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ISIS Armed with WMD

Following the ISIS Paris attacks last month, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls warned that France could face terror attacks with chemical and biological weapons.1 Sadly, in the aftermath of the attacks in Paris, this chilling warning came as yet another shock to an already shaken Europe. But it should have come as no surprise because for more than a decade, Sunni militants in Iraq have used chlorine or old chemical warfare shells in IEDs against American and Iraqi government forces2. It is important to remember, that it was only in 1995, that Aum Shinrikyo, a Japanese terror-cult carried out a chemical attack on the Tokyo subway system using home-made sarin nerve gas and a cumbersome improvised delivery mechanism killing twelve people and causing an estimated six thousand to seek medical attention.3

ISIS has taken on the trappings of a pseudo state with its own government, 35,000-50,000 strong-military and its own currency4.  The group now operates in dozens of countries stretching from Europe, North and Central Africa, the Middle East and Asia. It has supported and inspired people to act against their governments around the world including, as we have seen, North and South America. It controls a considerable swath of territory in Iraq and Syria with some 10 million people under its control and it earns $300 million USD a day from oil5

In September U.S. officials warned that ISIS was making and using mustard gas and had used a powder form in bombs.6 A recent European Union Parliamentary report warned that ISIS had recruited an army of physicists, biologists and chemists to develop weapons of mass destruction. The report warned that ISIS “may be planning to try to use internationally banned weapons of mass destruction in future attacks”7 . The Parliamentary report cautioned that chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear substances (CBRN) have been carried undetected into the European Union and this additional information was also reported in Interpol’s monthly CBRN intelligence report.8 Some estimates say that there are 150 such attempts per year.

ISIS’s history of dabbling with and using chemical weapons is not new and western leaders and their governments will ignore this at their own peril. It is believed to have started with renewed resolve in July of 2014, when ISIS seized 2500 degraded rockets containing mustard gas and sarin gas at the Iraqi Muthanna Chemical Warfare site near Baghdad.9  In 2004, it was reported that UN weapons inspectors found that Bunker 13 at Muthanna contained some 2,500 sarin gas-filled chemical rockets and approximately 180 tons of sodium cyanide precursor for the nerve gas tabun.  Bunker 41 at the same site reportedly contained 2,000 empty artillery shells and 605 1-ton containers with mustard residue 10.  These chemical munitions degraded there until ISIS seized the site last year (since then the munitions whereabouts are unknown). There have also been suggestions that ISIS received chemical weapons including sarin and 20,000 cubic tonnes of mustard gas from Libya after the fall of the Gaddafi regime. ISIS is believed to have tested it near Tripoli.11

Therefore it was not a great revelation when Iraqi Kurdish authorities charged that ISIS used chlorine gasin a suicide attack on January 23, 2015. The truck bombing attempt occurred on a highway between Mosul and the Syrian border.12 The Kurdish peshmerga fired on the truck carrying the bomb so only the truck driver was killed. The peshmerga said 20 gas canisters were loaded on to the truck and it was set to release the gas on explosion.13 A dozen Kurdish soldiers were affected by the chemical. Soil and clothing samples suggest it was chlorine gas.14

Shortly thereafter, the United States got the message that they were facing a clear and present danger. In reputed retaliation, a U.S. military airstrike reportedly killed, Abu Malik, a Saddam Hussein-era chemical weapons expert who had once joined Al Qaeda in Iraq and later ISIS.15 Malik was killed in a raid near Mosul on January 24, 2015 in an attempt to degrade and disrupt ISIS’s ability to produce and use chemical weapons. Abu Malik, who was also known as Salih Jasim Muhammed Falah al-Sabawi, served as both the ISIS liaison to former Saddam regime elements and a chemical weapons expert. It was reported that U.S. intelligence confirmed that al-Sabawi had worked previously at the Muthanna chemical weapons program where sarin gas and mustard gas was produced.16

Then on June 21 or 22, 2015, ISIS fired a projectile “containing a liquid chemical agent at the peshmerga Mosul Dam checkpoint which was later reported to be chlorinegas.17 The Al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front had previously accused ISIS of setting up ‘booby traps’ using barrels of chlorine in 2015. Days later, the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia was attacked by “120 mm makeshift chemical projectiles”18  near the city of Hasaka at the town of Tel Brak on June 28, 2015. Again adozen Kurdish militia “experienced burning of the throat, eyes and nose, combined with severe headaches, muscle pain and impaired concentration and mobility”19. The attacks near Tel Brak and Hasakah reportedly involved rockets containing an industrial chemical used as a pesticide.20

