Ilja Bonsen, Managing Director of IB Consultancy, organizer of the NCT event series, spoke with Commander Lahur Talabani of the Pehmerga forces in Kurdistan.
IB: You are the Commander of the Intelligence Bureau and the Special Forces. Can you tell us what your command entails?
As the Director of the Zanyari Intelligence and Security Agency, my directorate is responsible for collecting intelligence in the Kurdistan region and sharing the intelligence with appropriate stakeholders. Also, as the head of the Special Forces, the Counter-Terrorism Group (CTG), my forces are responsible for protecting the Kurdish people by fighting against terrorist groups. Both the military and civilian entities are in constant communication to ensure that the information collected by the civilian sector is properly analyzed and put to good use by the military.
Both the Syrian regime and ISIS have been accused of using chemical weapons. Can you tell us about the use of chemical weapons against your troops?
The Peshmerga forces have been exposed to the chemical attacks from ISIS for a while now. They have conducted multiple chemical attacks, both in the city of Makhmour in Iraq and Hasaka in Syria. These are among other cities that have been impacted by these attacks.
What kind of agents were used and how were you able to determine what agents were used?
ISIS has used many different types of chemical agents, including Mustard and Chlorine gas. We have intelligence that they have also used the VX agent, PH3, Soman and Sarin gas. These chemical agents were sampled and detected from the chemical attack sites. We have worked with the U.S. chemical laboratories and other allies to obtain samples from those sites to be detected and analyzed overseas.
Would you know how ISIS obtained access to these agents and their means of delivery (for example mortar shells)?
We believe that they have gained access to these chemical agents through controlling chemical facilities in Mosul and Raqqa. We also have intelligence that ISIS has been accessing research labs and recruiting scientists.
So far their main method of delivery has been loading motor rockets with these chemical mixtures, but they are also looking into using other modes of dissemination.
What can we expect next from ISIS?
ISIS keeps improving their methods of chemical attacks, but they’re also showing interest in using biological weapons. We are beginning to get more information on their intent and capability for using biological weapons and I think they’re perhaps interested in exploring this area next.
Could we expect ISIS to use WMD against Western civilian targets?
ISIS would not think twice about using WMD against Western targets. We know that they keep threatening humanity, but they have also made specific threats against Western targets.
Do you have sufficient CBRN protection, detection and decontamination equipment? What equipment do you have?
We have no CBRN equipment at all. My forces have no way of protecting themselves against chemical attacks by ISIS and have no way of detecting their chemical agents. They need tremendous help and support from the international community in this area.
What other equipment would you need to fight this CBRNe threat?
My forces are in desperate need of CBRN protection equipment, such as suits, gloves, and masks. They also need decontamination equipment. Most importantly, they need detectors. Sending and analyzing chemical samples from the attack sites take a very long time and sometimes we do receive the results up to a month later. Finally, not only do they need detection equipment, but they also need training on all proper protection equipment.
Are the economic difficulties of the Kurdistan Regional Government affecting your ability – or the soldiers’ morale – to fight ISIS?
The budget issues have had tremendous impact on our Peshmerga and their family’s well-beings. Due to these issues, most have not received their salaries for months and thus have been unable to provide proper meals and nutrition for their families, in addition to not being properly prepared for the winter months due to lack of winter gear. Fortunately, despite all these atrocities, our Peshmerga have kept high morale and have been able to remain in high spirits and still take the fight to ISIS.
Your forces have been receiving training from foreign powers. What kind of training and knowledge was most useful to your command?
My CTG forces have obtained their training from the U.S. Special Forces and have been able to continue to train for combat, despite many challenges faced by the Kurdish forces. They have been able to use these advanced tactics while clearing villages and freeing towns during this current war on ISIS.
What has had a greater impact: these training activities or the actual international military effort against ISIS?
I believe that these two efforts are actually synergic, as one depends on the other. The special training that my forces received have enabled them to successfully defeat and degrade ISIS on the battlefield. I am grateful for the support we receive from the international community.
What kind of information can you get out of surrendered militants of ISIS?
We can usually get a good amount of information out of them regarding planning, strategies, etc. It doesn’t take them long to give up intelligence, which we use to our advantage.