Nov 2, 2015

Review of Turkish MPs Allegations

If this is your first time here, I recommend starting from the conclusion page.

Recently two Turkish opposition MPs have claimed their government was avoiding investigating the attempted purchase of chemicals for production of sarin by Al-Nusra operatives. Their claims may be found here and here. Our previous discussion of this case can be found here

They provide no evidence for their claim that ex-minister of Justice, Bekir Bozdag ordered not to prosecute the case, but it is definitely not unlikely given Turkey’s support of the Syrian opposition and the lack of any official reason for closing the case.

They do however provide a transcript of an intercepted phone call from the case. This was so far only published in Turkish, so I ordered a translation, which is provided in the appendix below. The call itself does not provide any significant new information, except for the amounts of chemicals (50kg and 200kg), which were not mentioned before. This is yet another indication that the opposition was involved in sarin production in the scale necessary for the Ghouta attack.

Review of Dan Kaszeta’s analysis

Dan Kaszeta also analyzed these reports on bellingcat. Following is a review of his main claims:

The ‘recipe’ is wrong in several aspects

This claim is based on the assumption that the recipe was obtained from the suspects, which is probably due to Kaszeta’s use of an automatic translation of the article. As can be seen in the actual translation, the recipe was reverse engineered by the Turkish Police from the list of ingredients, and it is not surprising they got some of it wrong.
In fact, the list of ingredients (which is the only actual evidence we have) is an exact match to the trivial sarin production process one could generate by going to ‘sarin’ in Wikipedia, and clicking back through the preparation instructions. This is also nearly exactly the same process used by Aum Shinrikyo, which is publicly available (see appendix here).
So in fact, the list of ingredients is exactly what one would expect in underground sarin production. Especially interesting is the use of basic chemicals like white phosphorous (instead of procuring Dimethyl methylphosphonate directly for example), which is indicative of an organization trying to avoid detection by authorities, and also perfectly matches the impurities found by the UN (more here

Sarin production requires very expensive equipment

This claim was analyzed thoroughly here. The examples Dan gives are for facilities designed for 1) production of thousands of tons of agent, 2) at very high safety standards, and 3) for long-term storage (rather than immediate use). There is no reason to believe the opposition could not manufacture the hundreds of kg needed for the Ghouta attack at a reasonable budget.

Isopropanolamine is an unlikely amine for the last stage in sarin production

This is definitely correct. Isopropylamine is the well-known amine for this purpose. However, given that the other ingredients are a perfect match to the commonly found sarin process (which always uses Isopropylamine), this can be safely attributed to human error at some stage in the chain of reporting. In fact, I myself didn’t notice they declared Isopropanolamine and not Isopropylamine until Dan pointed it out.
Kaszeta also takes the opportunity to repeat the claim that Hexamine was used in the Ghouta sarin, despite the new evidence that Hexamine is not soluble in alcohols, making it ineffective for this purpose. More on Hexamine here.

The amount mentioned (50kg) is too small for the Ghouta attack, which required at least 1 ton

1. As shown here (under “Analysis of Amount of Sarin used“), Dan’s analysis of the amount of sarin used in Ghouta was based on a simple miscalculation. The actual amount is likely a few hundred kg.
2. It would be naive to assume that in the only case where the opposition tried to obtain sarin, they were caught.

Appendix – Translation of Cumhuriyet Article

Sarin Recipe Revealed by Prosecutor!

Eren Erdem, CHP Istanbul Deputy, who recently brought back to headlines the shipment of chemical weapons from Turkey to ISIS, now claims that ex-minister of justice, Bekir Bozdag, has ordered the prosecutor not to investigate ‘Islamic oriented organizations’, causing the MIT to relinquish the case. In the “closed” file, the prosecutor defines in detail the sarin recipe used by the suspects.

CHP Deputy (i.e. Member of Parliament on behalf of the opposition Republican People’s Party) from Istanbul, Eren Erdem, who recently brought back to headlines the shipment of chemical weapons from Turkey to ISIS, has now brought up new claims. He now claims that ex-minister of justice Bekir Bozdag has ordered the prosecutor not to investigate ‘Islamic oriented organizations’, causing MIT (i.e. National Intelligence Service) to relinquish the case. Mr. Erdem said: “MIT referred the case to the Police after legal intervention on the shipment of chemical weapons. Even though the Police stated that ‘they cannot handle such a serious investigation’, MIT still relinquished the case. This is how the shipment to the Jihadist group ISIS was condoned - The delivery was even eased for them.”

Sarin Recipe Revealed by Prosecutor!

Adana Public Prosecutor Mehmet Arikan disclosed the sarin recipe in details in the “closed” file. Arıkan asked Adana Police Criminal Laboratory to analyze the chemicals that were sent to the Jihadists. The prosecutor said that the suspects’ chemical materials are a match to sarin’s production process, and he supports his claim with the following sarin formulas and recipe, which he disclosed in the criminal charges:
  • Methanol (CH3OH) + White Phosphorus(P4) = DMMP (DiMethylMethylPhosphonate)
  • DMMP (DiMethylMethylPhosphonate) + Thionyl Chloride (SOCl2) = MethylPhosphonyldiChloride
  • MethylPhosphonyldiChloride + Potassium Fluoride (KF) = MethylPhosphonyldiFluoride
  • MethylPhosphonyldiFluoride + Isopropanol (C3H8O) = SARIN (C4H10FO2P) + HF
  • Isopropanolamine (C3H9NO) is added to reaction for deactivating HF (Hydrogen Fluoride)

Desired Mix

Sarin produced using these formulas, is referred to as the “desired mix” in recorded phone calls between Hytham Qassab, codename “Ebu Kasim”, who organized the chemicals’ shipment, and his connection in Turkey, Khalid Ousta, codename “Ebu Abdo”.

KHALED OUSTA: Inshallah (God willing), also let me know what exactly is required because the person is waiting for my call.
HYTHAM QASSAP: My words would not make a difference, but I need to receive at least 1 kilogram of number 7 and 8, sorry I mean number 6 and 7
K. O.: Got it, alright
H.Q.: Because the mix of them will create the desired one.
K. O.: 50 kilograms
H.Q.: Yes

Negotiations Regarding White Phosphorous

Qassab negotiates with his connection Ousta on the phone the price of “white phosphorus”, which is a main ingredient of the gas:
H.Q.: Yes Ebu Abdo
K. O.: Thanks brother, it is the first item on the list I sent you, and also the last one, which is WHITE PHOSPHORUS
H.Q.: Ok
K. O.: The last one is the 200 kilogram barrel
H.Q.: Ok...
K. O.: Yes 16.8 plus VAT, the first and the most expensive one, of which we sent you a sample. It has a different name on yours compared to mine, and that one is 13.8 plus VAT.
H.Q.: What’s its name, Ebu Abdo?
K. O.: Bauxite
H.Q.: Ok alright, good
K. O.: The white one is the one with the price of 13.8 plus VAT
H.Q.: Is it Euro or Dollar?
K. O.: It is Euro