On Wednesday August 13, 2015 ISIS forces in northern Iraq used chemical weapons against Kurdish peshmerga forces near the town of Makhmour, about 40 miles southwest of Erbil.21 The attack reportedly left around 60 Peshmerga soldiers with symptoms akin to mustard gas exposure. U.S. and German officials claimed that the chemical agent used was mustard gas and that it was likely acquired from Syrian stockpiles. It was also reported in early November, 2015, that ISIS used mustard gas in Marea north of Aleppo, where two people were exposed and a baby was killed.22

To date, ISIS use of chemical weapons has been on the battlefield to gain tactical advantage. Thus far their efforts have been mixed and limited.  Over time ISIS -is gaining valuable experience and expertise in using chemical weapons against what have been soft targets. Aum manufactured its own sarin and found a relatively simple means to disperse it in the Tokyo subway system in 1995 to cause thousands of casualties. If ISIS can infiltrate weapons and operatives into France to carry out the Paris attacks, then it is very likely that it can infiltrate operatives with chemical weapons into Europe or further abroad with little effort to carry out similar attacks. ISIS-inspired terrorists could adopt Aum’s approach and manufacture their own improvised chemical weapons devices.

Sadly, this is not rocket science and biological weapons are not out of reach for determined terrorists either. In 1984, the Rajneeshee cult carried out bio-terror attacks by contaminating salad bars at 10 local restaurants in Dalles, Oregon.  This resulted in 751 individuals coming down with salmonella.23  It is important to keep in mind ISIS fighters turned up this past year in Iraq with Ebola and there was suspicion that it might not have been accidental or a coincidence. 24 Following the attacks in New York and Washington on September 11, 2001, five people died in the U.S. after opening letters laced with anthrax. A recent report warned of a Tunisian ISIS physicist whose laptop was found to contain a study on weaponizing bubonic plague.25  It is important to note that ISIS has inherited its share of weapons’ scientists and ‘goodies’ from Iraq, Syria and Libya’s regimes. Most worrying, ISIS is reported to have taken radioactive materials from hospitals and research facilities in the areas it controls that might be used in a radiological weapon.26

We may only be an intelligence failure away from a chemical or even biological terror attack by ISIS on Western territory. Therefore, it is incumbent on responsible Western governments to take steps to protect their civilian populations and to mitigate the risks of a serious ISIS-launched WMD attack. First and foremost, there must be increased intelligence efforts to find weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and their components and prevent them from falling into ISIS hands or to prevent the weapons from leaving the Middle East and entering a NATO country. Second, Special Operations Forces have a role to play in preventing these weapons of mass destruction from falling into ISIS hands and in mentoring and training allied countries to build Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN) defence capability.  Third, high risk individuals with technical and scientific backgrounds in the weapons of mass destruction field cannot find themselves as part of ISIS arsenal. Fourth, high risk individuals who work in facilities and who have access to chemicals, biological and potentially radiological materials in the West must be monitored. Fifth, regulations and security procedures in those domestic facilities where the risk is the highest need to be air tight. Sixth, our departing and returning Jihadi citizens who have a background in areas relating to weapons of mass destruction need to be monitored closely and detained.  CBRN defence exercises need to take place soon and there is a need for funding. France is reportedly preparing for this ISIS threat and other European governments are slowly following suit. In fact, this could become an economically costly threat to mitigate for Western governments but it must be mitigated. The price of failure is too high.

 

References


  1. Paris attacks: Belgian police raid properties linked to suspects. (2015, Nov. 19). BBC. Retrieved from: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-34866820
  2. Chivers, C. J. (2015, 17 Jul.). ISIS has fired chemical mortar shells, evidence indicates. New York Times. Retrieved from: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/18/world/middleeast/islamic-state-isis-chemical-weapons-iraq-syria.html?_r=0
  3. Fletcher, H. (2012) Aum Shinrikyo. U.S. Council for Foreign Relations. Retrieved from: http://www.cfr.org/japan/aum-shinrikyo/p9238
  4. Ben-Gedalyahu, T. (2015, Dec. 7). European Union: ISIS has Chemical and Biological Weapons. Jewish Press. Retrieved from: http://www.jewishpress.com/news/breaking-news/european-union-isis-has-chemical-and-biological-weapons/2015/12/07/
  5. Ibid.
  6. Klein, A. (2015, Nov. 19).  Analysis: ISIS Chemical weapons threat to US, Europe ‘very real.’ Breitbart. Retrieved from: http://www.breitbart.com/national-security/2015/11/19/breitbarts-klein-warns-isis-chemical-weapons-threat-us-europe-real/
  7. Ben-Gedalyahu, T. (2015, Dec. 7). European Union: ISIS has Chemical and Biological Weapons. Jewish Press. Retrieved from: http://www.jewishpress.com/news/breaking-news/european-union-isis-has-chemical-and-biological-weapons/2015/12/07/
  8. Ibid.
  9. Hutchinson, B. (2014, Jul 09). ISIS' killer chems thugs get saddam gas plant 2,500 rockets may have sarin. New York Daily News. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/1543776161?accountid=8289
  10. Ibid.

