Google Answers Logo
View Question
Q: How easy is it to make weapons of mass destruction? ( Answered 5 out of 5 stars,   4 Comments )
Subject: How easy is it to make weapons of mass destruction?
Category: Reference, Education and News > Current Events
Asked by: sheldon-ga
List Price: $25.00
Posted: 03 May 2003 22:32 PDT
Expires: 02 Jun 2003 22:32 PDT
Question ID: 199100
I am writing an essay about the relationship between the war on
terrorism and the freedom of information act. For that purpose, I am
trying to determine whether restrictions on freedom of information are
likely to be effective at preventing terrorists from learning how to
make such weapons--in particular, biological weapons and chemical
weapons such as sarin gas.

Here is the URL to a web page which discusses the issue:

What I want to know is, how hard would it be for a motivated
individual to find information (for example, on the Internet or in a
research library) that would enable them to make such weapons on their
own, without assistance from a nation that wishes to sponsor

In a similar vein, various restrictions have been imposed since
September 11 on publication of information that is thought to be of
possible value to terrorists, such as worst-case scenarios for toxic
releases at chemical plants. I am wondering whether restrictions on
this sort of information are likely to do much good. The 9/11
terrorists didn't need fancy research to figure out that crashing a
jetliner into skyscrapers would kill lots of people. All they needed
were some boxcutters and a plan. Is there really any point to
restricting information about toxics at chemical points, or this
merely an illusory way of creating a FEELING of security?

Please note that I am emphatically NOT interested in seeing recipes
for how to actually make sarin gas or instructions on how to commit
terrorist acts. I simply want to know how hard it would be for
terrorists to lay their hands on this sort of information.
Subject: Re: How easy is it to make weapons of mass destruction?
Answered By: mvguy-ga on 05 May 2003 08:30 PDT
Rated:5 out of 5 stars
The quick answer is that it's not difficult at all to get the
information on how to make chemical weapons. The main obstacles appear
to be financial (the chemical processes involved are more complicated
and expensive to carry out than the making of explosives such as that
used in the Oklahoma City bombing).  In other words, it would be
difficult if not impossible for an uneducated individual to make such
weapons in a residential garage; but a group with the finances and the
ability to recruit chemists could make the weapons.  Getting the basic
information isn't all that difficult.

This is largely because the technology behind chemical weapons isn't
particularly new and hasn't changed all that much since World War II
(or even World War I).  Also, many of the chemicals used in chemical
weapons have legitimate uses (some the chemicals in nerve gases that
can incapacitate people are the same ones used in insecticides to
disable insects).

Part of the answer can be found in the document you provided:

Responding to Chemical Attacks
"Information on how to make such weapons has been available in
scientific literature for decades and is now posted on the Internet,
and experts say many of the raw materials are not hard to obtain."

This conclusion is confirmed by a report from the staff of the U.S.
Senate Government Affairs Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations:

Global Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction: A Case Study on
the Aum Shinrikyo
"The cult's rise and its efforts to obtain and deploy weapons of mass
destruction raises numerous policy issues, however, that extend well
beyond the specific threat posed by Asahara and his disciples. The Aum
was merely one example --a case study -- of what may be the most
dominant, emerging threat to our national security.
"The ease with which the cult accessed the vast international
supermarket of weapons and weapons technology is extremely troubling.
It is especially troubling in light of the current state of the
economies and governments of the former Soviet Union. How much this
cult acquired and how much more they could have obtained is still a
"...Recipes and directions for making weapons of mass destruction
(WMD) are readily available in the open literature and now on the

There's even a $10 book available that will tell you how to make
Biological Weaponry: Anthrax how-to author banned from gun show

Here's another one:

Anthrax Hoaxes: From Baghdad to Las Vegas
"The combination of the Aum Shinrikyo incident and the Oklahoma City
bombing heightened U.S. concern over biological and chemical agents to
new levels, a concern that rhetoric soon reflected. 'To build a really
devastating anthrax weapon,' one defense expert told a Pittsburgh
newspaper, 'takes less money and skill than the Oklahoma City bomb?A
fertilizer bomb kills by the hundreds. A biological weapon kills by
the tens of thousands.' The Tokyo gas attack was a 'wake-up call,'
according to Deputy Secretary of Defense John Hamre, 'to us and the
entire world, that people in the future are going to use these rather
terrible weapons in ways that potentially just bring an entire city to
its knees.' In late 1995, Dr. Gordon C. Oehler, Director of the CIA?s
Nonproliferation Center, testified to Congress that 'extremist groups
worldwide are increasingly learning how to manufacture chemical and
biological agents, and the potential for additional chemical and
biological attacks by such groups continues to grow.'"

