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“Its [IS] recruitment of highly technically trained professionals, including from the West, have revealed far more serious efforts in chemical weapons development”

Julie Bishop, Australian Foreign Minister,

19 June 2015

ISIL does have chemical weapons, albeit in very small quantities, Mustard agent (gas), toxic chemicals like chlorine, and the desire but probably not the capability, yet, to produce an Improvised Nuclear Device (IND).  There is also unsubstantiated speculation that they [ISIL] are trying to develop a biological weapon utilising Anthrax and possibly Plague.

Australia is punching well above its weight in the global fight against ISIL with air attacks and Special Forces support.  Does this extensive involvement, make terror attacks, including CBRN attacks, more likely in Australia?  Firstly, countries like Australia are, I expect, at the very top of the ISIL attack list anyway, marginally behind Russia and France.  Secondly, with the major offensive about to begin to drive ISIL out of Mosul and Iraq, perhaps precipitated by the recent uplift in coalition air strikes, I do see an increased likelihood of ISIL using their CBRN capabilities to defend Mosul.

It is in Mosul that ISIL are developing their chemical weapons programmes and they have nuclear isotopes which could be used as dirty bombs but not, I judge, yet as INDs.  But with talk this week that American extremist Cody Wilson is releasing files for an automatic weapon which can be made in plastic by a 3D printer, there is realistic concern that this technology could also be utilised to make key elements of an IND.  ISIL will use CBRN weapons to stave off defeat, having seen how effective Assad’s chemical attacks were in Syria when he defeated the ISIL assault on the key military air base of Deir Ezzor in Dec 2014 using chlorine barrel bombs. There was extensive use of Chlorine Improvised Explosive Devices (IED) by ISIL to defend Tikrit in April last year with varying degrees success – but it certainly terrified the Iraqi Army almost into submission.

“Terrorism hit France not because of what it is doing in Iraq and Syria … but for what it is. We know that there could also be a risk of chemical or biological weapons … We must not rule anything out.”

French Prime Minister Manuel Valls

19 November 2015

The game ‘changed’, after the Paris attacks with the French Prime Minister’s warnings of the threat of chemical and biological attack from ISIL.  CBRN weapons are the ultimate terror weapon and it appears very plausible that the ultimate terror organisation, ISIL, would want to use them.

Chlorine IED JakartaI was in Jakarta in April 2015 and was shown a chlorine IED by the Indonesian Police.  This was planted in a Jakarta supermarket by returning Jihadists who had been fighting with ISIL in Syria, apparently.  This showed a level of sophistication – 2 detonators, 5KGs chlorine and acids – which appeared to have been taught and not just gleaned off the internet, presumably in Raqqa or Mosul where the ISIL chemical weapons programme is based.  A portent of terror ahead from all ‘returning’ Jihadists.

So what?  There is a threat, but limited. I believe it would be very difficult to get even the smallest amount of CBRN weapon, like Mustard agent or Nerve agent into Australia.  Australian Security Forces will be on the lookout and have very effective procedures to interdict this type of threat.  It would be a similar story with radiological isotopes required to build a dirty bomb or an IND, but we need to be fully aware of the developing technologies and capabilities around 3D printers.

The greater threat is from ISIL ‘clean skins’ or ‘sleepers’ and returning Jihadists.  These people are radicalised online or through visits to Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan or other training camps, potentially some time ago, who are undoubtedly present in Australia waiting for the opportunity to strike.  As it is becomes more difficult to acquire guns and explosives to replicate a ‘Paris or Sydney’ style attack, these ‘clean skins’ will look to asymmetric weapons, mainly CBRN, in order to have the desired shock effect.

It is clear that ISIL have been teaching the use of CBRN for attacks to their followers. This appears to be focused on improvised chemical weapons like chlorine, organophosphates (pesticides) and dirty bombs – Australian Foreign Secretary Julie Bishop detailed as much 6 months ago.  Chlorine and other toxic chemicals plus radiological sources are widely available in Australia.

With these threats now apparent and just across the water in Indonesia, it is timely to dust off pre-attack and post-attack procedures and just remind ourselves of the basics.  Like any threat, if we demonstrate our resilience to it, it is less likely to happen and if it does the impact will be that much less.  Burying ‘heads in sand’ is never a good way to oppose terror.

‘It is the fear of chemical weapons which is the real killer not the toxicity of the agents’.



Hamish De Bretton Gordon is currently in Australia where he appeared on ABC Radio News Breakfast on Tuesday, 2nd February and ABC News the World on Thursday 4th February discussing the threats to Australia posed by chemical weapons in the hands of terrorists.


2 Comments on "Is there a chemical weapon threat to Australia from Isil?"

  1. mahatmacoatmabag | 3rd February 2016 at 5:36 pm | Reply

    Chemical & biological weapons pose a threat to the West not just because the material to make them is widely available but also because of the foolish attitude of Western universities, colleges & technology institutes that have trained untold thousands of Arabs & other Muslims as scientists & engineers from countries in the Mid-East, North Africa & Asia, all in the pursuit of greed. Whilst it may be legitimate for Western universities & the like to accept foreign students who pay well, the end result of such a short sighted policy is that scientists such as those who built Pakistans nuclear weapons & most of the scientists who have created the biological & chemical weapons programmes of the regimes in Syria, Iran, Iraq, Libya & elsewhere are Western trained. The availability of dangerous material can not be separated from the equally dangerous training of the scientists & engineers who will build the weapons for the terrorists. Its time for Western governments & universities to recognise that they are the ones who have trained these people & that much stricter control of scientific knowledge & know how must be exercised in the future because behind every bomb is a bomb maker.

  2. An engineering degree is not required before creating a chemical weapon and one or more reactive compounds plus explosives, a detonator and a timer will be enough to cause harm. Give me a week of special forces training and I could probably make half the ingredients under your kitchen sink go bang. A similar technique could probably be used for a dirty bomb or biological device.

    Building a larger device without killing yourself and/or your companions in the process, now that requires an engineer. For example I have heard that the Anarchists Cookbook contains a number of significant errors and I suspect that they may have been placed there on purpose to perhaps remove enthusiastic amateurs from the gene pool.

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