WASHINGTON, June 25 (UPI) -- The device reportedly developed by al-Qaida to disperse deadly cyanide gas in subway cars and other confined spaces has never been used in a terrorist attack and probably would not be very effective, say experts.
"What you would get, in all probability, is a big bang, a big splash, but very little gas," Milton Leitenberg, of the University of Maryland, told United Press International.
Leitenberg, who has worked on arms control and chemical and biological weapons issues for 40 years, told UPI that "a best case scenario" might kill most of the inhabitants of a subway car, but added "every calculation (one can make about casualties) relies on a whole series of assumptions."
"It's basically a guessing game," he concluded.
The device, called a Mubtakker -- Arabic for "invention" -- has been at the center of a media firestorm since it was written about in an excerpt from a book extract published by Time magazine last week.
The book, "The One Percent Doctrine," by Pulitzer Prize winner Ron Suskind, says that designs for the device were found in February 2003 on a computer seized in Saudi Arabia after the arrest of a jihadist there, and that, a month later, U.S. intelligence separately uncovered an aborted plot to use several of them in an attack on the New York subway system.
"In the world of terrorist weaponry, it was the equivalent of splitting the atom. Obtain a few widely available chemicals and you could construct it with a trip to Home Depot and then kill everyone in the store." wrote Suskind.
"That is the stupidest statement I have heard in many years," Leitenberg said, adding that the concentrations at which the key chemicals were present in household materials were so low "you would get next to nothing" by using them.
"You would have to obtain the ingredients from a chemical supplier" or steal them from a laboratory to make the device work, he said.
One counter-terrorist official said simply, "If this is such an amazing weapon, and the design for it is out there, why has no one ever used it?"
Leitenberg and other scientists that UPI spoke to about the reaction, which uses acid and cyanide crystals to produce hydrogen cyanide gas, stressed that it was a highly volatile process, which generates a huge amount of heat as well as gas -- and would likely destroy the device itself.
The way facts about the device were presented in the book, it appeared they were "coming through the filter of someone who is not well-versed in the science," said George Smith, a molecular biologist and senior fellow with the Washington-area think tank GlobalSecurity.org.
Leitenberg pointed out that Aum Shinrikyo, the Japanese religious cult which is the only terrorist group to have ever used chemical weapons, had "much more access to money and equipment" and other resources than al-Qaida does, but had still failed to make an effective delivery device.
He said the group had spent "perhaps $20 or 30 million," and had a team of up to 20 scientists working on making chemical weapons. "They weren't in caves," he said, "Photos of their lab look like a commercial research or manufacturing facility."
Nonetheless, when the group attacked the Tokyo subway system with the nerve agent sarin, its members ended up dispersing it by punching holes in plastic bags.
Indeed, assessments by U.S. intelligence at the time seem to have reflected a more measured view of the threat posed by the device than the one painted by Suskind.
A 2003 homeland security bulletin for local law enforcement -- reported at the time by journalist Paul Sperry -- lists "a crude chemical dispersal device fabricated from easily available materials" as one possible mode of attack by al-Qaida -- among a list encompassing truck bombs and suicide bombers disguised as women.
Several former Department of Homeland Security officials contacted by UPI recalled the warnings about the device but said concern about such an attack at that time was just part of what one called "a constant, daily stream of threat information," which was often poorly analyzed and inadequately prioritized.
One former intelligence official familiar with the issue agreed that the Mubtakker was "one of a dozen different things we were worried about."
"He makes it seem a lot more dramatic and central" than it was, said the official of Suskind's account of the Mubtakker.
"Was it scary? Yes. Was it the scariest thing that came down the pike? No."
Suskind defended his reporting about the device and the plot to use it, telling UPI it was based on "senior intelligence sources."