By Cory Phare
The unorthodox murder of Kim Jong-nam has brought the specters of chemical- and biological-based terrorism back into contemporary conversation. According to numerous reports, Kim was at a Malaysian airport when two women approached him from behind and covered his face with a cloth soaked in what’s believed to be VX nerve agent.
It might sound like a Bond-villain tactic, but according to Jennifer Bradford, Ph.D., associate professor of criminal justice and criminology, the nature of the attack fits the character and modus operandi of the despotic North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un.
“These kinds of assassinations are meant to be destabilizing; they attempt to upset the established view of what makes sense to humanity,” Bradford said. “We’ve seen these kinds of tactics from [him] before.”
The use of chemical and biological agents for nefarious purposes is far from new, according to Sheryl Zajdowicz, Ph.D., associate professor of biology.
“There are examples stretching across the millennia,” she said. “People might think about the Monty Python skit where cows are catapulted over a castle wall, but tossing corpses and blankets harboring deadly diseases into a community were real tactics used historically.”
Recent history has seen several high-profile cases of weaponized poisoning. In the “Bulgarian Umbrella” case, the specific compound was ricin, a waste byproduct of castor beans. Georgi Markov was a dissident within a communist regime; he was assassinated when secret police with suspected KGB ties fired a bullet laced with the ricin compound from a modified umbrella into his leg while walking across London’s River Thames.
Another London-based poisoning with suspected Russian ties was that of former Soviet intelligence officer Alexander Litvinenko. While at the Millennium Hotel’s Pine Bar, two operatives sprayed polonium-210, a radioactive molecule, into his green tea. Less than a month later, he was dead.
Zajdowicz said the delivery of highly lethal chemical agents, like VX, will frequently be via a weapon that has storage for the separation of two compounds (non-lethal by themselves). This typically allows for safe handling. The two compounds are usually combined inside the weapon to generate the toxic binary-generated VX agent prior to dispersal. In the Kim Jong-nam case, it is unclear how the deadly compound was generated or how the women were unharmed in the process – although news reports have speculated possible scenarios.
When administered, VX’s lethal dose of 10 mg is extremely small, but causes death from contact with the victim’s skin by inhalation or ingestion. Once in the body, it disrupts an enzyme called acetylcholinesterase, responsible for muscle stimulation release, resulting in continued muscle contraction.
The result isn’t pretty: an erratic heartbeat, lung failure and a nasty death.
And even though VX has an antidote and a topical application may be mitigated by rinsing it off, it becomes lethal when it’s not detected.
Said Zajdowicz, “It’s odorless and tasteless – so who’s going to suspect it?”
Not suspecting its presence is also due to few incidents, and access to the compounds used to carry them out is extremely limited.
Bradford indicated that it’s important for the public to keep a measured reaction relative to actual threat.
“The nature of these attacks are so rare, and the approach to combatting them really isn’t different from any other kind of terrorism,” she said.
She credits the effective policing of general terror attacks in our country to three main elements: the geographic location and isolation of U.S. territory, which is prohibitively challenging logistically for carrying out an attack; the numerous discoveries of onerous plots from routine patrols and enforcement; and the contributions of alerted citizens (as in the “See Something, Say Something” campaign.
Fanned by media reports, the real disruption comes from perceived threat as opposed to genuine scope. And, although bioterror and chemical attacks do occur, their impact is far more likely to be from exposure to sensationalized plot constructs in award-winning suspense novels than actuality.
As Bradford noted, it’s like they’re following a script.
“These incidents of poisoning leaders, communist country leaders in particular, play into the stereotype of eliminating one’s enemy,” she said. “They’re taking out a specific target and not the general population.”
“It’s almost like spy craft from a James Bond movie,” she added.
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