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Disturbing scenes of death show capability with chemical gas

One of the tapes obtained by CNN shows the killing of three dogs with poison gas.
One of the tapes obtained by CNN shows the killing of three dogs with poison gas.  

From Nic Robertson

ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) Possibly the saddest and scariest tape of all those included in the archive of 64 al Qaeda tapes obtained by CNN is the one that shows the killing of three dogs.

Coalition intelligence sources who have examined this tape said it appears to be an al Qaeda experiment with lethal chemicals at the terrorist group's former Darunta camp in remote Afghanistan. The coalition sources said no intelligence agency is believed to have seen such poison-gas experiments before this tape, which is part of a large archive that sheds new light on Osama bin Laden's terror network, with images of lessons on making explosives, terrorist training tactics and previously unseen images of bin Laden and his top aides. (Full story)

The disturbing tape begins with several men, some wearing Afghan style sandals, rushing from a room, shouting to each other to hurry. A dog is left behind in the enclosure, and after the men leave, a white liquid that gives off a gas is seen seeping from the left. The men's identity is never revealed.

Soon, the dog begins reacting to the gas, licking his lips in a sign of increased salivation a sign, say some of the experts who were shown the tape by CNN, of a nerve agent.

"The first impression I had is that it's a test or a demonstration of a very powerful and quick-acting chemical that behaves like a nerve agent...such as sarin, which was used in the Tokyo subway terrorist attacks in the 1990s," said John Gilbert, a chemical weapons specialist for Science Applications International Corporation who advises the U.S. government.

David Kay, formerly a United Nations weapons inspector in Iraq, watched the tapes along with Gilbert. For Kay, the tapes raise the specter of weapons of mass destruction.

"It's a powerful segment of tape, first of all, and the emotional response to seeing it is there," Kay said, adding that his second reaction was one of "horror". "Here again is another group that has managed to open the door to serious WMD capability."

Kay said he was convinced "above a reasonable doubt" that the gas on the tape is a nerve agent, possibly an improvised nerve agent or possibly sarin.

Al Qaeda documents examined by CNN last fall in the bombed out ruins of the Darunta camp showed chemical formulas for sarin. Other documents connect the Darunta camp, a series of mud and stone buildings, to chemical testing.

"You're looking at the classical symptoms that the dog demonstrates," Kay said, such as the loss of muscle control, leading to the loss of the ability to breathe and then to death.

A senior Bush administration official, who was shown the tape by CNN, said he was "very troubled" by the implications. The official, who has knowledge of chemical weapons issues, said the video of the chemical tests on the dogs suggest a very strong desire to acquire the capability to use such weapons "obviously against humans."

"This tape," said the official, "is unquestionable documentation that he [bin Laden] has some capability."

Until now, he said, he had seen nothing that indicated bin Laden or al Qaeda had chemical weapons capability.

CNN also asked Jonathan Tucker, a chemical and bio-weapons specialist from the Monterey Institute, to examine the tape. He, too, said he was shocked by what he saw. But Tucker believes that the dog's reaction to the gas indicate a form of cyanide, not a nerve agent.

"We saw visible fumes from the material that you would not see from a nerve agent, but it is consistent with production of crude hydrogen cyanide gas," Tucker said, adding that it appears to be a very crude binary weapon that terrorists would be attracted to because it is low-tech and safe to use.

Frederick Sidell, another expert consulted by CNN who is retired from the U.S. Army's Medical Research Institute of Chemical Defense, said evaluation of the chemical is very difficult.

"The most common medical agent is something called mustard, which is a blister agent. And it's certainly not that," he said, adding that it also did not seem to him to be a nerve agent or cyanide.

Bombed-out ruins of the Darunta training camp, where experts believe al Qaeda tested lethal chemicals.
Bombed-out ruins of the Darunta training camp, where experts believe al Qaeda tested lethal chemicals.  

Whatever the substance may be, the implication of the laboratory tests was unmistakable for the experts consulted by CNN.

"The implication is that al Qaeda, or another terrorist group, could create a number of different ways of attacking people, for example, in an enclosed area, such as an airport lobby, or in a theater or a train or a bus," Gilbert said. "Another is that it could be used against individuals selectively, who are targeted for assassination."

Gilbert said the tape is highly significant. "I know there's been a lot of speculation about the state of technology, and how far they may have advanced toward having a usable chemical weapon," he said. "The fact that they were able to repeat tests or demonstrations on this tape indicates that they clearly have a way to produce a predictably lethal chemical."

Still, the tapes hide as much as they reveal.

"Only in one instance do you actually see the liquid, which appears to be either poured or pumped out, going out," Kay said. "You don't see it the rest of the time. So, you really don't know at what level they are in terms of weaponizing it.

"There are a lot more questions this tape leaves than answers, unfortunately," he said. "Well, the questions are really bad questions."




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