The Paris attacks brought home ISIL’s intention to terrorise all those who oppose them, wherever they may be. Outside the Syria and Iraq environs, it strives for ever more spectacular attacks with ever more shocking outcomes.
Many, especially those who oppose air strikes, rightly urge caution due to the lessons learnt in the 2003 invasion of Iraq. However, having been involved in both Gulf Wars and having been in both Syria and Iraq this year, I see very few similarities except for the WMD issue. In this case ISIL do have WMD, albeit in very small quantities, Mustard agent (gas), and the desire but probably not the capability to produce an Improvised Nuclear Device (IND). There is also unsubstantiated speculation that they are trying to develop a biological weapon with Anthrax and possibly plague.
Now Britain is joining the battle against ISIL with air strikes extending into Syria as well as Iraq. Before Wednesday’s vote a key question was – would make terror attacks, including chemical and biological attacks, more likely in the UK?
I expect the UK is at the top of the ISIL attack list anyway, marginally behind Russia and France, and marginally ahead of the US and other coalition members – so the answer is probably not. With a major offensive about to begin to drive ISIL out of Mosul I do see an increased likelihood of ISIL using their Chemical Biological Radiological & Nuclear (CBRN) capabilities to defend the city. If ISIL lose Mosul, they lose Iraq and their centre of gravity, and its loss would likely signify the beginning of the end of the ISIL Caliphate as a ground holding ‘state’.
It is in Mosul that ISIL are developing their chemical weapons programmes and they have nuclear isotopes which could be used as dirty bombs. They are likely to use CBRN to stave off defeat having seen how effective Assad’s chemical attacks were in Syria when he defeated the ISIL assault on the military air base of Deir Ezzor in Dec 2014 using chlorine barrel bombs, and his defence of Damascus in Aug 2013 using the nerve agent Sarin which killed 1500, mainly women and children. We then saw the extensive use of Chlorine Improvised Explosive Devices by ISIL to defend Tikrit in spring this year with varying degrees success – it certainly terrified the Iraqi Army.
One of the most startling aspects post the Paris attacks was the French Prime Minister’s warnings of the threat of chemical and biological attack. This was accompanied by the issue of Atropine, the nerve agent antidote, to military and police.
A threat is built upon an intention to do something and having the capability to execute that threat. Do ISIL have the intention to use CBRN weapons to terrorise? Without doubt. Do they have the capability to deliver CBRN weapons on target? Yes, in Syria and Iraq, but much more limited outside this region.
So what is the threat to the UK? I believe it would be very difficult to get even the smallest amount of class 1 chemical weapons into the UK. Our security forces are on the lookout and have very effective procedures to interdict this type of threat. It would be a similar story with radiological isotopes to build a dirty bomb or improvised nuclear device.
I gauge the likelihood of CBRN material being smuggled into the UK as ‘highly unlikely’. So that’s the end of it? ….not quite. The threat to the UK, in my opinion, is from ISIL ‘clean skins’ or ‘sleepers’. These are people who have been radicalised online or through visits to Iraq, Syria or other training camps, who are undoubtedly present in the UK, as they will be in all Western nations, waiting for the opportunity to strike. As it is becoming more difficult to acquire guns and explosives to replicate a ‘Paris’ style attack, these ‘clean skins’ are likely to look for asymmetric weapons.
It is clear that ISIL have been teaching the use of CBRN for attacks at Mosul and Raqqa 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 this 2 months ago. Chlorine and other toxic chemicals are widely available in the UK and there are many radiological sources in the UK which could be fashioned into ‘dirty’ bombs.
Is it possible for a terrorist poison our water supply? Yes, but they’d need thousands of tonnes to have any real effect, and I think we might notice somebody dropping that amount into a reservoir.
Could a terrorist release chlorine ‘gas’ on the Underground? Possibly, but it is unlikely that nobody would notice – to have a an effect you would need to release or explode quite a lot of chlorine and I’m pretty sure the British Transport Police and security would pick somebody up trying to enter an Underground station with such a device.
So should we avoid crowded places over Christmas? Should we avoid the Underground or going to football or rugby matches? Absolutely not…if we do that ISIL has won.
What we do need to do is be vigilant, just as we collectively were during the height of the IRA terror campaign.
Hamish de Bretton Gordon is a former commander of NATO’s CBRN Brigade. He now works at Avon – A Defence company.