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Foreign Policy Short Form

ISIS and the Threat of Chemical Warfare

Since the extremist group called the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) splashed onto the world stage in June of last year, it has continued to dominate headlines as the primary force of terrorism in the Middle East. Through its massive online and social media presence, the group has gained notoriety for its brutal acts of torture including beheading, sexual violence, slavery etc.  As ISIS continues to grow its conquered borders through the region, there is concern that the group will expand its tactics to include chemical weapons and may already have. ISIS has shown a brazen disregard for international opinion, including that of the Muslim community, thus its willingness to escalate its use of chemical warfare is entirely possible. The United Nations needs to take decisive action immediately to ensure that ISIS is not able to acquire lethal chemical weapons.

            Currently ISIS controls large swaths of northern Iraq and Syria and is part of ongoing battles in major urban centers like Tikrit and Baghdad. ISIS’s geographical concentration between Syria and Iraq is particularly concerning given that both countries have a history of chemical weapons development. The Syrian government was known to maintain a stockpile of various chemical agents including mustard, sarin and Vx[1]. The Assad regime’s arsenal of sarin was brought into the global spotlight in September 2013 after it was revealed that the government conducted a sarin attack in the suburbs of Damascus. In Iraq, Saddam Hussein also retained a significant chemical weapons arsenal of mustard, tabun, Vx and sarin which were put to use in campaigns against Iran in the late 1980’s as well as against the Kurdish minority in the north[2]. In both instances, the Organization for the Prohibition on Chemical Weapons (OPCW) sought to dismantle what is left of these chemical stockpiles. However, the process did not begin that long ago – Iraq acceded to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) in 2009 and Syria in 2013, and the progression has been anything but smooth[3]. Iraq declared its bunkers at the al-Muthanna facility as containing filled and unfilled chemical munitions but due to hazardous conditions in the bunker the OPCW was never able to make an accurate account of the inventory, and sarin/mustard filled rockets may continue to reside in the facility[4]. In Syria there remains declared sites that the OPCW claims have been abandoned but it has not been able to directly verify this – of the 23 facilities declared as chemical weapons production sites only 21 have been directly inspected[5]. Western intelligence sources believe the discrepancy goes even farther – claiming that there are in fact 45 total facilities citing incomplete record-keeping on the part of OPCW inspectors[6]. The location of these remaining 2 known facilities, and possibly dozens more undeclared sites have not been disclosed for security reasons, but this should only fuel the concern of fully functional chemical weapons, or chemical weapons precursors falling into the wrong hands.

            Reports have emerged that ISIS militants have already begun using chlorine based weapons in Iraq. In two separate incidents, once on the Iraqi-Kurdish peshmerga and once in Kobani, ISIS successfully deployed crude chlorine rockets killing over 15 people[7]. It is difficult to claim access to Syrian/Iraqi chemical facilities based on the use of chlorine alone since there are millions of tons of it used in commercial applications and it is not a scheduled chemical under the CWC. It does however indicate that ISIS is interested in using chemical weapons and has likely set its targets on acquiring more lethal ones for future endeavors. Recent intelligence reports claims that ISIS may have also deployed a mustard agent in Kobani, suggesting that they may have infiltrated access to Saddam or Assad’s stockpile[8]. This fear is strengthened by local reports that ISIS overran the al-Muthanna facility north of Baghdad during their siege of the city. While any weapons in these facilities are certainly old and will have lost most of their toxicity, they could still be used in improvised ways as “dirty bombs”[9]. Due to the confidential location of Syria’s facilities, it is hard to know for sure if ISIS is controlling cities around the weapons sites but we should err on the side of caution. The Islamic State is slowing marching toward Damascus as it has taken over major cities like Raqqah and is currently fighting for Syria’s second largest city Aleppo. It is not hard to believe they have captured government officials in the cities they’ve conquered with intimate knowledge of the locations of the undisclosed chemical facilities and are within months of possessing even more lethal chemical weapons than they already have.

The United Nations needs to take immediate action to militarily secure any and all chemical facilities in Iraq and Syria to prevent the Islamic State from acquiring any possible chemical weapons or precursors. While the US airstrike campaign has met with some moderate success, ISIS’s recruitment and funding has only increased and any ground they lose will result in increased desperation to gain it back. ISIS has already displayed a willingness to use low-level chemical weapons, if it possesses nerve agents like sarin, one can only imagine the horrors they could unleash across the Middle East.       


[1] Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament Annual Report 2012–2013, July 10, 2013.

[2] “An Overview of the Chemical Munitions found in Iraq” – http://www.un.org/depts/unmovic/new/documents/technical_documents/s-2006-701-munitions.pdf

[3] Johnathan Tucker – “Iraq Faces Major Challenges in Destroying Its Legacy Chemical Weapons

“, http://cns.miis.edu/stories/100304_iraq_cw_legacy.htm

[4] Ibid. 3

[5] Nikitin, Mary Beth, Kerr, Paul, Feickert, Andrew. “Syria’s Chemical Weapons: Issues for Congress”, September 30th, 2013, Congressional Research Service

[6] Ibid. 5

[7] Katrina, Montogomery. “Syrian Chemical Weapons, in ISIS Hands and Renewed Civilian Attacks”, http://www.syriadeeply.org/articles/2014/10/6291/syrian-chemical-weapons-isis-hands-renewed-civilian-attacks/

[8] Ibid. 7

[9] Ibid 8

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