ISIS' Chemical Weapons

Where They Came From, How They are Used, and What Will Come Next

An ISIS flag hangs amid electric wires over a street in Ain al-Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp, near the port-city of Sidon, southern Lebanon, January 19, 2016. Ali Hashisho / Reuters

In a February 2016 interview with 60 Minutes, John Brennan, director of the CIA, mentioned that the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) has, in a number of instances, “used chemical munitions on the battlefield.” This came a few days after James Clapper, director of the United States Intelligence Community, said to a congressional committee that ISIS “has also used toxic chemicals in Iraq and Syria, including the blister agent sulfur mustard.” Specifically, ISIS used such munitions in an August 2015 attack on the Kurds in Kobani, although reliable measures of the extent of the damage and casualties are not available.

It wasn’t the first time that such accusations have been raised against ISIS. In early 2015, the journalist Adam Withnall reported on Australian intelligence assessments that ISIS had “seized enough radioactive material from government facilities to suggest it has the capacity to build a large and devastating ‘dirty’ bomb.” In ISIS’ own magazine, Dabiq, John Cantlie, the kidnapped British war correspondent, telegraphed a warning that, with “billions of dollars in the bank,” ISIS could request that its operatives in Pakistan purchase a nuclear weapon, take it to Nigeria, and then smuggle it into the United States through Mexico by using existing drug- and human-trafficking networks. That might sound implausible, but the article at least indicated that ISIS is thinking along these lines.

And it wouldn’t be the first group. Terrorists, and in particular jihadists, have long been interested in the acquisition and use of chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) weapons. And a number of extremist groups and individuals have either used or experimented with components of CBRN. In this context, and given the fact that ISIS could be in possession of some form of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and has threatened to use them against the West, Western governments should take notice.

A Free Syrian Army medical group trains people on how to cope with chemical weapon attacks in Aleppo, December 25, 2013.
A Free Syrian Army medical group trains people on how to cope with chemical weapon attacks in Aleppo, December 25, 2013. Ammar Abdullah / Reuters

Jihadist groups understand that they are locked in an asymmetric conflict with the West and that they cannot defeat the adversary in an all-out military confrontation.

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