Is ISIS capable of chemical warfare on foreign soil?

Image taken from ISIS video footage shows a man identified in the subtitiles as Abo Ibrahim al Jarzawy speaking. (Reuters)

The French government and experts are no longer discounting the possibility of Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militants launching biological or chemical attacks, citing as reasons the group’s collective “criminal mind” and willingness to die.

On Sunday, the French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian described a chemical or biological attack as “among the risks,” and said he would not rule out anything out in the wake of last week’s Paris attacks that killed 130 people. He said these lethal attacks are “very complicated” for anyone to launch, but “all the precautions have been taken to avoid this kind of risk.”

The minister’s statements reiterated a previous warning from the prime minister.

On Thursday, the Associated Press reported after interviewing Iraqi and U.S. intelligence sources that ISIS is aggressively pursuing the development of chemical weapons. The militants had already set up a center with a team of scientists to research and trial the weapons.

When you have a criminal mind like ISIS that can operate underground, one cannot discount anything and always prepare for the worst

Riad Kahwaji, the head of Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis (INEGMA) think tank


So far, the only overt sign of ISIS’s chemical weapons program has been the apparent use of mustard gas in Syria - and against Iraqi Kurdish fighters. There are no reports of the militant group’s use of biological arms.

“Today, it is possible for terrorist organizations to unleash ‘dirty weapons’ of chemical and biological contaminants anywhere,” London-based defense analyst Paul Beaver told Al Arabiya News. “It does not take much or the threat of such weapons to cause panic in a civilian population.”

Beaver described pathogens needed to make biological weapons as “easy to obtain, but difficult to lay down without killing or incapacitating the terrorist.”

Riad Kahwaji, the head of Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis (INEGMA) think tank, said it is hard to transfer these lethal arms to Europe.

“They can make the weapons – the chemical or biological components - but to be able to spread them, they need precursors to allow the contaminants fly in the air or spread in the water,” Kahawji said. “That’s something where they need to have advanced capabilities and some technology to do so.”

Similar to Beaver, who described ISIS as having “no scruples” preventing them from attacking innocents, Kahwaji warned: “When you have a criminal mind like ISIS that can operate underground, one cannot discount anything and always prepare for the worst.”

Another London-based military analyst, Andrew Brooks, said staying vigilant in the face of chemical or biological threats did not start with ISIS or Al-Qadea, citing an incident in 1995, when a cult group, Aum Shinrikyo, unleashed sarin gas in a Tokyo subway, killing 13.

The doomsday cult had failed in its attempt to spray people with Anthrax two years earlier. Luckily for the would-be victims, the strain in the sprayings proved to be weak or inactive.

“The possibility of terrorist groups launching chemical, biological attacks have always been there for the intelligence community ever since [the Tokyo attacks] underground Tokyo attacks using anthrax, it has been a possibility over there,” Kahwaji said.

Kahwaji also said ISIS “proved to be a very sophisticated group that have managed to reach many targets anywhere, in very innovative ways, so the possibility is there, I think right now, nobody is discounting any possibility,” adding that “advanced chemical systems” would be needed to carry out such attacks.

Libya, a possible launchpad?

The French defense minister also warned on Sunday that the Libyan rival factions must reach a deal to create a new unity government in order to stop ISIS from taking over.

His statements came after a Libyan official and a former British army officer warned in February this year that ISIS had acquired deadly chemical weapons in Libya.

“It is natural for the Europeans to be more concerned about ISIS capabilities in Libya than anywhere else because of the geographical proximity and that’s why he [the French minister] is emphasizing the situation in Libya,” Kahwaji said.

However, the Dubai-based analyst said unlike Syria, where there was evidence of chemical weapons being used, similar signs had not emerged in Libya.

French authorities were also worried about Algeria and Tunisia, Libya’s neighbors, Beaver said.

This month, Tunisian authorities said they had prevented a major assault planned on the resort town of Sousse, the site of a previous attack by ISIS in June.

Last Update: Wednesday, 20 May 2020 KSA 09:45 - GMT 06:45