  11. Varghese, J (2015, 23 Feb.) Libya: Isis Takes over Gaddafi-era chemical factory, steals tons of mustard gas, sarin. International Business Times. Retrieved from: http://www.ibtimes.co.in/libya-isis-takes-over-gaddafi-era-chemical-factory-steals-tons-mustard-gas-sarin-624301
  12. Coles, I. (2015, 15 Mar.). Iraqi Kurds claim to have evidence ISIS used chemical weapon. Reuters. Retrieved from: http://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-islamicstate-chlorine-idUSKBN0MA0OT20150315#omLu3hHC215YXCsQ.97
  13. Solomon, E. (2015). Iraqi kurds claim isis used chemical weapons. FT.Com, Retrieved from: http://search.proquest.com/docview/1672774265?accountid=8289

  14. Coles, I. (2015, 15 Mar.). Iraqi Kurds claim to have evidence ISIS used chemical weapon. Reuters. Retrieved from: http://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-islamicstate-chlorine-idUSKBN0MA0OT20150315#omLu3hHC215YXCsQ.97

  15. ISIS chemical weapons expert killed. (2015, Feb 01). Belfast Telegraph. Retrieved from: http://search.proquest.com/docview/1649958451?accountid=8289
  16. Shachtman, N., Youssef, N. A., & Harris, S. (2015, Jan 31). ISIS chemical weapon specialist was 'gathering equipment' before he was killed. The Daily Beast. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/1675018783?accountid=8289
  17. Anonymous. (2015, 7 Jan. ). ISIS used chemical weapons in Syria: Monitor. Reuters. Retrieved from: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/isis-used-chemical-weapons-in-syria-monitor_55a9b04ee4b065dfe89e82da
  18. Chivers, C. J. (2015, 17 Jul.). ISIS has fired chemical mortar shells, evidence indicates. New York Times. Retrieved from: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/18/world/middleeast/islamic-state-isis-chemical-weapons-iraq-syria.html?_r=0
  19. Anonymous. (2015, 7 Jan. ). ISIS used chemical weapons in Syria: Monitor. Reuters. Retrieved from: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/isis-used-chemical-weapons-in-syria-monitor_55a9b04ee4b065dfe89e82da
  20. Chivers, C. J. (2015, 17 Jul.). ISIS has fired chemical mortar shells, evidence indicates. New York Times. Retrieved from: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/18/world/middleeast/islamic-state-isis-chemical-weapons-iraq-syria.html?_r=0
  21. Possible use of chemical weapons by ISIS in Iraq (2015). Chatham: Newstex. Retrieved from: http://search.proquest.com/docview/1704161174?accountid=828
  22. Mustard gas in ISIS battle. (2015, Nov 07). Daily Record. Retrieved from: http://search.proquest.com/docview/1731386602?accountid=8289
  23. Thompson, C. (2006). The bioterrorism threat by non-state actors hype or horror? U.S. Naval Post Graduate School. Retrieved from: http://calhoun.nps.edu/handle/10945/2416
  24. ISIS fighters 'have contracted Ebola': World Health Organisation investigating reports militants showed up at Iraqi hospital with lethal disease, 2015)  and Doward, J. (2015, 21 Feb.) Top-secret military warning on Ebola biological weapon terror threat. The Guardian. Retrieved from: http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2015/feb/21/top-secret-ebola-biological-weapon-terror-warning-al-qaida-isis
  25. Amiga, A. & Schuster, R. (2015, Dec. 10). Could ISIS use chemical and biological terrorism in Europe? Haaretz. Retrieved from: http://www.haaretz.com/middle-east-news/isis/.premium-1.691157
  26. Mora, E. (2015, Jun 10.) Australia: ISIS has radioactive material it could use to develop WMD. Breitbart. Retrieved from: http://www.breitbart.com/national-security/2015/06/10/australia-isis-has-radioactive-material-it-could-use-to-develop-wmd/
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Joseph Varner
Joseph Varner is a former Director of Policy to the Minister of National Defence, Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada, a Professor in Emergency and Disaster Management at American Military University, and a CDAI Research Fellow.