BY JAKE MCGUIRK – STAFF WRITER
The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) continues what it considers a fight for statehood and salvation. The backdrop of ISIS’s war is an unstable Iraqi government, struggling to recover from a protracted war and occupation, and a civil war in Syria with many shifting, indistinct factions. Well over 400,000 people have been killed in Syria alone. Judging by the length and persistence of the war, it is unclear when it will resolve. The conflict is extremely complex and multifaceted, but more recently, concerns over ISIS’ use of chemical weapons have taken center stage.
ISIS is known to have carried out over 20 chemical weapons attacks in Iraq and Syria. They seem to primarily use mustard gas, but have also used chlorine. US military personnel recently speculated that ISIS may have tried to use chemical weapons against American soldiers. Initial testing suggested the presence of mustard gas, but further tests detected no chemical agents. ISIS has used chemical weapons for some time now against civilians and US allies, including Syrian and Iraqi Kurds. US officials say that the US military now considers itself to be operating in a “chemical environment,” and are prepared to respond to chemical attacks. Additionally, the US has issued 50,000 gas masks to the Iraqi military in anticipation of further chemical attacks.
ISIS obtains chemical weapons by several means. One of the first known acquisitions of chemical weapons by ISIS came in 2012. Abu Ahmad, a former ISIS operative, divulged the details of the seizure of a weapons stockpile in Syria. A rebel force comprised of several different factions, including an al Qaeda affiliate, captured the previously government-held stockpile. They apparently had no prior knowledge of any chemical weapons, but they discovered chlorine, sarin, and mustard gas. Ahmad described how the weapons were partitioned among the groups, reporting that the al Qaeda affiliate seized nearly all of the chemical weapons. Ahmad learned later from his superiors that ISIS was using chemical weapons to attack the Syrian army.
It is unclear whether ISIS used weapons from the seizure Ahmad witnessed, but it appears likely. An ISIS soldier, Salih Yilmaz, made the general claim that ISIS gets chemical weapons from its “enemies.” ISIS operates in Iraq and Syria, which both have histories of chemical weapons development. Saddam Hussein produced chemical weapons in the 1980s to use in the Iran-Iraq war. He was supposed to have disposed of his stockpiles in the 1990s after a UN inspection, but some speculate that they were merely hidden. It is likely that ISIS could have recruited former Iraqi officials who would know the locations of these stockpiles.
Another potential source of ISIS’ chemical weapons is the university and laboratories in Mosul, which they have occupied since 2014. Mustard gas is not an especially difficult chemical to make, and any competent chemist could produce it given the materials.
Additionally, there is reason to believe that materials pass through the Turkish border into ISIS-controlled territory. ISIS has received everything from weapons to food over the border, so it would not be altogether surprising if they receive chemical weapons in the same way.
It is not exactly clear how or from where ISIS is obtaining chemical weapons, but it is a priority of coalition forces to prevent their further use. In mid-September, the US conducted a bombardment of an ISIS chemical weapons facility, which was a repurposed pharmaceutical plant. The official line from the National Security Council is that coalition forces “will continue to remove leaders from the battlefield with knowledge of these weapons and will target any related materials and attempts to manufacture such chemicals going forward.”