As ISIS retreats, fears of chemical attacks grow
Beirut - As the Syrian war reaches a crescendo of indiscriminate bombing, starvation sieges and heavy ground fighting, there are growing concerns that the Islamic State (ISIS) and the Russian-backed Damascus regime could unleash deadly attacks with chemical weapons.
The most immediate concern is that ISIS will employ chlorine and mustard gas, crude versions of which they are reportedly producing in neighbouring Iraq, to counter a long-anticipated offensive by the Baghdad government to reconquer Mosul. The northern Iraqi city was stormed by ISIS in June 2014 and the group’s leader Abu Bakr al- Baghdadi proclaimed the caliphate there soon after.
Amid the rise of fanatical jihadist groups such as ISIS, the abiding Western nightmare has been that they would one day unleash chemical or biological attacks on major cities in the Middle East as well as in Europe and the United States.
These fears have grown amid a series of chemical weapons attacks carried out by President Bashar Assad’s regime and ISIS in Syria and Iraq in recent weeks as state forces, supported by the United States, Russia, Iran and the Arab Gulf monarchies, have steadily driven the jihadists out of territory they seized in their 2014 blitzkrieg.
Pentagon spokesman US Navy Captain Jeff Davis said on September 26th the ISIS threat to turn Mosul into “hell on earth” could include the use of chemical weapons. “This is real,” Davis declared. “They’re dead set on it.”
Four days earlier, Colonel Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, former commander of the British military’s Joint Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Regiment, disclosed that intelligence reports say ISIS has planted explosives in a major chemical plant at Mishraq, 20km south of Mosul. These would be detonated if US-backed Iraqi forces threatened the jihadist stronghold.
De Bretton-Gordon, recently in Iraq where he trained Kurdish forces near Mosul on how to counter chemical weapons attacks, warned that Mishraq, one of Iraq’s largest chemical plants, which produces some 21,000 tonnes of sulphur dioxide a day, is packed with thousands of tonnes of sulphur and hydrogen sulphide.
He calculated that if detonated, the chemicals would release hundreds of tonnes of sulphur dioxide and hydrogen sulphide, creating a toxic cloud with a radius of 10-17 km.
In 2003, a month-long fire at the plant released an estimated 600,000 tonnes of sulphur dioxide into the air, the largest recorded man-made release of the toxic gas. It killed all vegetation within several kilometres and left hundreds of people with respiratory problems.
The plant is only 10km north of Qayyarah airbase, where several hundred US troops are deployed with Iraqi forces who captured it from ISIS in July. Blowing up the plant during an offensive could effectively disrupt military operations, at least for a time.
The US global security consultancy Stratfor noted that Qayyarah, which will be critical to the Mosul offensive, was heavily sabotaged by the retreating ISIS fighters in a bid to slow down the impending push on their most prized possession.
The jihadists also set fire to nearby oil fields, smothering the area in a cloud of black smoke to slow down the Iraqi military advance.
Stratfor observed that this tactic — used, incidentally, by Saddam Hussein on a much grander scale in the Iraqi retreat from Kuwait in 1991 — “could be a chilling sign of what lies in store for Iraq. As the Islamic State loses ground, it is making a concerted effort to ensure its opponents cannot use the land or resources it leaves behind”.
De Bretton-Gordon said ISIS has chemical weapons plants in Mosul where it is manufacturing mustard gas. “They have all the precursors at hand from the oil industry and all the experts at hand to do it,” he said.
He said ISIS militants were “making their own mustard gas but I also believe they have access to some of [Syrian President Bashar] Assad’s undeclared stockpile, which could be as much as 100 tonnes”.
The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) concluded in October 2015 that ISIS used mustard gas in Iraq in 2014, the first known use of chemical weapons there since Saddam was toppled in the US invasion of March 2003.
Saddam used chemical weapons against Iranian forces in the 1980- 88 Gulf war, as well as against Iraq’s Kurds, who waged a separatist war against his regime.
In the most horrific of those attacks, up to 5,000 men, women and children died on March 16th, 1988, when Saddam’s warplanes dropped chemical and nerve agents, including sarin and possibly cyanide, on the eastern Kurdish town of Halabja.
It remains the single worst chemical weapons attack on a civilian population.
Syria was supposed to be free of chemical weapons in June 2014 after the Damascus regime handed over more than 1,180 tonnes of declared toxic agents and precursor chemicals to the Germany-based OPCW under a Russian-brokered agreement.
That intervention by Moscow on Assad’s behalf averted threatened US air strikes in retaliation on the regime for an August 21st, 2013, sarin gas attack that killed more than 1,400 people in a rebel stronghold on the edge of Damascus.
But in recent months US and other officials say there has been growing evidence that the regime did not surrender all its chemical stocks and has been using chlorine gas in artillery and mortar shells as well as in rockets.
There are also suspicions that it may also have retained the precursors needed to produce nerve agents such as sarin or VX that are infinitely more deadly than chlorine.
Jihadists have been seeking to develop such weapons since Osama bin Laden set up al-Qaeda in the 1990s but never succeeded, in part because US forces and their allies eliminated key figures in that endeavour.
It is also possible that bin Laden had qualms about using such nightmare weapons against fellow Muslims that would alienate the jihadist organisation in the Islamic world.
But the emergence of ISIS in Iraq, with its access to virtually unlimited funds and experts who worked in Saddam’s secret chemical weapons programme before the US invasion in 2003, changed that.
US intelligence has long suspected that ISIS has laboratories and production facilities. In February, the United States apparently obtained hard information confirming that.
US special forces captured the purported head of the ISIS’s chemical weapons programme, identified as an Iraqi named Sleiman Daoud al-Afari, in Badoosh, north-west of Mosul. That was seen as a breakthrough in the drive to cripple jihadist efforts to develop chemical and biological weapons capable of inflicting mass casualties.