“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
Chemical weapons are being used almost daily somewhere in the world by some terror group or dictator, and their usage appears to be the ‘new normal’. The globe hasn’t seen this level of usage since WW1. Their horrify success in Syria, keeping Assad in power long after he should have gone, has lead the ultimate terror group ISIL to use them all over Iraq and Syria. In particular to defend Mosul, and last week we hear of Sudan Dictator President Bashir accused of killing over 250 civilians with Mustard agent in 32 separate attacks.
ISIL does have Chemical weapons, and now in growing quantities as they self-manufacture; Mustard agent (gas), toxic chemicals like chlorine, and the desire but probably not the capability, yet, to produce an Improvised Nuclear Device (IND), but they have much publicised their ‘dirty’ bomb ambitions. There is also unsubstantiated speculation that they [ISIL] are trying to develop a biological weapon utilising Anthrax and possibly plague. ISIL have lost significant ground in Iraq and Syria and are likely to lose Mosul and Iraq by the end of the year but will throw the ‘chemical kitchen sink’ at the Coalition attackers to try to hold on. And this makes it now more likely that they will rely on followers to commit atrocities around the globe, most especially against those who oppose them and most especially through spectacular attacks which could include chemical attack.
The Iraqi Kurd Peshmerga forces have been attacked 20 times in the last 6 months with Mustard agent (gas) and chlorine causing over 200 causalities according to senior Peshmerga generals and witnessed during my visits to N Iraq in 2016. Russian Foreign Secretary Lavrov spoke about them 02 Mar 16 in Geneva, and I agree with him, that the ISIL chemical weapons threat is not only in Iraq but could manifest itself as a global threat if not directly targeted, now. With the major offensive against ISIL in Mosul about to begin it is highly possible that ISIL will unleash their complete range of chemical and radiological (dirty bombs) weapons against the coalition assault which is likely to be lead on the ground by the Peshmerga.
It is the fear of chemical weapons that is the real killer rather than the toxicity of the agents/gas. Less than 0.5% of casualties in the First World War were attributed to chemical weapons yet it [WW1] is synonymous with their [CW] use, and there is a very similar figure for the current conflict in Syria and Iraq. It is ISIL’s morbidly brilliant physiological warfare, and chemical weapons are the ultimate psychological weapon, against all those who oppose them [ISIL] that is giving them an edge.
So what does this all signify for the UK and the Free World? Britain is punching above its weight in the global fight against ISIL with air attacks and Special Forces support. Does this involvement, make terror attacks, including CBRN attacks, more likely in UK? Firstly, countries like UK, I expect, are 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. 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. Threats to poison the Paris water supply and a hoax anthrax attack in Brussels heightened the likelihood that ISIL may have some CBRN capability in Europe. CBRN weapons are the ultimate terror weapon and it appears very plausible that the ultimate terror organisation, ISIL, would want to use them.
I 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 UK, potential easier in some European countries with long challenging borders and returning Jihadists. But we have seen that Jihadists groups now know how to manufacture their own Mustard agent and even relatively technically unsophisticated countries like Sudan have also managed to manufacture effective Mustard agent. Security Forces will be on the lookout and have very effective procedures to interdict this type of threat. The greater threat is from ISIL ‘clean skins’ or ‘sleepers’ and returning Jihadists, and it is acknowledge by UK Government that up to 500 of British citizens are currently fighting with ISIL in Iraq and Syria. 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 the UK and other Western countries waiting for the opportunity to strike. As it is becomes more difficult to acquire guns and explosives to replicate a ‘Paris, Brussels 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 last year. Chlorine and other toxic chemicals plus radiological sources are widely available around the globe.
With these threats now apparent and Jihadist attacks around the world on a regular basis, 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, there is effective mitigation protocols which can be employ to minimise their risks and subsequent exposure.
Of course had we bombed Assad after his use of Sarin nerve agent on 21 Aug 13 to kill 1500 people, terror groups and dictators might be slightly more disinclined to use them now?
‘It is the ‘irrational but understandable’ fear of chemical weapons which is the real killer not the toxicity of the agents’.