Does ISIL/ISIS Pose Chemical Threat?

This is a guest post by ESS interns Justin McCarthy and Pauline Op de Beeck

The militant group, Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, otherwise known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIL/ISIS), reportedly gained control this week of an old, former Iraqi chemical weapons plant, Al Muthanna, 36 miles northwest of Baghdad. The complex, a large, sprawling, former weapons depot of Saddam Hussein, contains an unknown amount of chemical weapons, agents, and equipment, all declared under the Chemical Weapons Convention to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in 2009 when Iraq joined the CWC.  Although not considered usable as effective weapons, these legacy agents from the 1991 first Gulf War could still pose a substantial threat.

The Al Muthanna complex, housing research labs, production facilities, and stockpiles for chemical, biological, and conventional weapons from the 1970s and 80s, was heavily bombed by the US in the 1991 war, rendering it incapable of producing further weapons. United Nations inspectors destroyed much of the equipment and weapon stockpiles in the 1990s, and then sealed everything related to Saddam’s chemical weapons program in two large bunkers. However, a 2004 CIA Report notes that while the most hazardous weapons had been declared to the UN, much of the facility was looted after the 1991 bombing. Sarin, mustard gas, and VX nerve agents were amongst the chemicals produced at this facility.

U.S. officials do not believe that the ISIL/ISIS militants could create working chemical weapons, as the material is far too old and contaminated to safely move.  The two Iraqi bunkers, heavily sealed in concrete, would also be extremely difficult to access, and would likely endanger the insurgent forces more than anyone else with unknown toxic chemicals and unexploded ordnance. In the aftermath of the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, the U.S.-impaneled Iraq Study Group determined that the facility was sufficiently dismantled and sealed, and that the remaining chemicals were likely useless. However the seizure of any military equipment, let alone weapons of mass destruction, by ISIL/ISIS is alarming by underlining the strength of their movement and the chaos they continue to cause. Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, a former commander of Britain’s chemical weapons regiment, said that “It is doubtful that ISIS has the expertise to use a fully functioning chemical munition but there are materials on site that could be used in an improvised explosive device.”

The Iraqi government has been working closely with the OPCW, the United States, and other countries since 2009 to determine how best to access these two CW-laden bunkers, evaluate their contents, and safely destroy any remnants of Saddam’s chemical weapons program; this is required under the CWC.  In 2012, Ambassador Dr. Sa’ad Abdelmajid Al Ali, Iraq’s Permanent Representative to the OPCW, reported to the OPCW Executive Council that Iraq was fully committed to the timely, irreversible, and safe destruction of these dangerous materials.

These most recent ISIL/ISIS campaigns, both in Iraq and Syria, have increasingly utilized the tactics typical of conventional warfare, forgoing their previous modus operandi of guerrilla-style suicide attacks. Douglas Ollivant, former Director of Iraq for the White House National Security Council, is on the record saying, “They were great terrorists. They made great car bombs but they were lousy line infantry…They have now repaired that deficiency.” Accordingly, most analysts attribute the sudden increase in funding and military proficiency to the Syrian civil war and the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq. Indeed, ISIS generates substantial revenue from captured oil refineries in northern Syria, which are then reportedly sold back to the Syrian government.

Thus, although the capture of the Al-Muthanna complex this week does not necessarily represent a serious security threat, more unsettling for both Iraqi civilians and Western countries should be the ease with which ISIS has enveloped the northern half of Iraq. Al Muthanna highlights a now existing, very real potentiality that ISIL/ISIS extremists may capture other military facilities in Iraq, or more likely, Syria. Although all CW-related facilities in Iraq were decommissioned or destroyed in the first Gulf War over two decades ago, and to date extremists probably do not have the expertise to exploit any weapons with latent chemical capabilities or partially decommissioned weapons, the fact remains that this is the first time that declared chemical weapons facilities have fallen into terrorist or insurgent hands.  This had been a risk in Libya until last year when Libya completed its destruction of Gaddafi’s CW stockpile, but remains a risk in Syria with some 100 metric tons of sarin precursor chemicals at one military depot outside of Damascus. .

Under an agreement signed in Baghdad in July, 2012, experts from the UK’s Ministry of Defence Science and Technology Laboratory provided training to Iraqi personnel to aid in the process of the disposal of remaining mustard and tabun gas; however, it remains unclear how much, if any, of these old agents in Iraq were ever destroyed at Al Muthanna.  Additionally, as UN and OPCW reports in Syria highlight, supposing all chemical weapons have been dismantled, many so-called dual-use chemicals with industrial and civilian applications crucial to a country’s infrastructure, such as chlorine, will remain potential weapons.

ISIL/ISIS continues to control large portions of Syria including an assortment of oil refineries. Should the U.S. elect to initiate an air campaign against ISIL/ISIS that would most likely push them back into Syria, there is a chance moderate Syrian opposition could be overrun. Although the OPCW deal to date has removed about 92 percent of existing chemical weapons from Syria, there are unsettling reports from Syrian National Coalition opposition group accusing President Bashar al-Assad of transferring chemical weapons to the Lebanese Shi’ite group, Hezbollah, prior to OPCW inspections last fall. The accusations were subsequently denied by Hezbollah, but if the Assad regime were to fall, either to the hands of the moderate Free Syrian Army or ISIL/ISIS, a window of opportunity would exist for a variety of terrorist organizations to appropriate unguarded weapons.

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