Last week ISIS took control of the Iraqi Army military base at Al Muthanna, 45 miles NW of Baghdad, which houses the remnants of Saddam Hussein’s chemical weapons stockpile. This was the chemical weapons (CW) arsenal that killed hundreds of thousands of Iranians in the Iran-Iraq war, hundreds of thousands of Kurds during the al-Anfal Campaign, and at least 5,000 people at Halabja on March 16, 1988. This CW stockpile–some of which found its way into Syria to be used by Assad–are the same chemicals weapons which I, along with thousands of other British and American servicemen and women, fought over in 1991 and 2003. The UN stored tonnes of highly deadly nerve agents like sarin and VX and blister agents like mustard at Al Muthanna between 1994-96–and sealed the compound to be dealt with later. But still intact are two huge bunkers with the WMD in them. The bunkers are sealed with reinforced concrete, but they are in the hands of ISIS. The nerve agent in the bunkers will by now have degraded to a toxic ‘sludge’ but the mustard will be viable. Rightly, British and American governments have played down this event to prevent panic in Iraq and elsewhere.
Can ISIS access the bunkers? Yes, probably, in time. No doubt all intelligence agencies will be looking at this area very closely, but cruise missile strikes on the WMD, just a short distance from Baghdad, would not be a great option. Does ISIS have the know how to use CW? Again: probably yes. There is evidence that they have tried to experiment with nerve agents and improvised CW in Syria–and of course Al Qaeda have had a long running technical feasibility program on the use of chemical and biological weapons. This program is no doubt available to ISIS. Does ISIS have the delivery means? Probably not; the CW will not be in a state in which it can be loaded into rockets or artillery pieces, so we don’t expect Baghdad to be under threat immediately. But they could use improvised delivery methods such as IEDs, and Al Qaeda has used mustard shells in Iraq in the past in this manner. The key concern is that ISIS has seen the effect Assad’s use of CW in Syria, and it might consider similar use, especially if things start to go badly in Iraq. Of course, of most concern to the International Community is not what happens in Syria or Iraq, but if Al Qaeda and ISIS decide to use CW (probably improvised) and something readily available, like chlorine, in the International Community to create terror.
Aerial view of Al Muthanna, photo: cia.gov