ISIS and the potential for toxic warfare

ISIS appears to have an increased interest in weapons that incorporate harmful materials

Dr. Theodore Karasik
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Reports over the past few days of Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) capturing chemical and uranium compounds is bringing to light the issue of how violent terrorist groups may use such materials for nefarious purposes. If ISIS incorporates these materials into its capabilities and can justify their use, it means Caliph Ibrihim and his lieutenants will find an important tool that can cause psychological panic. Neighboring states and the international community need to be fully aware of the potential impact and be ready to implement mitigation strategies necessary to halt this potentially destructive problem, resulting in potential “Toxic Warfare” scenarios.

ISIS appears to have an increased interest in weapons that incorporate harmful materials that are inexpensive and relatively easy to acquire. Such “toxic weapons” provide a means for non-state actors - in this case ISIS - to improve their capabilities to achieve goals within the context of asymmetrical warfare. In basic terms, toxic warfare refers to the use of chemicals or harmful materials to hurt or alter the behavior of an opponent during kinetic operations. Toxic warfare does not, however, require the use of traditional weapons but seeks to psychologically damage an opponent and create havoc.


ISIS can use substances with profound psychological impact and based on their superior information campaigns, will know how to capitalize on any potential use with full effect

Dr. Theodore Karasik

Toxic warfare can be used by both state and non-state actors to achieve a number of objectives. Toxic warfare can cause casualties among opposing militaries by incapacitating and, in some cases, killing the adversary. Toxic warfare can also halt or force delays in military logistics flows or operations and can disrupt the functioning of the urban infrastructure through contamination or corrosion. ISIS can perhaps use toxic warfare for a strategic advantage in their holy war against their enemies.

Power from uncertainty

Toxic weapons can, moreover, derive power from the uncertainty that stems from their potential use. Toxic substances often represent an unknown threat, and the level of uncertainty surrounding the potential damage these substances might cause can increase their impact even when little or no physical harm has been done. ISIS can use substances with profound psychological impact and based on their superior information campaigns, will know how to capitalize on any potential use with full effect.

Now let’s turn to two major events that occurred within 48 hours of each other. In mid-June, ISIS captured the Muthanna site, 56 kilometers north of Baghdad. This achievement, only reported in the open press recently, asserted that ISIS militants now had access to Sarin and Mustard gas. Muthanna was Saddam Hussein’s main chemical weapons facilities and was used to store the remainder of the former despot’s stockpile. But the Sarin and Mustard gas is not of concern here because of degraded composition. Instead, sodium cyanide is the main risk. According to a Jordanian official, ISIS took a large quantity of sodium cyanide from Muthanna which is a very toxic chemical and a precursor for the warfare agent tabun. During the American occupation, the tabun-filled containers were all treated with decontamination solution and likely no longer contain any agent, but “the residue of this decontamination would contain cyanides, which would still be a hazard.” This cyanide can be potentially used to poison water supplies with toxic results and creating general panic.

Iraqi government appeal

Less than 24 hours later, news of an Iraqi government appeal dated July 8 to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon, appeared in the mass media. The Iraqi government asked for international help in regarding 40kg of uranium compounds stolen by ISIS from Mosul University. Iraq’s ambassador to the U.N., Mohammad Ali al-Hakim said that “terrorist groups have seized control of nuclear material at the sites that came out of the control of the state.” At first glance, the uranium in question appears to be used by Mosul University faculty in determining the impact of U.S. use of Depleted Uranium (DU) shells on, for instance, local flora and fauna.

However, the tone of the request seemed to be almost alarmist for simple uranium. The Russian press picked up the Iraqi concern while the Western press downplayed the event. Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said “the sheer fact that the terrorists ... show unmistakable interest in nuclear and chemical materials is, of course, very alarming.”

Maybe the Kremlin should be concerned. After all, any ISIS chemical and uranium agents are indeed in Moscow’s area of worry both geographically and logistically given the presence of Chechen leader Abu Umar al-Shishani. According to an Arab official, shockingly, the material taken from Mosul University was Plutonium 238: “It came from Ukraine in 2011 via personnel at the Vostochny Integrated Mining and Concentrating Plant (VostGOK). It is completely illegal and was brought via Turkey to Iraq for use for ‘eventual Sunni/Saddamist enrichment’. The material got into Iraq through the black market with middlemen and transport without inspection. The Mosul University work on DU studies was a cover.” If true, this story adds an additional danger to ISIS’ capabilities as well as their ability to create a Radioactive Dispersal Device (RDD) which is capable of spreading panic and making a unholy mess via a vaporization process. If not true, then there are certainly questions to be asked regarding Mosul University’s security procedures, along with missing government oversight, for their experiments given that the uranium compounds are toxic.

Overall, the events of the last weeks regarding ISIS’s growing holdings of toxic substances raises the question of how they will be used. The group clearly has extreme violence in its portfolio of weapons, and toxic warfare should not be ruled out. Chemical and radiation detection will be a necessity with clear civil defense procedures in place. In the Levant, this type of response may be practically impossible to implement and therefore regional and international powers may have to intervene either before it’s too late or to clean-up the resulting poisonous disorder. As a warning from ISIS, the first issue of the Caliphate’s English language magazine, Dabiq, said “tawahhush” (mayhem) is necessary.


Dr. Theodore Karasik is the Director of Research and Consultancy at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis (INEGMA) in Dubai, UAE. He is also a Lecturer at University of Wollongong Dubai. Dr. Karasik received his Ph.D in History from the University of California Los Angles.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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