U.S. law enforcement and intelligence personnel anticipate a major chemical attack against the United States in the near future. STRATFOR evaluates sarin, one of the more likely agents an attacker might use.
Sarin might be an effective battlefield chemical weapon, but questions of dispersal and access limit its effectiveness as a broad-scale terrorist weapon. In more isolated use, sarin can be deadly. Unlike chemicals such as ammonia that could be used in an attack, sarin was explicitly designed as a weapon. That gives it a number of advantages (and disadvantages) over other chemicals. On the positive side (from the point of view of the attackers) sarin was engineered for maximum damage. Sarin liquid quickly vaporizes once released into a colorless, odorless and tasteless nerve agent that disrupts the nervous system, causing paralysis and death. It also tends to cling to clothing for as long as an hour, potentially allowing contamination to spread. A leading problem with sarin — and indeed with all chemical vapors — is that they are at the mercy of wind conditions at the target site. The wind can quickly disperse chemical agents before they cause much damage. Introducing sarin into such contained surroundings is far more effective — as the Japanese apocalyptic cult Aum Shinrikyo discovered in 1995 when they released sarin in the Tokyo subway resulting in the deaths of 12 and hospitalization of 5,000. While such a strategy might result in higher efficacy of the sarin, it limits the casualty count to the number of people in the subway at the time. The second problem sarin poses is much more basic. It has no industrial use, so there are no lightly guarded stocks to steal or hijack. The sarin that is stored in the United States is kept under lock-and-key in government chemical weapons stockpiles, which are in the process of being steadily destroyed. Even those stockpiles are more than a decade old, and since the U.S. government has placed no priority on their maintenance, their efficacy is in doubt. Unlike many chemical weapons, sarin can be easily synthesized: Its precursor materials are readily available and legal. All that is needed is some advanced chemistry expertise and a reasonably sophisticated laboratory. Any sarin that could be released in the United States most likely would be homemade. That means its dispersal method would be similarly jerry-rigged. Like many organic compounds, sarin degrades in the presence of heat, so an explosion would destroy as much of the material as it would spread. Militaries get around this by saturating their opponents with dozens of sarin-filled artillery rounds that burst over the battlefield. This is not an option for militants intending to inflict civilian casualties. They lack the equipment, technology and operational freedom to launch such attacks. That will likely limit militants' use of sarin to attacks reminiscent of the 1995 Tokyo subway attack, in which they could make the most of sarin's strengths and mitigate its drawbacks.