The most thorough report I could find on the issue was one by Amy E.
Stimson of the Stimson Center.  The bottom line is that the literature
is readily available. See, for example, footnote 74 in the document

Grounding the Threat in Reality
"Tens of thousands of citations describe how to make chocking,
blister, mustard and nerve agents, providing such details as the
operating parameters, catalysis, and the chemical reactions.

People with professional expertise in industrial chemistry would
probably be able to understand the processes involved:

Grounding the Threat in Reality
"Some experts assert that a team of individuals with advanced degrees
are necessary to pull off a bioterrorist attack, while others suggest
that basic training or a background in microbiology or a related
discipline would be adequate. The important factor is not the level of
schooling, according to a couple of biological weapons experts, but
rather the type of training and technical aptitude."

You'll find the report extremely enlightening in your research. You
can find links to chapters on this page:

Ataxia: The Chemical and Biological Terrorism Threat and the US

It also appears that the technological problems with making WMD has
less do with making the chemicals the finding effective ways of
dispersing them.

Making Chemical Weapons Is No Easy Task 
"When all is said and done, [weapons researcher Amy] Smithson said, a
huge gulf remains between the 'theoretical possibility' of mass
casualties resulting from a chemical or biological attack and the
'operational reality' of terrorist organizations. Terrorists, she
writes in 'Ataxia: The Chemical and Biological Terrorism Threat and
the US Response,' are likely to find it quite difficult to obtain and
use biological and chemical weapons effectively.'"

More specifically: 

Observations and Conclusions
Along that vein, one often hears about the menace posed by someone
brewing toxic chemicals or biological agents in their garages. Of
course, small set-ups are possible, but their linkage to a
mass-casualty scenario is misleading. Theoretically, a quart of nerve
agent contains roughly a million lethal doses, but in practice, over a
ton of nerve agent would be needed to kill ten thousand people
outdoors. Using the production and casualty quantities from pages 34?5
of chapter 2, it would take a terrorist roughly two years to make
enough sarin in a basement-sized operation to kill five hundred and
another eighteen years to produce the ton of gas required to kill ten
thousand. No one disputes that the bathtub manufacturing scenario
poses a threat to public safety, but this setting is incongruous with
the quantities of chemical agent needed to cause mass casualties
unless those involved have specific tactical knowledge that enables a
professionally efficient dispersal indoors.


Assessing the Rick of Chemical and Biological Weapons Proliferation to
"[W]hile the acquisition of CB weapons by terrorists is definitely
feasible, such organizations nonetheless face enormous obstacles on
the path to a CB weapon capability.4 This decreases the likelihood of
their proliferation to terrorists. Moreover, if terrorists acquire
such a capability it is highly probable that the quality of the agents
will be well below that of similar agents in military arsenals.
Finally, from these insights the article suggests ways to prepare for
a terrorist strike that utilizes CB weapons."

For further research, I suggest you check the links on the following

Assessing the Threat of WMD Terrorism

As to restrictions on information regarding what goes on at existing
chemical plants, you'll find a number of interesting resources at the
following page:

OMB Watch: Access to Government Information Post 9/11

The following article (linked to from the above document) in
particular is interesting. It raises the possibility that cutting off
public access to information increases the danger to the general
public, which then becomes unable to educate itself about its own
safety risks.

