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Friday, February 28, 2020

How Opioids Were Used as Weapons During the Moscow Theater Hostage Crisis

Chivis Martinez Borderland Beat From the archives

Many countries classify powerful opioids as chemical weapons

In October 2002, after Chechen rebels stormed a Moscow theater and trapped more than 800 people for 57 hours, it seemed like it couldn’t get much worse. Then Russian troops released a mysterious gas into the theater. The gas was intended to incapacitate the rebels—which it did—-but it also ended up killing more than 120 of the hostages.

That gas contained carfentanil, an opioid 10,000 times more powerful than morphine and 100 times more powerful than fentanyl. Fentanyl has received increased media attention in recent years because of the U.S. opioid crisis, but carfentanil has also been seeping into the American drug market and causing overdose deaths. So yes, carfentanil is a drug that Americans are overdosing on—and it’s also a weapon banned by the Chemical Weapons Convention.

As the then-unknown gas filled the theater, hostages and rebels alike passed out or died immediately. Russian officers dragged everyone out and packed both living and dead hostages onto the same buses and cars, says David Satter, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and author of The Less You Know, the Better You Sleep: Russia’s Road to Terror and Dictatorship under Yeltsin and Putin.

“Bodies were piled one on top of another outside the theater entrance, with no attempt to separate the living from the dead,” Satter writes in his book. “Alexander Karpov, a well-known songwriter, died after spending seven hours alive in a bus packed with corpses. In another case, thirty hostages were put in a twelve-seat military microbus, some on the floor. A thirteen-year-old girl was crushed under the bodies and died on the way to a hospital.”

Fentanyl Citrate, a class II controlled substance as classified by the Drug Enforcement Agency. Class II substances have a high potential for abuse which may lead to severe psychological or physical dependence. (Credit: Joe Amon/The Denver Post/Getty Images)
Because Russian officials refused to reveal what was in the gas they’d released, medical professionals didn’t know how to treat the hundreds of victims. They spent several hours testing antidotes before finding that naloxone, a drug used to treat opioid overdoses, could help counter the effects of the gas. By then, more lives had been lost, and the survivors’ health had worsened. Those who lived through the experience continued to suffer from problems that no one knew how to treat, because the gas that’d caused them was still a mystery.

Russia’s rationale for using the gas in the crisis was that officers couldn’t have safely evacuated the hostages unless the rebels were incapacitated. This was because the rebels had announced they’d strung up bombs and some of them were wearing suicide belts. Later, officials discovered that the bombs were dummies, and that most of the suicide belts were fake. In any case, officers “shot all of the terrorists, including those who were unconscious, so that nobody was in a position to dispute their version of events,” Satter says.

Nearly 16 years later, Russia still hasn’t admitted what was in the gas, and has only acknowledged that it contained fentanyl-related compounds. But in 2012, a group of British scientists analyzed clothing from two survivors and urine from a third survivor. They determined that the gas contained the extremely potent drug carfentanil.

Out of the more than 64,000 drug overdose deaths in 2016, over 20,000 were related to fentanyl (which is already 50 times more powerful than heroin) and fentanyl analogs. That year, the Drug Enforcement Administration announced in a press release that first responders were starting to see overdoses from carfentanil, which is a fentanyl analog. Recently, federal investigators found enough carfentanil to kill 86,000 people in the home of one San Diego dealer.

A 2016 APinvestigation found that carfentanil is easily available from Chinese dealers, who continue to ship it to the U.S. despite recent collaboration between the countries to limit its export and production. This not only makes it easier for people with opioid addictions to obtain lethal doses, it also makes it easier for terrorists and authoritarian governments to obtain drugs that many countries recognize as chemical weapons. In a 2017 article for the The Cipher Brief, former CIA acting director Michael J. Morell argued that the opioid crisis is a national security threat that we’re not paying attention to.

“[C]arfentanil is the perfect terrorist weapon,” he wrote. “It is readily available in large quantities. It comes in several forms—including tablets, powder, and spray. It can be absorbed through the skin or through inhalation. It acts quickly … In short, a single terrorist attack using carfentanil could kill thousands of Americans.”

Despite this, “No one from either the Obama or Trump administrations has spoken publicly about the threat,” Morell continued. “It would be a terrible tragedy if foreign terrorists were to use the consequences of our own domestic drug problem against us—particularly when it is so easy to see what might be coming.”


  1. Chivis: Facinating story. Thanks for posting it.

    1. Bs I commented about this 2 years ago and now you guys decide to put a post about it . everyone talked shit about my comment including you guys from BB . bunch of hypocrites

  2. carfentanil,we have it,was used over in Waco,Texas,children and women were dead when the fire started on the builden.

  3. Don’t shoot heroin and you won’t die by accident.
    Very simple.

    1. None of these ppl shot or snorted dope. It was prolly pushed thru air vents.

    2. "Don’t shoot heroin and you won’t die by accident.
      Very simple"
      No shit sherlock,hes sharp this one.Is that similar to,dont eat too much and you wont get fat?Is it that simple,well you can talk out yo fat arse so it cant be that simple?

    3. @1:58 you apparently did not read the article. smh

    4. I think you missed the point of the story.its not anout shooting heroin.its about how deadly carfentanil is and how it can be used ahainst people.i lived outside of martinsburg wva for years.i lost 23friends from school and good friends in a lil over 2 years to fentanyl.

    5. Someone please explain to 1:58 that this story had nothing to do with heroin. Why do people comment without reading?

  4. 1:58 what does shooting heroin have to do with this story??

    thx for posting the story btw

  5. Stupid stubborn ruasians

  6. China, biggest drug suppliers in the world

  7. It was always rumoured from day one that the gas was some type of heroin , it was no secret . So for Russia's government to keep CARFENTAL a " Top Secret " especially from the doctors is a crime against humanity. After doctors administered Naloxone , they would've known it was some type of opiate . KGB Should of made doctors sign non disclosure forms .Too Save more lives . Now cats out of bag . Seed has been planted , and somebody somewhere is going to make an O.D weapon . Just need some of that cheap Chinese Cartefanal . No Problem mate , how much u want .

  8. Thanks, Chivis. I was always fascinated by this event and what mystery gas was used. Finally we know. Scary stuff.

  9. Carfentanil would actually make an incredibly effective weapon of terror. Thank god no one has used it yet.

    It was an incredibly effective strategy for the Russians to use it. Many more were likely to die othetwise. They didnt warn the first responders to bring the Naloxone because they were afraid the terrorists would get wind of it.

    The FSB(modern KGB) is cold as ice. Don't mess with Putin!

    1. But the terrorist got an extra bullet in the head. Even if they knew , who carried naloxone in 2002 . I stand by my above statement . K.G.B or FSB should of carries the antidote , Would've been a n easy job to carry off. Yes , I agree using carfetanil scares me more than conventional terrorist modus operandi . Defitnaly going to be read the book by David Sather mentioned above .


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