In 2016, ISIS may once again take its terror out of the region of its “caliphate.” It had success in Paris last November and is losing ground in Iraq. Watch out for a new horror—they may take chemical attacks overseas—to the far enemy as Al Qa’ida would call it—Washington must ratchet up concern for chemical weapons attacks.
Reports in the last two months state ISIS has used mustard agent and aspires to produce its own chemical agents including the nerve agent sarin (http://bigstory.ap.org/article/b6c721d1beb34b989bf46aa101cf361a/iraqi-us-officials-working-produce-chemical-weapons). These risks are credible and serious.
Recall that the progenitor of ISIS, Mussab al Zarkawi planned and almost successfully executed a massive attack against Jordanian government buildings in April 2004. He planned to lace the explosives with poisonous chemicals. He was only thwarted by incredible skill and luck on the part of the Jordanian intelligence services—using methods and knowledge unavailable in the US. (See Joby Warrick’s recent book “Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS” for a great discussion of this near disaster.)
On the one hand, this underlines the importance of the success of removing the Syrian government’s large CW stockpile following the agreement between Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Secretary of State John Kerry in September 2013. Imagine if those stocks fell into the hands of ISIS? The UN and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) did an extraordinary job implementing this agreement. However, there are still instances of the use of chlorine as a rudimentary chemical agent and, a fact-finding mission of the OPCW has now reported a confirmed use of mustard agent (though they have not attributed who was responsible).
While the Syrian stocks appear to have been accounted for fully, this was not the only path to chemical weapons for ISIS. They might, (and possibly have) obtained access to undeclared residual stocks from the Libyan arsenal. The Libyan inventory was declared destroyed by international weapons inspectors last year. This may be, but unexpected stores have been discovered in Libya before. Now that Libya is in chaos, weapons inspection teams are unable to work there. It is possible that mustard chemical weapons used by ISIS in Syria followed the path of Libyan conventional weapons once Qaddafi’s government collapsed.
Worse is the potential for ISIS to produce their own nerve agent. ISIS has the will (demonstrated in their own statements and actions) and they probably have or can obtain the capability–at least to produce moderate quantities of sarin.
To produce sarin (or other chemical agents) four things are needed: a secure space; some laboratory facilities; chemical expertise; and, chemical precursors.
ISIS controls territory with substantial infrastructure (something Al Qa’ida never has). Certainly within a city like Mosul Iraq, they can set up a secure facility capable of producing small amounts of sarin. This would not be large scale, such as the enormous facilities established under Saddam. (He produced and used over 100,000 chemical rounds against Iran and the Kurds during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980’s.) However it would be sufficient for ISIS to cause terror.
The expertise to produce sarin could be drawn from a variety of sources. Iraqi experts remain in the area. They may willingly or by force be called to the ISIS cause. I would not want to be a chemist living in Mosul.
There are also other experts with experience in production of CW in Syria, Libya, Egypt and elsewhere. Ideology, force or money could drive them to serve ISIS.
This requirement may be key. ISIS needs to obtain the requisite precursor chemicals. ISIS has been adept at getting illicit weapons, but getting precursor chemicals may be more challenging and intelligence agencies may be able to pick up indications of such activity.
The concern of ISIS matched with WMD sounds like 2002 and the concerns of the Bush Administration over the “nexus of terrorism and WMD.” This threat did not materialize then, but that is no reason to ignore the risk now. ISIS is has territory, funds, and a global network of sympathetic supporters willing to die for their cause.
It is worth remembering that Aum Shinrikyo, the much smaller Japanese cult, produced enough sarin in a clandestine laboratory to create terror in the Tokyo subway system in 1995. They had access to far fewer resources than ISIS.
Hopefully, the US and other intelligence agencies have this risk near the top of their threat matrix. ISIS appears to have used chemical agents locally.
And, unlike Saddam, they seek to attack the West. Given all the horrors they have perpetrated, why wouldn’t they use chemical weapons?