For months now, a lot can be read about the cruel reign and war the Islamic State (ISIS) is spreading around the Middle East: from public beheadings of hostages to the destruction of historical sites and terror. In addition, ISIS allegedly used chemical weapons against Kurdish and Iraqi security forces while proof has been found that ISIS is at least seeking to get access to CBRN expertise. In the meanwhile, Syria, Iraq and Libya are turning into failed states with serious consequences for their national CBRN infrastructure. A toxic development.
ISIS Grip on the Levante
One must acknowledge that ISIS surprised a large part of the Western community by taking advantage of a power vacuum in Syria, Iraq and Libya within a short amount of time. As of March 2015, ISIS controls a territory stretching out over large parts from north-western Iraq between Bagdad and Mosul to Syria’s Aleppo across the Turkish border. Besides, major battles take place against Syrian, Iraqi and Kurdish forces around the cities of Homs, Al-Salamiyah, Kirkuk and+ Arbil. In addition, ISIS fosters its grip on Libya, committing IED attacks in Tripoli and Benghazi while controlling the cities of Sirte and Derna. With Tripoli, Damascus and Bagdad under attack, it is an understatement that ISIS nowadays controls large parts of these countries, including their critical infrastructure. ISIS practically turns them into failed states with serious consequences for regional non-proliferation efforts. Of all things, Syria, Iraq and Libya are those countries in the region that have a highly questionable history when it comes to CB warfare, WMD development programs and respective proliferation records.
Syria, Libya and Iraq – a history of CBRN proliferation and warfare
For starters, Syria’s former CB weapon programs currently seem to be largely out of reach for ISIS. Syria has been able to develop one of the most advanced Chemical warfare capabilities in the region since 1973 with the help of Egypt during the war against Israel. Such capabilities included the means to develop and produce agents such as mustard gas and sarin at facilities around Homs, Hama and Aleppo. They are believed to have been stored at an estimated 40 locations across the country. Information of biological warfare capabilities in Syria remain non-reliable and limited, however intelligence services in Germany and the US find it probable that the Assad regimes possesses Anthrax and Botulinum capabilities under the control of the ‘Centre D’Etude et Recherché Scientifique’.
The Assad regime already allegedly used chemical warfare agents such as sarin nerve gas and chlorine in 2013 against its own population and insurgents. In the aftermath, Syria signed the CWC following diplomatic pressure from the USA and Russia. By 23 June 2014, all of Syria’s chemical weapons production facilities have been rendered inoperable while removing all reported chemical weapons and their precursors with the support of OPCW. But even though all previous production facilities are currently not under the control of ISIS, it remains questionable if extremists got access to chemical weapons already before 2014. For instance in July 2012, a Turkish Jihadist website claimed that Syrian rebels obtained chemical material from a military site near Aleppo. Also, a UN mission claimed in December 2013 that Syrian rebels used chemical warfare agents themselves as well. It is therefore very likely that chemical hazmats have gotten into the wrong hands prior to the chemical stockpile destruction in 2014.
The situation in Libya looks quite similar: remains of chemical weapons are currently under the control of the Libyan state. The Qadhafi Regime tried for decades to develop WMD programs. However, despite establishing several research facilities, Libya was never able to develop a serious biological or nuclear weapon program and renounced all WMD programs in 2003. Until then, the country possessed a moderate chemical weapons program, including facilities in the towns of Rabta, Tarhuna, and Sebha. The Qadhafi Regime also used those weapons in 1987 against its southern neighbor Chad. However, the US downplayed the dimension of Libya’s chemical warfare capabilities until today. The destruction of the chemical weapon programs was halted due to the violent conflicts in the country in 2011 and still hundreds of tons of precursor materials are assumed to be safely stored on a military base. By the end of 2016, Libya aims to be free of chemical weapons and precursor materials.
While the storage and surveillance of CBRN hazardous materials in Syria and Libya seems to be relatively under control, the risk of CBRN proliferation in Iraq poses a much greater threat to international security. Chemical Warfare agents were used by the Saddam Hussein Region during the First Gulf War against Iran and both biological and nuclear warfare programs had started in the 1970s, e.g. producing thousands of liters of Botulinum, Anthrax and aflatoxin. In the aftermath of the First and Second Gulf War in the 1980s and 1990s, previous CBRN weapon programs have been incapacitated by 1995 under UN supervision. Together with the Iraq Nuclear Facility Dismantlement and an international consortium, most of the country’s remaining nuclear infrastructure had been destroyed since 2003. However, inspectors from the UN were unable to verify the complete destruction of Iraq’s biological weapon programs while control of low-risk nuclear and chemical facilities and material in Iraq remains vulnerable – to the advantage of ISIS.
