The Surprising, Sordid Story of Sarin, Syria's Alleged Chemical Weapon

Nazi war criminals, US oil companies, test rabbits: the sordid story of Sarin

By<a Href="">adam Weinstein</a>
August 28, 2013, 1:46 PM
Men in chemical protection suits participate in a joint anti-terrorism drill conducted by Japan Ground Self-Defense Force on November 17, 2005.
Men in chemical protection suits participate in a joint anti-terrorism drill conducted by Japan Ground Self-Defense Force on November 17, 2005.
Photo by Junko Kimura/Getty Images

August 29, 2013&#151; -- The United States and its allies moved fast in recent days to confirm that Syrian ruler Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons on his own citizens as part of a civil war offensive that's killed an estimated 100,000 people.

Recent reports suggest Assad attacked civilians with Sarin, a deadly nerve agent that's been renounced by the international community.

While it's still unclear what future consequences Assad will face for the attacks, his weapon of choice has a vividly colored past. From Hitler's arsenal to Uncle Sam's stockpile, here's a look at the history of Sarin, one of the world's most feared chemical killers.

(Much of this information comes from the 2006 book "War of Nerves: Chemical Warfare From World War I to Al-Qaeda," by the late biochem weapons expert Jonathan B. Tucker. For more info, check the book out online.)

Also called GB, the nerve agent was declared a "weapon of mass destruction" by the United Nations in 1991, and its production and stockpiling were banned by the international Chemical Weapons Convention two years later. (Photo: Getty Images)

The Japanese terrorist cult Aum Shinrikyo produced its own Sarin in a $10 million dollar facility in the 1990s, using the agent in its gaseous form to kill 13 people on the Tokyo subway in 1995. Saddam Hussein was known to have used Sarin on Iranian soldiers and Iraqi Kurds before the first Gulf War.

Bashar al-Assad, Syria's dictator, is known to have stockpiled Sarin previously, which is one reason it's the primary focus in the Syria chemical attacks. (Photo: Getty Images)

In 1948, he was convicted of war crimes and crimes against humanity at Nuremburg and sentenced to eight years in prison. One prosecutor, disgusted by the light sentence, wrote a book about Ambros and his colleagues titled "The Devil's Chemists." (Photo: Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Before his death, Ambros also worked with Dow Chemical, and he advised a pharmaceutical company that marketed thalidomide, the infamous birth-defect-causing drug, to pregnant women. (Photo: U.S. Army)

"At this time," one U.S. general said, "the only safe course is to be prepared to defend ourselves and ready to use gas in overpowering quantities." (Photo: RIA Novosti/Wikimedia Commons)

(Those weapons include the "Honest John" warhead shown above, containing dozens of bomblets that each contained about a pound of Sarin.)

"Shell produced dichlor for the Army," according to an official military historical account. "The Army used dichlor in an intermediate process in the manufacture of GB nerve agent." (Photo: US Army/Wikimedia Commons)

Production of Sarin and these other compounds was dangerous and created many toxic waste byproducts, which the military and its contractors dumped carelessly. (Authorities used test rabbits, like the one shown above, to check for deadly vapor leaks on the base.)

According to an investigation by Colorado authorities, "From 1942 until 1982, activities of the Army and Shell at the Arsenal resulted in the release of at least 176,000 tons of hazardous substances into the environment." (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

After a series of acquisitions and bankruptcies, Vitro merged with British Aerospace to create BAE Systems, one of the largest defense contractors in the world. (Photo: National Archives/Wikimedia Commons)

This means that if the U.S. and U.K. launch a military offensive against Syria, they will use BAE-supplied ships and aircraft to punish the Syrian regime for using Sarin nerve weapons, which a BAE subsidiary once perfected for the US military's use decades ago. (Photo: Royal Navy/Wikimedia Commons)

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events