Incapacitating agent

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The term incapacitating agent is defined by the U.S. Department of Defense as:

"An agent that produces temporary physiological or mental effects, or both, which will render individuals incapable of concerted effort in the performance of their assigned duties."

Lethal agents are primarily intended to kill, but incapacitating agents can also kill if administered in a potent enough dose, or in certain scenarios.

The term "incapacitation," when used in a general sense, is not equivalent to the term "disability" as used in occupational medicine and denotes the inability to perform a task because of a quantifiable physical or mental impairment. In this sense, any of the chemical warfare agents may incapacitate a victim; however, by the military definition of this type of agent, incapacitation refers to impairments that are temporary and nonlethal. Thus, riot-control agents are incapacitating because they cause temporary loss of vision due to blepharospasm, but they are not considered military incapacitants because the loss of vision does not last long. Although incapacitation may result from physiological changes such as mucous membrane irritation, diarrhea, or hyperthermia, the term "incapacitating agent" as militarily defined refers to a compound that produces temporary and nonlethal impairment of military performance by virtue of its psychobehavioral or CNS effects.

In biological warfare, a distinction is also made between bio-agents as Lethal Agents (e.g., Bacillus anthracis, Francisella tularensis, Botulinum toxin) or Incapacitating Agents (e.g., Brucella suis, Coxiella burnetii, Venezuelan equine encephalitis virus, Staphylococcal enterotoxin B).[1]


Early uses[edit]

The use of chemicals to induce altered states of mind in an adversary dates back to antiquity and includes the use of plants of the nightshade family (Solanaceae), such as the thornapple (Datura stramonium), that contain various combinations of anticholinergic alkaloids. The use of nonlethal chemicals to render an enemy force incapable of fighting dates back to at least 600 B.C. when Solon's soldiers threw hellebore roots into streams supplying water to enemy troops, who then developed diarrhea.[citation needed] In 184 B.C., Hannibal's army used belladonna plants to induce disorientation,[citation needed] and the Bishop of Münster in A.D. 1672 attempted to use belladonna-containing grenades in an assault on the city of Groningen.[2]

In 1881, members of a French railway surveying expedition crossing Tuareg territory in North Africa ate dried dates that tribesmen had apparently deliberately contaminated with Egyptian henbane (Hyoscyamus muticus, or H. falezlez), to devastating effect.[3] In 1908, 200 French soldiers in Hanoi became delirious and experienced hallucinations after being poisoned with a related plant. More recently, accusations of Soviet use of incapacitating agents internally and in Afghanistan were never substantiated.

The 20th century[edit]

Following World War II, the United States military investigated a wide range of possible nonlethal, psychobehavioral, chemical incapacitating agents to include psychedelic indoles such as lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD-25) and the tetrahydrocannabinol derivative DMHP, certain tranquilizers, as well as several glycolate anticholinergics. One of the anticholinergic compounds, 3-quinuclidinyl benzilate, was assigned the NATO code "BZ" and was weaponized beginning in the 1960s for possible battlefield use. (Although BZ figured prominently in the plot of the 1990 movie, Jacob's Ladder, as the compound responsible for hallucinations and violent deaths in a fictitious American battalion in Vietnam, this agent never saw operational use.) Destruction of American stockpiles of BZ began in 1988 and is now complete.

The 21st century[edit]

There is one documented case of incapacitating agents being used in recent years. In 2002, Chechen terrorists took a large number of hostages in the Moscow theatre siege, and threatened to blow up the entire theatre if any attempt was made to break the siege. An incapacitating agent was used to disable the terrorists whilst the theatre was stormed by special forces. However, the incapacitating agent, unknown at that time, caused many of the hostages to die. The terrorists were rendered unconscious, but roughly 15% of the 800 people exposed were killed by the gas.[4] The situation was not helped by the fact that the authorities kept the nature of the incapacitating agent secret from doctors trying to treat its victims. At the time, the gas was reported to be an unknown incapacitating agent called "Kolokol-1". The Russian Health Minister Yuri Shevchenko later stated that the incapacitating agent used was a fentanyl derivative. (See Moscow hostage crisis chemical agent.)

