DHS: beware stink-bomb touting terrorists
'Chemicals of interest' list smells fishy
Unusual paranoia over chemical attack in the US takes many forms. It can be seen in a recent piece of trouble from the Department of Homeland Security, a long list of "chemicals of interest" it wishes to require all university settings to inventory.
"Academic institutions across the country claim they will have to spend countless hours and scarce resources on documenting very small amounts of chemicals in many different labs that are scattered across sometimes sprawling campuses," reported a recent Chemical & Engineering News, the publication of the American Chemical Society.
"For 104 chemicals on the list, the threshold is 'any amount.'"
An update to address university workload concerns is said to be scheduled for "early to mid-June."
However, before that happens, let's take a peek at the list.
If one has a little bit of background in chemical weapons synthesis, one can see DHS is possessed by the idea that terrorists might storm into universities and plunder chem labs for precursors to nerve gases.
Isopropyl methyl phosphonochloridate is to be inventoried in any amount. Although not specified, it is one potential ingredient on the road to sarin synthesis.
Zooming in on the list for its specific entry, a quick look up and down a few rungs shows a cluster of similar compounds, all of which are earmarked at "any amount" for the same reasons.
While some of it seems OK, there is some interior nagging that this is not entirely the case.
The combination of unusual organic precursors into nerve gases, for instance, is not nearly as easy to do as is generally thought by counter-terror experts.
Triethanolamine, also flagged at "any amount," can be used to produce mustard gas. However, it's also used commercially in detergents and many other products.
Bad air day
Nitric oxide, by way of another example, is of interest to DHS in "any amount." In the simple reaction caused by tossing a penny into a beaker of nitric acid, nitric oxide is formed and immediately combines with atmospheric oxygen to form the toxic red brown gas, nitrogen dioxide. The inclusion of it is simply a head scratcher since the particular activity doesn't really lend itself to the making of a terror weapon. It's more appropriately thought of as a compound that contributes to smog formation. Similarly earmarked is sulfur dioxide, the gas resulting when sulfur is burned. Air pollution, as far as is known, isn't useful to terrorists.
Another compound in the "any amount" catch all is hydrogen sulfide, the toxic gas that smells like rotten eggs.
Functionally, generating "any amounts" of hydrogen sulfide has always been part of an education in chemistry. Believe it or not, there was a time when generation of it was included as a spark to an interest in chemistry in children's store bought chemistry sets.
However, in the past fifteen years we've had the pleasure of publication of a number of poisons for ninnies books, among them Maxwell Hutchkinson's "The Poisoner's Handbook," published by Loompanics in 1988. Much of Hutchkinson was subsequently plagiarized into jihadist documents on chemical terror, among these being Abdel-Aziz's Mujahideen Poisons Handbook, which if found during terror investigations functionally works toward ensuring a stay in the dungeon for owners.
The Mujahideen Poisons Handbook contains an old hydrogen sulfide producing experiment. "It is very dangerous," its author states, not particularly accurately. "It can kill a person in thirty seconds."
Instead of meditating on the naiveté of the uneducated man who has never had a chemistry set, since 9/11 we have instead been plagued by terror assessors who are not chemists, mucking with regulation through the offices of DHS's science directorate.
To make the weirdness of this clear, hydrogen sulfide - like almost everything in the Mujahideen Poisons Handbook, goes back to the materials in The Poisoner's Handbook.
"The manufacture of hydrogen sulfide is [simple]," writes Hutchkinson. "It is created by water coming into contact with phosphorus pentasulfide."
This is actually true, unlike many things in terrorist poison handbooks. On the DHS list, phosphorus pentasulfide is only of interest if a university has a ton of it. Hydrogen sulfide, any amount. Phosphorus pentasulfide, one ton. Looking for logic becomes like trying to pick up spilled mercury.
While the American Chemical Society and universities would not be expected to know any of this, it does noticeably impact policy. On a FEMA (FEMA being part of DHS) website, for instance, we read "Terrorists Planned Deadly Gas Attack On Western Targets."
The standard woeful chemical terror document is cited, although not by name. Hydrogen sulfide, cyanide and narcotics are mentioned. These clues inform that the terrorist document is another child of Hutchkinson. Of special note is the box out quote -"30 ml of the agent can kill 60 million people" which addresses the Islamist terror biochemist's fascination with the toxin that produces botulism.
Jihadists, it has been found, have no idea how to make the toxin. They just like the idea of something that deadly and because the translators of Hutchkinson have said it is easy to do by throwing meat, excrement and dirt in a can, it is almost everywhere in their literature.
Of course, it's just a question of time before terrorists gain the capability to attack with such things, it is written.
Although it wouldn't be clear to the heads of university chemistry departments and other organizations affected by the DHS "chemicals of interest" list, it is somewhat obvious to this writer that the agency's regulations are strongly influenced by people who believe the literature of Hutchkinson and others, translated into Arabic, to be an actual threat.
The practical end result has been bad and universities have issued a loud protest over the list.
For instance, IPC, a trade organization of the electronics industries writes in a letter that the DHS list is "inadequately defined," a rather gentlemanly way of putting it.
In another memo of comment, the ACS also notes the DHS requirement will be "impossible to implement in laboratories" and it will "conflict with the education and research mission of institutions."
The ACS memo cites a few onerous examples from the DHS document, hydrogen sulfide being one of them.
How this will sort out in the next weeks remains to be seen. Initial bets would be on academic science brushing back the Department of Homeland Security.®
George Smith is a Senior Fellow at GlobalSecurity.org, a defense affairs think tank and public information group. At Dick Destiny, he blogs his way through chemical, biological and nuclear terror hysteria, often by way of the contents of neighborhood hardware stores.