The Islamic State Seeks Doomsday Weapons

The potential for ISIS to use dirty bombs in terror attacks across the world has experts worried

ISIS is after more apocalyptic hardware. — REUTERS
Feb 26, 2016 at 9:37 AM ET

The signs of an alarming menace first appeared last summer: a yellow cloud lingering in the air after a mortar bombardment by forces of the Islamic State. Scores of Kurdish fighters evacuated to medical facilities struggling to breathe, with eye and lung damage and telltale blistering on their skin. Especially for the Kurds of Iraq the symptoms recalled a nightmare passed down the generations: Saddam Hussein’s 1988 extermination by mustard gas and nerve agent of an estimated 5,000 men, women and children in the village of Halabja.

In recent weeks top U.S. intelligence officials have confirmed that ISIS has crossed another red line, becoming the first terrorist group in over two decades to employ chemical weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). Since last summer the extremist group has targeted Kurdish fighters with mustard and chlorine gas roughly a dozen times. Testing of mortar fragments after some of those attacks revealed the presence of an unusual mustard agent, suggesting that ISIS has developed the capability to produce and employ its own chemical weapons. The extremists are using Kurdish fighters as “lab rats for WMD” in the words of a doctor in northern Iraq quoted by Fox News.

“We found that the mustard agent used by ISIS is somewhat weaker than the weapons grade variant produced by nation-states, which indicates they probably have some people with chemistry training working in a lab somewhere producing their own mustard gas,” a knowledgeable U.S. military source told Vocativ on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter. “So far the ISIS gas attacks have not been particularly effective in causing mass casualties, but psychologically they certainly have an impact we can’t ignore.”

Given its “end of days” ideology, control of vast territory, recruitment of over 30,000 foreign fighters, and status as the best-funded terrorist group in history, ISIS is uniquely positioned to realize Osama bin Laden’s dream of employing weapons of mass destruction in the cause of Islamic extremism. The scenarios that counterterrorism and nonproliferation experts are paid to imagine are certainly alarming, and even plausible:

What if ISIS were able to smuggle its chemical weapons into crowded urban centers in Europe, and potentially launch multiple attacks on par with those that paralyzed Tokyo in 1995? What if some of the senior Baathist officials known to have joined ISIS ranks include scientists and biologists that previously worked on Saddam Hussein’s biological weapons program, and have expertise in weaponizing anthrax? What if the suicide bomber that blew himself up outside a crowded soccer stadium in Paris holding 80,000 fans and the president of France had gotten inside and triggered a “dirty” radiological bomb? What if the kind of complex assault that ISIS has successfully used against well-guarded prisons were launched against nuclear reactor facilities in Europe, in hopes of causing a Chernobyl-like disaster? What if?

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The potential for ISIS to wield chemical, biological and even radiological weapons as instruments of mass terror has many counterterrorism experts worried. In recent Senate testimony, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper noted that ISIS’s chemical weapons attacks were the first use by a terrorist group of chemical warfare agents since the Japanese terrorist group Aum Shinrikyo used sarin gas in a 1995 attack on the Tokyo subway, killing 12 people, injuring nearly a thousand, and causing mass panic in a major capital city.

Last week Belgian officials confirmed that ISIS terrorists involved in the attack on Paris in November that killed 130 people had conducted extensive video surveillance of a high-ranking Belgian nuclear official, possibly as part of a plot to secure radioactive material for use in a “dirty bomb,” or even to sabotage a Belgian nuclear reactor facility. The International Atomic Energy Agency also recently confirmed that since November, radioactive material has disappeared from Basra Province in southern Iraq. Though the territory ISIS controls is in north and western Iraq, the possibility of radiological material reaching the murky black markets in the war-torn country has proliferation experts concerned.

”ISIS is essentially al-Qaeda on steroids, and the two groups share an apocalyptic vision of a ‘clash of civilization’ between Islam and the West leading towards Armageddon, and in that struggle the use of any weapon, to include weapons of mass destruction, is acceptable,” said Bruce Hoffman, a counterterrorism expert and director of the Center for Security Studies at Georgetown University. Osama bin Laden famously proclaimed that acquiring weapons of mass destruction was a religious duty for Muslims, a statement that ISIS leader and bin Laden admirer Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has apparently taken to heart.

“One of the great dangers of allowing ISIS to control territory and sanctuary for so long is that it presents an opportunity for the group to conduct research and development of WMD, because for terrorists these are weapons of psychological warfare par excellence,” said Hoffman, the author of seminal book “Inside Terrorism.” He noted that a single Army biological warfare expert was able to paralyze Washington D.C. with a 2001 anthrax attack that took authorities four months and over $40 million to clean-up. “These weapons heighten fear and undermine public confidence in a government’s ability to protect them or quickly resolve a terrorist incident. So terrorists see WMD as a game changer that can suck the will to fight out of their enemies.”

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ISIS has embraced so many elements of Osama bin Laden’s worldview and strategy that Hoffman’s says the group has essentially “stolen al-Qaeda’s lunch.” Certainly acquiring and using weapons of mass destruction was always central to bin Laden’s vision of a jihad that would smash the global order, end Western hegemony and lead to the creation of an Islamic caliphate.

Al-Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan in the 1990s had basic training in chemical, biological and radiological weapons for hundreds of extremists, and current al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri oversaw not one, but two WMD development programs. The group also sought out Pakistani nuclear scientists and biologists with extremist sympathies in its search for the ultimate doomsday weapons.

Nor was al-Qaeda’s WMD quest limited to research and theory. The group’s 1993 attack on New York’s World Trade Center involved a car bomb and cyanide canisters that were supposed to asphyxiate thousands with a poison gas cloud. Would-be 9/11 hijacker Zacarias Moussaoui was captured with crop duster manuals and biology textbooks in his possession, leading investigators to suspect he was contemplating a follow-on attack with biological agents. American al-Qaeda operative Jose Padilla was arrested while plotting to explode a “dirty” radiological bomb inside the United States.

With the uber-terrorists of ISIS and the regime of Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad having both used chemical weapons in a conflict that has already killed more than 200,000 people, experts worry that a red line against the use of WMD has been crossed that will be difficult to reestablish.

“The vast majority of countries have long supported ridding the world of chemical weapons, and now that they are being used in the conflict in Syria and Iraq an important norm has been breached,” Malik Ellahi, spokesman for the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in The Hague, Netherlands, told Vocativ. “When one of those actors using these terrible weapons is a terrorist group not bound by treaty, contractual obligations or any rules whatsoever, and which has absolutely no compunction about using these weapons, that is a matter of the greatest concern.”