Threat posed by Islamic State’s capture of Iraq’s Muthanna CW site

In a letter dated 7 July 2014 Iraqi Ambassador to the United Nations Mohamed Ali Alhakim notified UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon that ‘armed terrorist groups’ had entered the Muthanna complex on 11 June. The next morning  a project manager observed them looting of some equipment via the camera surveillance system before the ‘terrorists’ disabled it. The document, as cited by the Associated Press, explicitly referred to the capture of bunkers 13 and 41, two locations still holding chemical weapons (CW) so severely damaged during the 1991 war to liberate Kuwait that until today they could not be disposed of in a safe way.

The capture of two CW storage bunkers at Muthanna by Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, now shortened to Islamic State) has raised fears of chemical warfare in Iraq as well as Syria. The insurgent grouping’s habitual resort to extreme violence in combat, its strict upholding of Sharia law, and uncompromising attitude towards ‘non-believers’ leave many a commentator convinced that it will stop at nothing in its pursuit of the Islamic state.

Analysis of documents relating to the dismantlement of the Muthanna complex in the 1990s and the subsequent monitoring of the site however demonstrates that it would be all but impossible for ISIL to acquire and use Iraq’s former CW, or for that matter, the toxic residues of warfare agents.

Should the ISIL fighters still find sarin, then the probability of the agent’s degradation below any useful degree of purity is extremely high. An additional 20 years have passed since the UNSCOM Chemical Demolition Group sealed the storage bunkers. Mustard agent is far more stable, but both UNSCOM and UNMOVIC reported significant degradation. 155mm artillery rounds were found to contain hydrogen gas and other breakdown products leading to considerable internal pressure. Moreover, the thick-skinned shells proved particularly difficult to penetrate and drilling risked ignition of the built-up gases.

UNSCOM selected two bunkers at Al Muthanna for their solid structure. After completion of destruction operations, it sealed the structures. They blocked off all entrances with two brick walls and a 5cm layer of tar in between them. A third brick wall was erected at a distance of 1 metre from the second wall and the space in between was filled with reinforced concrete. Together, the overall thickness of the entrance seals amounts to 1.5 metres. The hole at the top of bunker 13 containing the sarin rockets and precursor chemicals from a US bomb in 1991  was closed by filling the whole inner room with soil through that hole and then plugging it with reinforced concrete.

Any penetration of the bunker by ISIL fighters would require major dismantling and rubble removal, all the while not knowing the exact location of the toxic chemicals, propellants and explosives and facing potential exposure to contaminated soil or air. Even the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) is still considering how it might proceed to determine the bunker’s exact contents.

More technical details on the state of Iraq’s former CW and tables on the contents of the bunkers are in an article I wrote for the August edition of CBRNe World. Registration may be required, but it is for free.