The shocking news two weeks ago that ISIS had overrun Saddam Hussein’s chemical weapons stockpile at Al Muthanna, and last week that ISIS had taken upwards of 40 pounds of uranium from Mosul University set the ‘wires’ into overdrive about whether ISIS would soon be producing WMD. There is still probably hundreds of tonnes of sarin and mustard agent in rockets and artillery shells at Al Muthanna, but not at the moment ready to be targeted at Baghdad. The sarin will be virtually useless as a chemical weapons (CW) now that it has lost its toxicity over the last 20 years; but the mustard agent will still be viable; we have found very high levels of mustard agent derivatives at Halabja in Kurdistan 26 years after its use. However, the CW at Al Muthanna are still believed to be intact in steel reinforced concrete bunkers. The idea that ISIS can fashion their newly acquired uranium into a viable nuclear device is thankfully a complete flight of fancy. ISIS would need to enrich the uranium to about 80% to weaponize it; this would require centrifuges, technology, delivery means and logistics that would take years and many millions of dollars to achieve – therefore at the moment there is little prospect of ISIS producing and being able to deliver a WMD.
However, there is the very realistic prospect that ISIS will use its newfound chemical weapons and nuclear material in an improvised fashion. We know they have done some research in the use of CW in Syria and they will have access to all the Al Qaeda research into improvised CW and dirty bombs. They have seen how effective improvised CW (chlorine) has been in Syria and have recently been accused of using CW, possibly phosphorus against the Syrian Kurds. Hardly a week goes by without an accusation of somebody using some sort of CW in conflict worldwide; phosphorus in the Ukraine three weeks ago for instance. Whether such accusations are true is debatable, but in my opinion it is the highly effective wide-scale use of CW and Improvised CW in Syria which has put CW back in the consciousness of all who seek to cause terror, and it’s why the International Community needs to be concerned and improve resilience to CBRN attacks now, rather than react after it has happened. While I don’t see WMD being used by ISIS in Iraq, I do predict that improvised CW and dirty bombs could be used by ISIS in Iraq and elsewhere, and by other terror groups, especially if things start going badly for them [ISIS].