Usage of Chemical Warfare Agents by ISIS in Iraq and Syria
Indeed, ISIS seems to have access to nuclear and chemical material in Iraq. In July 2014, ISIS reportedly seized 40 kilo of uranium compounds from Mosul University and 2500 degraded chemical rockets filled with sarin at a former chemical weapons facility located in Muthanna next to Baghdad. Especially the latter raised concern that ISIS might use more frequently improvised chemical dispersion devices in Iraq and Syria.
Already in 2006, Islamist terrorists used 15 truck bombs together with chlorine tanks killing 115. Since September 2014, ISIS followed such scenarios using bombs and trucks filled with chlorine, injuring dozens of Kurdish and Iraqi security forces. Until today, it has only been used as an amplifying destructive power of vehicle borne IEDs and it can be doubtful that ISIS seriously has the expertise to run a sophisticated chemical weapons attack. Also the U.S. Department of State commented on the seizure of the Muthanna chemical weapons complex that it is very unlikely that the materials found can be used for any military purposes. But what’s next?
An idea can be given by allegations of the Kurdish fighters in Kobani. The town near the Turkish border had been under siege of ISIS forces for weeks in autumn 2014. Kurdish fighters thereby reportedly came under chemical attack, complaining about breathing problems, bleeding from the eyes, skin burns and vomiting. Similar allegations existed in July 2014 in the village of Avdiko, in eastern Kobani – indications that at least remnants of chemical weapons could have fallen into the hands of ISIS.
It seems as if ISIS has at least the intention to acquire CBRN knowledge and to use it against its adversaries. In January 2015, a WMD expert and ISIS jihadist, Abu Malik, was killed during an U.S. strike near the Iraqi city of Mosul. According to an U.S. Intelligence official, Abu Malik was gathering equipment for ISIS enabling the terrorist network to acquire unconventional and illicit weapons. Under the regime of Saddam Hussein, he worked at the aforementioned Muthanna chemical weapons complex.
Even the acquaintance of bio expertise seems probable. Brig. Gen. Maria Gervais, Commander of the U.S. Army CBRN Defense School, mentioned in October 2014 that ISIS might look into the weaponization of the bubonic plague and using infected animals to spread the disease. Another example is a laptop of a Tunisian ISIS fighter that has been found by moderate Syrian rebel groups who claimed that it contained files including detailed instructions for developing bioweapons.
Yet, there is little evidence that ISIS is using anything else or stronger than chlorine, a gas that was not among the chemical stockpiles handed over to U.N. inspectors by the Assad Regime. Also, it is not particularly effective as a weapon and not comparable to nerve agents such as ricin. However, a release for example in the London tube would immediately cause panic and terror in the West, even if it is not very toxic. Since the Paris attacks in January 2015, it must be taken into consideration that ISIS has intentions to commit attacks that grant them international attention while spreading terror and fear among Western societies. ISIS could thereby follow the footsteps of the Rajneeshee and Aum Shinrikyo religious cults that committed both the bioterrorist attack in Antelope in 1984 and the Tokyo Sarin-Attacks in 1995.
Comparable to these two examples, it is clear that ISIS both has considerable financial resources in order to acquire CBRN knowledge or precursor technologies, and is aiming for worldwide prestige and attention. Just against this background, the potential CBRN threat emanating from the rise of ISIS in the Levante should not be discounted. This is ever more relevant as ISIS, in contrast to Rajneeshee and Aum Shinrikyo, has its own safe haven in parts of Iraq, Syria and Libya – all of them states that can be regarded as failed states with insufficient public control and authority over sites of critical infrastructure. And even as it seems that a broad coalition of Kurdish and Iraqi Security Forces together with U.S. airstrikes is pushing ISIS back in some regions, ISIS might turn to non-conventional warfare if it starts to get defeated while having gained the necessary expertise, technology and material. Also, the sophisticated weaponry that ISIS gained in Iraq could be used to assault nuclear facilities outside of Iraq and Syria. In a region where especially chemical warfare is a highly sensitive issue, such threat scenarios should not be discarded.