A W&Y Exclusive by WMD expert Hamish de Bretton-Gordon
It would appear that US and British politicians and military leaders have been caught leadened footed by the surprise assault on Tikrit by Iraqi and Iranian forces a few weeks ago.
It is common knowledge that the Coalition were keen to delay the Mosul counter offensive until later in the year when the 8 Iraqi Brigades being trained and equipped by the Coalition would be ready for offensive operations. However, out of left field, some suggest, the Iraqi/Iranian ‘coalition’ independently began the attack on Tikrit and the push to remove ISIS from N Iraq. It would appear that no Coalition jets were initially being used in supporting airstrikes because of the inability to deconflict with Iranian jet fighters. However, they are now engaged in limited action.
Iraqi TV is thick with praise for the Iranian support, and fighters on the ground are criticising the lack of Coalition effort. The Iraqi Parliament has also been quick to state that US and Coalition support was not asked for or needed in the fight for Tikrit. However, Iraqis in Baghdad state that this is not wholly unexpected in that a repeat of this Iraqi/Iranian coalition for the major and final assault of Mosul would signal a strategic shift of power in the Middle East, which will have an impact far beyond Baghdad and N Iraq. And coincidentally, with Prime Minister Netanyahu’s plea to not let Iran off the ‘Nuclear’ hook over the next few weeks with any nuclear deal, the next few months in Iraq could set the global strategic power paradigm for years.
CENTCOM proudly announced the death of ISIS chemical weapons expert Abu Malik in an airstrike in Mosul on Friday 30 Jan 15, ahead of the well-publicised Coalition Spring Counter Offensive to retake the strategic city in Northern Iraq. Is Malik’s positioning in Mosul of strategic importance to the Coalition or just coincidence? It is well documented that ISIS have gathered various chemical, biological and nuclear expertise in Raqqa and Mosul in order to fashion WMD, or at least chemical and biological weapons of terror to attack those who oppose them. On a recent visit to Baghdad, Generals in the Iraqi Security Forces briefed me on their concerns that ISIS were continuing to use chlorine filled mortar bombs and were trying to introduce Bubonic Plague, aka ‘Black death’, to refugee camps in N Iraq. ISIS had even developed scorpion bombs, ‘allegedly’, which they had rocketed into towns and villages. This all generates psychological terror well beyond any physical threat. Al Qaeda is well known for its chemical weapons programme based around the hitherto unused but viable Mubtakar hydrogen cyanide bomb, and much of this technology and know-how will now reside with ISIS experts.
ISIS have seen how successful the Assad Regime’s use of chemical weapons has been as a last resort to stave off defeat in Ghouta in Aug 13 and Deir Ezzor in Dec 2014. And with a ‘no boundaries’ approach to terror it is possible that they [ISIS] will use chemical and possibly biological weapons to stave off defeat in Iraq. And hence I believe Malik’s position and role in Mosul is not a coincidence and that he was preparing Mosul’s defence in the way he knows best – and with the delight of CENTCOM took in naming for the first time a character killed in a Coalition strike let us all hope his legacy has died with him in the rubble of Mosul.
There is respectable reporting to suggest ISIS have been experimenting with improvised CBRN for some time – there are some shocking videos of rabbits being poisoned with nerve agent in 2012 in Syria, followed by stories that some of the Assad chemical stockpile crossed the border into Iraq in late 2013. The narrative continues when ISIS captured Al Muthana, the Saddam Hussein chemical stockpile storage site just 40 miles north of Baghdad, though it is unlikely they [ISIS] could have gained any useable WMD out of this site which is now back in the hands of the Iraqi Army. There were a number of reports of ISIS using chlorine on a small scale in November 2014, including an accident which killed 15 Jihadists as they tried to load a rocket with chlorine which then exploded. And then we come on to the mass use of chlorine IEDs in the defence of Tikrit and the possibility that we will see more of the same, and more during the defence of Mosul later this year.
Thus far, ISIS chemical weapon activity has been limited to Iraq and possibly Syria, though there were some unreliable reports that ISIS was trying to move nerve agent through Turkey in 2014. However, the Jakarta chlorine IED, allegedly planted by returning Jihadists in a shopping centre in southern Jakarta at the end of February 2015, is a concerning development as it appears [ISIS] foreign fighters are looking to take their deadly practices home with them. The Jakarta bomb is a rather crude binary device with an accelerator charge, presumably designed to mix chemicals for the secondary charge to vaporise the agent and disperse it. It failed, thankfully, and even if it had gone off most of the chemical would be destroyed in the explosion and the downwind hazard would be measured in metres.
Where does this all leave us? It is apparent that Jihadists are being taught how to use industrial chemicals, mainly chlorine, as a device to terrorise. But it is also clear that the devices so far are barely viable and pose a relatively small hazard. In fact, conventional IEDs are far, far more dangerous. But how can we change the beliefs of many who are terrified at the mention of chemical weapons? Their beliefs are not completely rational in my opinion. Less than 1% of casualties in WW1 and the current Syrian conflict were caused by CW, but both are, in some way, defined by them [CW]. Unlike the ‘armchair’ expert brigade, who appear to advocate silence so as not to encourage the terrorists (which is to completely misunderstand the terrorist in this case), I for one advocate getting the message out about the effectiveness or rather lack of it with these chlorine IEDs and explain the nonsense of this weapon.
And hence help to remove this irrational fear which is the terrorists’ greatest weapon.
Hamish de Bretton-Gordon is a chemicals weapons expert and former commander of UK and NATO CBRN forces.