ISIS’ Chemical Attraction

ISIS jihadists’ seizure of Saddam Hussein’s supply of chemical weapons (CW) welcomed statements by professionals within the Iraqi public sphere that Iraq’s military forces “foiled a chemical attack by the Islamic State.”

The dismantling of seven rockets tipped with chlorine gas in Diyala Governorate of Iraq conceals the disconcerting notion that ISIS may have already managed to obtain CWs elsewhere in Iraq.

CW seizure is not necessary for ISIS to arm itself with these catastrophic weapons. Accounts claim ISIS intended to launch CW-equipped rockets against areas with large concentrations of Shiite Muslims. Iran’s Press TV recently stated that civilian compounds in the city of Muqdadiyah (located in Diyala) were targeted.

Professor James M. Tour, CW expert and Rice University professor, told Russia Today that, “anyone with [just] a few years of training in chemistry and access to some freely available raw materials could easily produce chemical weapons like sarin gas.”

Imam Syed Soharwardy reasons there is a strong likelihood that ISIS is already recruiting on college campuses and at high schools in the Western hemisphere. Numerous recruitment videos attempt to attract ordinary Muslims (including engineers, doctors, professionals, volunteers, and fundraisers) to join the jihad.

People trained in organic chemistry and nanotechnology could be among recruits.

Raw materials necessary for the creation of CWs “can come in very easily,” says Tour. “One can buy on the chemical market items that are one step away from sarin, easily two steps away. So a chemist with about a Master’s level of training can produce sarin quite easily.”

United States (US) Department of State spokeswoman Jen Psaki’s underscored the need to be “concerned about the seizure of any military site by the ISIL” (quoted in the Wall Street Journal). This event carries significant weight but for different reasons.

Although surveillance footage showed some of the equipment from the chemical weapons facility in Iraq had been looted, concern over ISIS’ capacity to weaponize old chemical agents has become dwarfed by the potential of ISIS to simply produce its own.

Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo (now known as Aleph) released saran on a Tokyo subway in 1995. The cult produced its own arms and toxic gases. Prior to the sarin gas attacks, Aum “purchased a farm [in Australia], manufactured chemicals, and tested the chemicals on sheep,” says Dr. Yasuo Sato in a 2001 report through the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.

Aum’s top chemist, Masami Tsuchiya, confessed to police that he helped produce hundreds of kilograms of mustard gas, VX gas, sarin, soman, tabun, and sodim cyanide at the cult’s compound in Kamikuishiki (Monterey Institute of International Studies; Asahi News Service).

“It’s easily produced. Sarin is a nerve gas and it’s different than a typical chemical weapon being a nerve agent. It’s a lot more toxic. People can survive, but the likelihood of death is quite high with sarin. Being a nerve gas, it’s much akin to when a person sprays insecticide on an insect and the insect starts writhing in pain for a couple of minutes and then dies,” Tour told RT.

ISIS is not restricted to the use of sarin. There are many types of CWs ISIS can produce. Despite the business of making CWs retaining an element of risk, many tasks are rather easy: chemical access, production, transportation, and dispersion.

As engagements with ISIS intensified so increase the stakes. Growing pressure on Western policymakers and Iraqi officials has fueled tensions between Iraq and its Middle East neighbors.

ISIS has mocked the US for not committing ground troops to the Iraqi theater. In fact, the US has not seriously discussed that option at all. If the US were to ever do so, it would also herald in imagery of the First Gulf War from 1990. US troops donned nuclear, biological and chemical (NBC) suits in fear of Iraqi chemical weapons. The difference now is that ISIS has the vulgarity to use them.

Press TV grazed the exigency of US leadership in keeping the Arab states united against ISIS jihadists. Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and several Persian Gulf Arab states came under fire from senior Iraqi officials for burgeoning terrorism in Iraq. Allegations have soared that ISIS maintains connections with elements of Saudi intelligence and is even supported by Israel.

Saudi Arabia as recently cracked down on its homegrown extremist organizations and has devoted a substantial amount of money to the fight against ISIS for Iraq. The ISIS threat has awoken many giants.

*This op-ed piece was co-authored with Stewart Webb.

Stewart Webb is the editor of DefenceReport. He holds an MScEcon in Security Studies from Aberystwyth University (UK) and a BA in Political Science from Acadia University (Canada). He is the co-editor of Insurgency and Counterinsurgency in Modern War (forthcoming, 2015), Taylor & Francis. 

About the Author
Dr. Scott N. Romaniuk completed his PhD at the School of International Studies, University of Trento. He holds an MRes in Political Research, an MA in Terrorism, Crime and Global Security, and an MA in Military Studies (Joint Warfare). His teaching and research specializations include International Relations, Military and Strategic Studies, Security Studies, Terrorism and Political Violence, and Research Methods. He is a Senior Research Affiliate with the Canadian Network for Research on Terrorism, Security and Society (TSAS) and a member of the Conflict, Terrorism and Development (CTD) Collaboratory at Michigan State University.
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