Chemical Plants Fail to Cut Hazards as Concerns of Terrorism Grow

Another article from OMB Watch is particularly enlightening about the
question you raise:

Benefits of Chemical Information Should not be Forgotten
"What makes this controversy so baffling is that Congress and the FBI
thoroughly scrubbed the information back in 1999, evaluating whether
broad disclosure might be useful to terrorists. As a result of that
evaluation - which was prompted by an aggressive lobbying effort by
the chemical industry - Congress decided to limit public access to
information on worst-case scenarios - that is, information on the
number of people that would be killed or injured in the event of a
catastrophic accident. Instead of making it available on the web, as
pointed out earlier, EPA allowed the public - and still allows the
public - to view the worst-case scenario information at 50 reading
rooms around the country, which are subject to extremely restrictive
rules (for instance, individuals are able to view no more than ten
records each month and can only take notes, but not make copies of the
data). The remaining information in the RMPs, the FBI determined,
presented no unique, increased risk of terrorism.
"Nonetheless, this is the very information EPA removed from its web
site. There has been almost no stated justification for this decision
(other than in the most general sense), which makes it all the more
frustrating. Most of the information seems benign on its face. For
instance, as part of the RMPs, facilities are required to report their
five-year accident histories. What good would this do a terrorist?
Does a terrorist really need to know about a facility's plans to
improve safety or respond to an accident? Even for the more
controversial off-site consequence analysis (that includes worst-case
scenario data) - which remember, has never been available on the web -
how is a terrorist uniquely advantaged? It's hardly difficult to find
chemical facilities located near large populations."

I hope this information helps you in preparing your essay. I found it
to be an extremely interesting subject.

Best wishes,


Search strategy
I used various combinations of the following terms, then followed
links within documents I found:
Aum Shinrikyo, chemical weapons, WMD, terrorism, technology,

The following terms found plenty of information on the second question
your raised

restrictions information "chemical plants"
sheldon-ga rated this answer:5 out of 5 stars

Subject: Re: How easy is it to make weapons of mass destruction?
From: bwll77-ga on 04 May 2003 00:55 PDT
Hello Sheldon, this is Roger from Australia (currently in Ireland).
When I casually noticed your question I was a little "awe-struck", to
say the least. It was most reassuring to read the last "qualifying"
paragraph of your question. I am not in a position to comment one way
or the other but take the opportunity of wishing you well with your
Kind regards from: Roger
Subject: Re: How easy is it to make weapons of mass destruction?
From: jumpingjoe-ga on 04 May 2003 06:24 PDT
You may find this page interesting:
Subject: Re: How easy is it to make weapons of mass destruction?
From: megumi-ga on 04 May 2003 08:40 PDT
You might be interested about this article that was on Slashdot the
other day:

It's about a man who is going to build a cruise missile for under
5000$, just to prove that it can be done.

Not exactly what you're looking for, but interesting and related none
the less.
Subject: War can be more psychological than physical
From: drpauljbrewer-ga on 04 May 2003 13:28 PDT
Sun Tzu, an ancient Chinese war philsopher, wrote a book - The Art of
Find an English translation.  It is not very long, and well worth

I hate to be crass, but rethink the towers.  The terrorists killed
several thousand people and this touched many families not just in the
US but around the globe; However, the effect of that on society as a
whole was minor.  They blew up not NYC or DC but two buildings.  A
small, though financially and symbolically important, corner of the

Compare this to the chain reaction that followed: empty air planes,
layoffs, further economic recession, fear, the splurges on duct tape
and batteries and cancelling of school trips.  Look at a stock market
chart. Did 20-30% of the value of the US economy really vaporize that
day?  Some people apparently thought it did. You'd think we'd been
nuked or that a major power (like China or Russia) had declared war.

Similarly, the war in Iraq involved much rhetoric about who would win.
 Why? Because of the uncertainty of Iraqi defections. The US
eventually swung this to their advantage.

So, while the threat of a real WMD such as poison, pathogen or atom
bomb remains real, there is at least an equal threat from a
combination of fear and some minor catalyst that is dressed up by
either side to look like something more than it is.

Good Luck!

Important Disclaimer: Answers and comments provided on Google Answers are general information, and are not intended to substitute for informed professional medical, psychiatric, psychological, tax, legal, investment, accounting, or other professional advice. Google does not endorse, and expressly disclaims liability for any product, manufacturer, distributor, service or service provider mentioned or any opinion expressed in answers or comments. Please read carefully the Google Answers Terms of Service.

If you feel that you have found inappropriate content, please let us know by emailing us at with the question ID listed above. Thank you.
Search Google Answers for
Google Answers  

Google Home - Answers FAQ - Terms of Service - Privacy Policy