Date rape drugs[edit]

Main article: Date rape drug

A date rape drug, also called a predator drug, is any drug that can be used as incapacitating agent to assist in the execution of drug facilitated sexual assault (DFSA). The most common types of DFSA are those in which a victim ingested drugs willingly for recreational purposes, or had them administered surreptitiously:[5] it is the latter type of assault that the term "date rape drug" most often refers to.

Previously, Weir noted that cases of drug-facilitated sexual assault were frequently found to involve alcohol or cocaine, and were less likely to involve drugs, such as flunitrazepam (Rohypnol) and gamma-hydroxybutyrate [(GHB)], that are commonly described as being used in this context. Similar findings have been reported by others, including Hall and colleagues in a recent retrospective study from Northern Ireland.

— Drug-facilitated sexual assault, Bernadette Butler, MB BS and Jan Welch, MB BS BSc[6]

"Knockout gas"[edit]

A fictional form of incapacitating agent, sometimes known as "knockout gas", has been a staple of pulp detective and science fiction novels, movies and television shows. It is presented in various forms, but generally is supposed to be a gas or aerosol providing a harmless way of rendering characters temporarily unconscious without physical contact — in contrast to chloroform, a liquid which is itself a common element of genre fiction. Notable characters known for their use of knockout gas include Doc Savage, Fu Manchu, Batman, X-Men, The Avenger, and Sterling Archer. A famous example recurs in every opening sequence of the 1960s British TV series The Prisoner (1967–68).

The U.S. Army psychiatrist James S. Ketchum, who worked for almost a decade on the U.S. military’s top secret psychochemical warfare program, relates a story relevant to the concept of a “knockout gas” in his 2006 memoir, entitled Chemical Warfare Secrets Almost Forgotten. In 1970, Ketchum and his boss were visited by CIA agents for a brainstorming session at his Maryland laboratory. The agents wanted to know if an incapacitating agent (his specialty) could be used to intervene in the ongoing hijacking of a Tel Aviv aircraft by Palestinian terrorists without injuring the hostages. Accordingly:

We considered the pros and cons of using incapacitating agents and various other options. As it turned out, we could not imagine a scenario in which any available agent could be pumped into the airliner without the hijackers possibly reacting violently and killing passengers. Ultimately, the standoff was resolved by other means.[7]

During the Waco siege in Texas in 1993, U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno asked her law-enforcement advisors if a "knockout gas" could be used to render the Branch Davidians inside the compound harmlessly unconscious. She was told that no such incapacitating agent existed.

Arguably, the use of a derivative of the drug fentanyl by Russian authorities in the 2002 Moscow hostage crisis (described above) is an example of a real-life use of a "knockout gas" (with, at best, mixed results).

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Dembek, Zygmunt (editor), Medical Aspects of Biological Warfare; Washington, DC: Borden Institute (2007), pg 5.
  2. ^ (2001). A Brief History of Chemical and Biological Weapons: Ancient Times to the 19th Century. Retrieved 27 October 2008.
  3. ^ James S Ketchum M D; James S. Ketchum (October 2012). Chemical Warfare Secrets Almost Forgotten. WestBow Press. pp. 14–. ISBN 978-1-4772-7589-4. 
  4. ^ "Russia names Moscow siege gas". CNN. 2002-10-30. 
  5. ^ Lyman, Michael D. (2006). Practical drug enforcement (3rd ed.). Boca Raton, Fla.: CRC. p. 70. ISBN 0849398088. 
  6. ^
  7. ^ Ketchum, James S. (2006, 2nd edition 2007), Chemical Warfare Secrets Almost Forgotten: A Personal Story of Medical Testing of Army Volunteers during the Cold War (1955–1975), Santa Rosa, CA: ChemBook, Inc, 380 pp. Revised edition (2012), published by AuthorHouse. Quote is from page 226 of the 2012 edition.