In November 2015, the Executive Council of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) expressed “grave concern” that chemical weapons (CW) had once again been used in Syria after its fact-finding mission (FFM) confirmed “with the utmost confidence” that sulphur mustard had been deployed in an attack on the rebel-held town of Marea on 21 August. Although the OPCW did not publicly identify the perpetrators of the Marea attack, the report added to the growing evidence about the Islamic State in the Levant (ISIL) chemical weapons (CW) interest.
Over the past few months sources have indicated that ISIL has had the possibility of access to CBRN material. While most of the declared chemical weapons material has been removed from Syria and destroyed, there are indications that some material still remains in the country and is potentially accessible to ISIL. There are unconfirmed reports that the country has moved nuclear material, intended to be used in the destroyed Dair al-Sour reactor, to an undisclosed storage site near the city of Kusair.
The OPCW has also suggested that chemical material not qualifying as CW and not subject to being declared under the CW convention, such as chlorine, has actually been used by the Assad regime in the fight against the Syrian opposition and some press reports indicate that ISIL might have done the same.
ISIL also controlled the Al Muthanna site in Iraq for some months during 2014. According to UN reports, the site of the past Iraqi CW programme contained “2,000 empty artillery shells contaminated with mustard agents, 605 one tonne mustard containers with residues and heavily contaminated construction material”.
Although Iraqi forces claim to have retaken the site is too dangerous for them to enter the bunkers and check if or how much material landed in the hands of ISIL. It is also reported that ISIL fighters stole nearly 90 pounds (40kg) of low enriched uranium from scientific institutions at the Mosul University in Iraq. Due to its limited toxicity, this material may not be used to inflict serious physical harm but could spread panic.
The US and other Western countries have been helping Iraqi authorities since the mid-2000s to secure and recover other more dangerous material including orphaned and disused radioactive sources and nuclear waste from previous Iraqi programmes that were dismantled after the second Gulf war. The clear aim of these efforts was to reduce the risk of terrorists acquiring these dangerous nuclear materials although it still remains unclear as to whether all dangerous materials have indeed been removed from territory under Iraqi control.
In addition, Libya, where ISIL is establishing a new stronghold, has still not destroyed all its chemical materials from previous programmes and they could also fall into ISIL’s hands.
Little is known about the exact level of knowledge and expertise of ISIL fighters and their affiliates for dealing with CBRN material. Some of them may have received higher education in Western universities or otherwise acquired the necessary knowledge in their own countries of origin. One confirmed case is a former Saddam WMD specialist, Salih Jasaim Muhammad Falah al-Sabawi, who was allegedly killed by a US air strike near Mosul in February 2015. According to US intelligence sources, Al-Sabawi had previously worked at the Al Muthanna site referred to above, and was allegedly gathering relevant equipment. ISIL’s ambitions to acquire chemical weapons are referred to by these intelligence sources as “more than just notional”.
Last year ISIL-inspired jihadists attempted to perpetrate a CBRN attack in Jakarta where they planted a chlorine bomb in a shopping mall, which failed to properly detonate, after which, Julie Bishop, Australia’s foreign minister, warned that ISIL is now capable of building chemical weapons. She said: “Apart from some crude and small scale endeavours, the conventional wisdom has been that the terrorist intention to acquire and weaponise chemical agents has been aspirational. The use of chlorine by ISIL, and its recruitment of highly technically trained professionals, including from the West, have revealed far more serious efforts in chemical weapons development.”
However, despite its growing expertise, ISIL may not be capable of producing “dirty” bombs or an Improvised Nuclear Device (IND) in the near future, but it will be able to threaten its attackers in Iraq, Syria and Libya, with highly effective, improvised chemical weapons such as chlorine, creating a risk for the local population and the countries in the immediate vicinity.
However, if this threat is not contained, it could easily spread anywhere throughout the world, as shown by the Jakarta attack by returning foreign fighters ready to bring their “fight” to Western countries at any price either directly or as so-called “sleeper cells” awaiting a signal to act.