When will Islamic State use its chemical weapons?

The west turned a blind eye to the possible use of chemical weapons by militant Islamists allied against the Assad regime in Syria. Now that Islamic State almost certainly possesses them, the chickens are coming home to roost.

Bob Rigg
12 March 2015

For decades the Achilles heel of the Chemical Weapons Convention was the failure of key Middle Eastern states to ratify it. Egypt, Iraq, Israel, Libya and Syria have all been known to possess chemical weapons (CW) at times, with Egypt and Israel now sharing a regional monopoly on these weapons of mass destruction. Syria’s powerful CW capability, backed up by tailor-made Russian missiles, was a threat to Israel’s population centres and would have been a major strategic factor in a war with Israel.

Like other disarmament and arms-control treaties negotiated 40 or so years ago, the convention critically assumed that only governments would be capable of developing, producing and using CW. That assumption is now outdated: new technologies and production methods facilitate the production of CW in backyard laboratories, and violent, non-state organisations have become increasingly powerful, organised and well-funded.

Given that Iraq, Libya and Syria have recently acceded to the convention, only Angola, Egypt, Israel, Myanmar, North Korea and South Sudan now need to join for state membership to be universal. But if non-state entities, such as al-Qaeda and the  Islamic State (IS), are capable of developing and producing CW, is the convention obsolescent?

Flatly denied

It was not until 2013 that al-Qaeda in Iraq and the al-Nusra Front in Syria and Turkey were suspected of having produced and used CW. At that stage of the war in Syria, the west and Turkey were providing these anti-regime militants with political and military support. So although there were allegations, mainly from the government of Bashar Assad, that the militants had used CW against his armed forces, the US and the west flatly denied them.

The first major claim of CW use in Syria was made on 19 March 2013, in relation to Khan al-Assal, west of Aleppo, where a rocket killed more than 20 people, including a small number of Syrian soldiers. Just one day after the attack, the government of Syria formally requested the UN secretary‑general, Ban ki-Moon, to launch an impartial investigation.

He thus ensured that the inquiry would not anger any of the five permanent members of the Security Council.

Syria was convinced that the CW had been delivered by an al-Nusra rocket. Its government, then on the back foot facing the western-backed militants, would not have taken this step lightly. In the later words of Ake Sellström, the leader of Ban’s CW inquiry, “the Syrian government requested the investigation, so there was a background that makes you believe that maybe, just maybe, the government was right”.

Although the finger of suspicion pointed at the al-Nusra Front, nothing was proved beyond doubt. The US vigorously protested that its militant Islamic allies were blameless.

Two months later, reports emerged of the arrest by Turkish authorities of five al-Nusra militants in possession of 2.2 kg of sarin, just on the border with Syria. When Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, sardonically inquired why Turkey had seemingly buried the matter, its foreign minister declared that anti-freeze had been mistaken for sarin.  As Turkey’s sympathy for militant groups seeking to bring down Assad remains an open secret, it was probably providing its anti-Assad ally with political cover.

Then, in June 2013, Iraqi soldiers arrested a small number of al-Qaeda members producing mustard gas and sarin in two backyard Baghdad laboratories. Although this news was internationally disseminated, it was not pursued by anyone—least of all by the west, which has, however, seized on every opportunity to accuse Syria’s government of using CW. Al-Qaeda in Iraq now forms part of IS.

Ban surprisingly ruled out the possibility of a clear factual finding from his own UN investigation when he announced that it would only explore whether CW had been used, not by whom. He thus ensured that the inquiry would not anger any of the five permanent members of the Security Council.

Tremors of anxiety

In June 2014 IS captured Iraq’s largely destroyed Al-Muthanna chemical-weapons complex. The White House intervened successfully to defuse tremors of anxiety surfacing in the west by declaring that the CW buried there were not a security risk. Yet in June 2006, Michael Maples, then director of US intelligence, had testified to the House Armed Services Committee that, although the Al-Muthanna CW were badly corroded, “the agent used in the weapons would be very valuable to terrorists and insurgents”. Although safe extraction would be tricky, Maples appeared to think it could be done.

On 23 February this year, it emerged that armed men had broken into a CW storage facility in the Jufra district of Libya, removing large amounts of CW, including mustard gas and sarin. The nocturnal break-in was apparently impeccably planned and executed, with the CW removed in cone-shaped tanks. Yet an eerie international media silence ensued.

Regional media speculated that IS, now established in Libya, was probably responsible. The careful planning and execution of the break-in would support that. As CW are at their best in a confined environment, they could even surface in shopping malls, which al-Shabaab in Somalia, currently cementing strong links with IS, recently identified as suitable targets.

The hypocritical inertia of the west, in the face of the possible use of CW in the Middle East by its own allied militant groups, and the conspiracy of silence on the part of similarly allied regional governments have helped to bring about this situation.

The question is now not whether IS or another militant Islamic group will use CW but when, and where? This week, Iraqi officials accused IS of using chlorine gas in roadside bombs. Unleashing CW in a country in its sights, on a larger scale with many casualties, would be just the kind of public-relations coup IS actively seeks.

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