The Islamic State and the Threat of Chemical Weapons

The Islamic State's chemical weapons aspiration dates back to the very early roots of the group. Dr. Shaul Shay reviews the group's usage and origins of chemical weapons throughout its history

When the US led alliance started to bomb the Islamic State positions in Iraq and in Syria after August 2014, IS lost its momentum in Iraq and Syria. Since October 2014, IS has suffered a series of defeats on every front in Iraq. This weakened position could explain why IS turns to chemical weapons.

The Kurdistan Region Security Council (KRSC) in Iraq said they have evidence that fighters of the Islamic State used chlorine gas as a chemical weapon against their Peshmerga forces. The statement said that a lorry loaded with around 20 gas canisters exploded on a highway between the Iraqi city of Mosul, in Nineveh province, and Syria, as Kurdish forces were being deployed following an offensive against IS fighters. About a dozen Peshmerga soldiers experienced symptoms which could be attributed to exposure to chlorine.

The KRSC said in a statement that EU-certified laboratory tests showed that soil and clothing samples collected from the remnants of an attempted suicide bombing in northern Iraq on January 23, 2015, had levels of chlorine that indicated the substance was used as a weapon.

The KRSC also reported witnessing signs of chlorine used in recent fighting around Tikrit, an overwhelmingly Sunni Arab city in Salahuddin province.

In the past months IS reportedly has been involved in a number of attacks against the Iraqi army and against Kurdish Peshmerga fighters. In some cases they have used car bombs with chlorine and in other cases mortar shells filled with chlorine were used. In most cases the chlorine did not have a significant added value.

IS and Chemical Weapons in Iraq

The Islamic State's chemical weapons aspiration dates back to the very early roots of the group. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the late founder of Al Qaeda in Iraq was very interested in acquiring chemical weapons and using poisons in terrorist attacks. Zarqawi’s terror wasn’t limited to Iraq and Zarqawi trained others in the use of poison (ricin) for possible attacks in Europe.

On April 26, 2004, Jordanian authorities announced they had broken up an al-Qaeda plot to use chemical weapons in Amman. Among the targets were the US Embassy, the Jordanian prime minister’s office and the headquarters of Jordanian intelligence. The Jordanian authorities seized 20 tons of chemicals.

When Zarqawi was killed in an air raid in Iraq in 2006, his successors Abu Ayoub al-Masri and Abu Omar al-Baghdadi continued the terror organization’s chemical project. Between October 2006 and June 2007, more than a dozen attacks with Chlorine took place in Iraq. The attacks in Iraq were poorly executed because much of the chemical agent was rendered nontoxic by the heat of the explosives.

In 2010, the Iraqi and American forces killed Zarqawi’s successors. That opened the door for Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to rebuild his dismantled jihad organization. When the Syrian revolution broke out in 2011, he seized the opportunity to expand and gradually his organization grew into ISIS. In June 2014, they were able to capture the city of Mosul.

Under the leadership of Abu Baker al Baghdadi IS renewed its efforts to develop chemical weapons.

In June 2014, IS invaded a Saddam Hussein chemical weapons complex mega-facility north of Baghdad (al-Muthanna), gaining access to disused stores of potentially deadly poisons including mustard gas and sarin. Experts remained concerned about the seizure of site by IS but they do not believe that the complex contains CW materials of military value and it would be very difficult, if not impossible, to safely move the materials.

In September 2014, a factory of chemical weapons was discovered in Karma, east of Fallujah. When the factory was raided five vehicles, mortar and artillery rounds, propane tanks, barrels of chlorine and nitroglycerine was found. In October 2014, another factory was discovered in Jurf al-Sakhar, where rockets were filed with chlorine.

In late January 2015, a chlorine gas factory exploded in the city of Mosul. Several dozen people were treated in hospital with breathing problems as a result of the gas. Kurdish intelligence sources reported that IS was operating ten chlorine factories in the west of Mosul.

In an attempt to deny IS from developing its chemical weapon program further, the US eliminated Salih Jasim Muhammed Falah al-Sabawi (aka Abu Malik), a chemical weapons expert for IS. Abu Malik had worked at Saddam Hussein’s al-Muthanna chemical weapon production facility, before he linked up with al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) in 2005.

While his death may have had a degrading effect, it cannot be excluded that other Arab Sunni technicians with chemical weapon expertise, who worked at the al-Muthanna facility in the past, will be hired by IS to continue the program.

IS and Chemical Weapons in Libya

Islamic State militants in Libya have reportedly seized large quantities of chemical weapons, including mustard gas and sarin, a nerve agent. The weapons belonged to former leader of Libya, Moammar Gadhafi. A Libyan military official said that before his death, Gadhafi left approximately 1,000 cubic tons worth of material used for manufacturing chemical weapons and about 20,000 cubic tons of mustard gas. Although the weapons are in a degraded state, they likely remain dangerous and should be taken seriously despite their age.

Last year Libyan officials said they had destroyed the last known chemical weapons from Gadhafi’s regime. “Libya is totally empty of any presence of chemical weapons ... which could pose a threat to the safety of people, the environment or neighboring regions,” said Foreign Minister Mohammed Abdelaziz at the time.

With the upcoming military offensive aimed at the city of Mosul, it can be expected that IS will use its chemical weapon capability against the Iraqi and Kurdish forces. With the use of chlorine, territory can be denied to an approaching opponent. Massive use of gas can lead to high loses of human life of the civilian population and a humanitarian crises. Therefore more coalition activity can be expected to disrupt the chemical weapon program of IS before the military offensive against Mosul begins.

The chemical weapons in the use of IS has sparked concern across Europe because of Islamic State group's history and past actions. A desperate IS can extend the use of chemical weapons beyond the frontlines in Iraq ,Syria and Libya and to use it in terror attack against European American and even Israeli targets.

You might be interested also

Photo: Reuters

Cyberwar between the United States and China

Commentary: Here we are at a commercial and quasi-conventional war between two powers, i.e. an old Western power, on the one side, and an Asian power on the other which, however, does not want at all to be relegated and closed in the Pacific. Certainly China is currently not lagging behind on the cyberwar issue. Nevertheless it does not want to use it as a substitute for conventional war or psywar for dual-use technologies, nor to play the game of the total defeat of a hypothetical "enemy".