US targets ISIS chemical weapons capability

Friday 18/03/2016
Members of the civil defence spray and clean areas in the town of Taza, on March 13th.

Dubai - The US military has started carrying out air strikes near Mosul, Iraq, targeting Islamic State (ISIS) chemi­cal weapons production facilities. The US military operation followed the capture last month of Sleiman Daoud al-Afari, said to be a leading figure in the terror group’s chemical and conventional weap­ons manufacturing programme.

The Pentagon has said the latest strikes against ISIS have degraded but not completely eliminated the group’s chemical weapons produc­tion capabilities. ISIS followed up the US strikes by launching new attacks with chemical agents in Kirkuk and the nearby town of Taza currently under the control of Turk­men Shia paramilitaries.

ISIS has been known to have pos­sessed and used chemical weapons for some time. Sulphur mustard shells were used by ISIS against Kurdish forces last summer. In Sep­tember 2015, American intelligence officials publicly confirmed their knowledge of ISIS using chemical weapons in Syria and Iraq.

The CIA previously disclosed that the group has the capability to make small quantities of chlorine and mustard gas and US officials now say that Afari has provided crucial details about ISIS’s activities and how it has been packing artillery shells with powdered mustard gas.

The big question now is to what extent Afari’s capture will help un­derstanding of the true extent and threat posed by ISIS’s chemical weapons capabilities. Afari is be­lieved to have worked for the Mili­tary Industrialisation Authority in Iraq under Saddam Hussein.

The United States has so far downplayed the importance of ISIS’s chemical weapons capability and has said it does not see it has a high-level threat given the limited production capacity and battlefield effectiveness of its weapons. In­deed, ISIS has used both chemical agents in the past but has had to settle for more of a psychological impact than a military one. For now, experts believe that the powdered mustard gas being packed into ar­tillery shells by ISIS lacks the high concentrations required to kill — but these shells can certainly impair and injure. Mustard gas can kill by causing blistering in the lungs and throat if inhaled in sufficient quan­tities. Even against targets using gas masks it can soak through attire to produce severe blistering on the body.

Chlorine attacks can cause vic­tims to choke to death. The gas reacts at high speed with water in the respiratory system to form hy­drochloric acid, which then swells and eventually blocks lung tissues to cause suffocation.

In both cases, contaminated per­sons and areas need to be sealed off and thoroughly cleansed as quickly as possible, but this is almost im­possible today in Syria and Iraq where ISIS roams large swathes of territory it has captured or domi­nates with relative ease. The situ­ation also points to the lack of re­gional capacity more widely to deal with emergencies where chemical agents have been used in attacks by terrorist outfits.

The use of chemical weapons by ISIS should not be discounted — the impact so far has indeed been pri­marily psychological but even this is crucial since morale is critical in the sort of war of attrition ISIS is mounting. The psychological im­pact of chemical attacks by ISIS has undermined morale among its opponents and the general civilian population at large.

The question turns now to under­standing the extent of ISIS’s chemi­cal weapons production arsenal and its existing stockpiles and what to do about them. In June 2014, ISIS captured Al Muthanna complex, 96km north of Baghdad, which is believed to have been a storage site for hundreds of tons of sarin and mustard gas in the Saddam era.

It is unclear if there were still any agents stored at Al Muthanna but what is certain is that Ba’athists from the Saddam era, such as Afari, who were involved in its chemical weapons programmes, are alive and sharing their knowledge with ISIS today. There is also speculation that ISIS has managed to secure stock­piles from Libya that were produced under the Qaddafi regime.

In large enough quantities, chem­ical agents can have a terrifying and devastating impact. On March 16, 1988, during the closing days of the Iran-Iraq war, one of the largest chemical weapons attack against a civilian-populated area was carried out on the Kurdish city of Halabja. According to some estimates the chemical attack there killed up to 5,000 people, injured 10,000, and thousands more died of complica­tions, diseases and birth defects in the years following the strike.

ISIS certainly possesses a ruth­lessness to create another chemi­cal attack of Halabja proportions if it had the capacity. Considering the huge psychological impact of chemical weapons and given the growing presence of ISIS’s affili­ates outside of Syria and Iraq, there is also a question of how far and wide the group may have managed to distribute chemical agents to its fighters. This raises dangerous pros­pects for many countries, especially those bordering Syria and Iraq such as Lebanon, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and even Egypt, where ISIS is active in the Sinai.