of commuters stumbling about, vision-impaired and struggling to breathe,” Smithson writes. “Casualties littered the sidewalks and subway station exits. Some foaming at the mouth, some vomiting and others prone and convulsing.”

But in the final analysis, she notes, 85 percent of the 5,510 people treated at Tokyo hospitals and clinics were simply worried, not harmed. Twelve ultimately died from sarin exposure, about 40 others were seriously injured, and slightly less than 1,000 were “moderately ill.”

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  1. Ernie Urvater says:

    It is curious that Hersch, who in the past has been quite reliable, should have stumbled so badly on this. Perhaps he was set up. I’m surprised. I’ll be curious to see how he responds to these posts.

  2. Louis Proyect says:

    Paul, HUGE thanks for this.

  3. You forget to mention that Al Nusra is supported, funded and supplied by the Saudis and Qatar. For them, even $300M is chump change. Access to chemicals? What evidence is there that the Saudis and Qatar don’t have access to the chemical?

  4. Louis – you’re welcome.

    What’s frustrating in a situation like this is that when interviewed in the media, Hersh can blithely make statements like this — about the ease with which sarin can be made — and since neither Jake Tapper, Amy Goodman, or anyone interviewing him, knows the first thing about chemical weapons, his claim is treated as an unchallenged fact. Moreover, he is generally conferred the star treatment of being interviewed solo rather than sitting alongside another interviewee who might have the required expertise to counter his claims.

    Most viewers, naturally respecting the authority of the “Pulitzer-Prize winning investigative journalist,” will think they just learned something and then conversations in the circles of people who regard themselves as politically informed will become peppered with remarks along the lines, “of course, you know anyone can make sarin…” and thus the myth gets propagated.

    The irony is that virtually everyone now has access to the internet (and I assume that includes Hersh ;)) and so anyone who wants to take the trouble and isn’t paranoid about getting investigated by the FBI due to typing “sarin” into Google, can investigate these questions for themselves. Unfortunately though, few people are willing to make the effort. They’d rather have their “knowledge” spoon-fed to them by the likes of Hersh.

  5. Al Nusra is supported by al Qaeda and anyone who has been half awake over the last decade should be aware that al Qaeda is a sworn enemy of the Saudi state — but let’s just for the sake of argument assume that al Nusra has access to unlimited funds from somewhere. The challenges to construct a chemical weapons production facility inside Syria are not limited to capital investment — there’s a war going on.

    To all those who insist on rummaging around in support of the theory that the chemical attacks were not carried out by the Assad regime, I would encourage you to think about how you are thinking.

    There are a multitude of parallels to this mindset where in spite of a preponderance of hard evidence pointing to one conclusion, a number of self-described skeptics support an alternative conclusion. Climate-change deniers would be the most obvious example.

    It’s almost four months since the attacks and if compelling evidence existed that the perpetrators were outside the regime, the Syrian government and their allies should by this time have been able to present their case. This has not happened. Indeed, we now know that as soon as the attacks occurred, it was Hezbollah, Iran, and Russia who immediately told Assad that his use of chemical weapons was a strategic blunder.

  6. Thanks for a good article. Of the chattering classes dissecting this issue, I’m the only one I know of who has actually handled Sarin and spent weeks debriefing guys who used to make the stuff back in the 1950s.

  7. Dan – glad you like the article. And I myself must thank a senior fellow at the Century Foundation for alerting me to your work.

  8. Steve Zerger says:

    It seems like with the latest UN report, this wearying debate may have finally reached a tentative conclusion of sorts: Anyone who thinks that chemical weapons might be useful on a battlefield is a fool. You’re about as likely to gas yourself.

  9. “You forget to mention that Al Nusra is supported, funded and supplied by the Saudis and Qatar”. You forgot to provide a shred of evidence for such an assertion which flies in the face of both all known evidence and all logic. With that the rest of you statement has no meaning.