Several readers have written to express skepticism about the significance of the discovery of a seven-pound block of cyanide salts in a Baghdad house believed to have been used by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a top al Qaeda terrorist. Cyanide is, as these readers note, a relatively common chemical with a number of industrial uses. Howard Whitney, who sounds very knowledgeable, says:
The block of cyanide is not a WMD, it is just a toxic chemical salt. To hurt anybody, it needs to be dissolved in acid to form hydrogen cyanide gas. This is how the gas chambers work to execute murderers.
Weaponizing this very common chemical (with many commercial uses) is impractical and would likely be ineffective. It could be used as a terror weapon, but not a WMD.
This is a field in which I have zero expertise, and it’s hard to be specific since we don’t know which cyanide salt or salts are involved. But couldn’t it be potassium cyanide, for example? “The substance decomposes on contact with water, humidity, carbon dioxide and acids, producing very toxic hydrogen cyanide gas.”
Terrorists apparently have tried to use potassium cyanide as a weapon, as this story indicates:
In a discovery which is first of its kind, police in New Delhi have recovered suspected deadly poison potassium cyanide filled in two ball-point pens from the two alleged Pakistani terrorists killed in an encounter near famous Lotus Temple in South Delhi last night.
The two pens contain white powder in the space meant for refill and it is suspected to be potassium cyanide, Joint Commissioner of Police (Special Cell) Neeraj Kumar told reporters in New Delhi today, adding it was being chemically examined.
To repeat, I am no authority whatsoever on this subject. But the block of cyanide didn’t come from an electroplating facility, it was found in a house that was raided because it was believed to be occupied by a top al Qaeda terrorist. And even if cyanide isn’t the best or most effective terrorist weapon, it still seems that its discovery, under these circumstances, deserves to be a news story. We’d love to hear more on this, though, from readers who are better informed than we are.