Friday, June 2, 2017

Well, that's not a typical path

Via Haaretz's Dov Alfon, a French media interview with a Syrian chemist who was working on making nerve agents:
One of the people Mediapart interviewed served as the director of Department 3000’s research section until the civil war began. He was recruited out of high school due to his high marks in science in general and chemistry in particular. He was then sent to college and graduate school, first in Syria and then in the West, while also attending army courses meant to increase his motivation to produce large quantities of chemical weapons. 
So far as I understand, scientists that work in the United States defense industries are not usually pre-selected from high school, although I am sure there are various defense-oriented internships that are used as long-term recruiting tools. It'd be interesting to know what other countries do for scientists in similar positions; something tells me that they don't start in high school.

(Also, I wonder when this fellow came to the West and what he told his grad school colleagues what his long-term job would be?) 


  1. He may have told grad school colleagues he was going to manage the manufacture of pest control chemicals. His lawyer may have to him to be able to say "I was only obeying orders" in five languages.

  2. Confirmation of the Sarin/DFP/hexamine formulation is satisfying for nerve agent nerds and Syria watchers. We've been gleaning details about the regime's manufacturing process and chemical ordnance on the basis of evidence from the attack sites, documented in reports from the OPCW*. Some residues were obvious decomposition products and side products from Sarin. Other residues (hexafluorophosphate, triisopropyl phosphate) betray insight into the manufacturing process. It appears that the CERS process uses PCl5 to chlorinate dimethyl methylphosphonate. The resulting mixture, containing phosphorus oxychloride byproduct, is used without further purification for the remainder of the manufacturing process.

    Hexamine has been especially interesting for the ire and vitriol it provoked from trolls in 2013. It's certainly the most politically charged amine base out there. Try it out in your next esterification. Let me know how it goes. A good discussion is at Bellingcat: This article was linked by chemjobber some years ago and has been updated in the wake of the Khan Sheikhoun incident.

    In any case, what the Russian foreign ministry described as impure "kitchen Sarin" in 2013 (and thus exculpatory evidence for the regime) seems to be idiosyncratic of the regime formulation described by this Syrian chemist.

    *See ;


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