Last Friday in a speech to a multinational arms control forum known as the Australia Group, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said the terrorist group ISIS is “prepared to use any and all means, any and all forms of violence they can think of, to advance their demented cause. That includes use of chemical weapons.” She added that ISIS has recruited “highly technically trained professionals' to develop chemical weapons and has already used chlorine as such a weapon.”
If Bishop's claims have substance and ISIS has acquired the capability to develop and deliver chemical weapons, this adds a new and worrying dimension to the conflict in Syria and Iraq. Indeed, the Australia Group has taken this possibility seriously and has prudently adopted new guidelines to make the acquisition of chemical weapons materials and technology by terrorist groups more difficult.
But are we facing a new threat from ISIS? Is the group capable of developing chemical weapons? And would its use of such weapons be a game changer?
Bishop's allegations are not new.
Concern over ISIS's chemical weapons ambitions was first expressed in July 2014 when ISIS occupied Saddam Hussein's former chemical weapons plant Al Muthanna, about 150km north east of Baghdad. Although that facility had been decommissioned by the UN in the 1990s, small quantities of precursor chemicals and badly damaged chemical munitions had been sealed in concrete storage bunkers. However, it is unlikely that anything left there would have been of use for chemical weapon purposes.
Late last year, following the Muthanna incident, there were multiple reports that ISIS had used chlorine gas roadside bombs in attacks against Iraqi forces. These were said to have resulted in injuries but no deaths. A similar weapon was reported to have been used against Kurdish Peshmerga forces as recently as March.
None of these reports have been independently confirmed but the description of events by eyewitnesses and victims are consistent with the use of chlorine gas. It seems likely that such weapons were improvised devices using an industrial cylinder of chlorine taken from a water purification plant and rigged with a small explosive charge to rupture the cylinder and disperse the gas. More injuries would have been caused if the bombs had been filled with high explosive than chlorine.
Reflecting the concern over the possible acquisition of chemical weapons by ISIS, in January of this year the U.S. claimed to have conducted an air strike to kill a chemical weapons specialist, Abu Malik, from the former Muthanna chemical weapons plant and who was now working for ISIS. Interestingly, former UN chemical weapons inspectors have no record of Abu Malik: it seems he was not a chemist or engineer but may have been a technician or possibly a junior official at Muthanna.
Julie Bishop's concerns over ISIS are not misplaced but may be somewhat exaggerated. It is unlikely ISIS would be able to obtain either the raw materials or expertise to make advanced chemical agents such as the nerve gas sarin. They may be able to produce or obtain less deadly agents such as the chlorine gas allegedly used by ISIS to date. But to cause significant casualties, the chemicals have to be delivered in quantity using aerial bombs or rockets designed specifically for the purposes. Since ISIS does not have an air force, aerial bombs are not an issue and chemical rockets would take years of development, if ISIS had the expertise.
However, while the use by ISIS of chemicals, or even medical radioactive material in a 'dirty bomb', may not cause many casualties, there is a clear psychological impact. This is possibly what ISIS may be aiming for. Similar use of chlorine, probably by government forces in Syria, has attracted international attention and condemnation. This is likely to have been noted by ISIS. And finally, Bishop's focus on ISIS and possible new threats no doubt help support the Australian Government's policy on Iraq and terrorism.
This piece first appeared in the Lowy Interpreter here.