Down the slippery slope? A study of contemporary dual-use chemical and life-science research potentially applicable to incapacitating chemical agent weapons

On 26th October 2002, Russian Security Forces employed a secret incapacitating chemical agent (ICA) weapon believed to affect the central nervous system, in their attempt to save 900 hostages held in a Moscow theatre by armed Chechen fighters. Although the hostages were freed, over 120 of them were killed by the chemical agent and many more continue to suffer long term health problems. Twelve years later, the Russian authorities have refused to disclose the ICA weapon they employed. Instead a new report highlights continued research by scientists in Russia and other countries into such chemical agents.

“BBQ-901 tranquiliser gun” being displayed at a People's Liberation Army “open day”, Shek Kong Air Base, Hong Kong, 2nd May 2011. © Gordon Arthur / King Arthur's Writes

“BBQ-901 tranquiliser gun” being displayed at a People’s Liberation Army “open day”, Shek Kong Air Base, Hong Kong, 2nd May 2011. © Gordon Arthur / King Arthur’s Writes. Image taken from new report.

‘Down the slippery slope?’ a study produced jointly by the Bradford Non-Lethal Weapons Research Project and the Biochemical Security 2030 Project, examines contemporary neuroscience and research into a range of pharmaceutical chemicals potentially applicable to the study and development of ICA weapons, that has taken place since the coming into force of the Chemical Weapons Convention in 1997. This report highlights specific areas where concerns or mis-perceptions might arise as to the nature and intended uses of chemical and life-science research. The report also explores how States can ensure that such dual-use research is not utilised in prohibited chemical weapons development, or misinterpreted as being utilised for such purposes.

As well as documenting contemporary research by Russian scientists into ICAs, the report highlights the possession of ICA weapons by the Chinese Peoples’ Liberation Army, their previous use as an attempted assassination tool by the Israeli security services, and examines unconfirmed allegations of ICA weapons use in Syria. In addition, the report explores potentially relevant research activities previously undertaken since 1997 in the Czech Republic, India, Iran, the United Kingdom and the United States, and includes recent responses from the States concerned.

Professor Rod Flower, FRS , Professor of Biochemical Pharmacology at the William Harvey Research Institute said:

“Lest we forget. Twelve years ago, Russian Special Forces terminated the seige of a Moscow Theatre by Chechen Separatists by pumping a potent anaesthetic gas into the ventilation system. During the operation, 130 hostages lost their lives following exposure to the gas, prompting a widespread debate on the use of such ‘incapacitating chemical weapons’. Crowley & Dando’s Report provides an in-depth study of the subsequent development of incapacitating chemical weapons by states around the world. It provides a valuable resource for those who are concerned about the proliferation of such weapons as well as a timely reminder that there is no such thing as a ‘safe’ incapacitating chemical agent.”

Steven Rose, Emeritus Professor of Biology (neuroscience) Department of Life Health and Chemical Sciences stated:

“Continuing advances in neuroscience, pharmacology and biotechnology are fueling a new interest in the military and law-enforcement potential of incapacitating agents (ICAs)–‘non-lethal’ or better ‘less-lethal’ anaesthetic or disorienting chemicals . Published on the 12th anniversary of the disastrous use of an ICA in the attempt to rescue hostages trapped in a Moscow theatre, Crowley and Dando have compiled an authoritative account of the state of the art in ICAs. Drawing on open-source literature, they assess the scale of research and development of the agents among the major international players, and conclude with recommendations as to how the international treaties prohibiting chemical weapons should be amended to deal with these new threats. An important and salutary report.”


Report available here.


Cover Image: A special forces soldier runs across the road during the storming of the Dubrovka theatre in Moscow EPA Photo / Sergei Chirikov

Text: Michael Crowley


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