Chlorine: A weapon of last resort for ISIL? (Part 2)

From September 2014 on several reports have alleged chlorine use by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in Iraq. The claims began shortly after the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) had released its first report on its investigation into the chlorine attacks in Syria earlier in the year. In a politically highly charged atmosphere in which supporters and opponents of the regime of President Bashir al-Assad use any incident to blame insurgent forces of atrocities or call for regime change, one must necessarily view accusations of chemical warfare with a healthy dose of scepticism. This is particularly the case if allegations disappear as quickly as they surface.

However, during the autumn of last year there was some consistency in the albeit irregular reports. Furthermore, on 10 February, OPCW Director-General Ahmet Üzümcü confirmed that the Iraqi authorities had notified the OPCW of chlorine gas attacks against Iraqi soldiers. At present it is not known which steps, if any, the OPCW will undertake with regard to these allegations.

Last October I described how al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), a precursor organisation to ISIL, applied chlorine in a campaign of car bombings between October 2006 and June 2007. While many people in the vicinity of the detonation required medical treatment for exposure to the agent, nobody was actually killed by the gas. This posting looks into the various allegations of insurgent chlorine attacks in Syria and Iraq since 2013.

Brief background to ISIL

ISIL has its roots in Iraq. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian national, founded Jama’at al-Tawhid w’al-Jihad or the Party of Monotheism and Jihad in 1999. He presented himself as a very strict takfiri, a Muslim accusing other Muslims of apostasy. He branded all those who did not accept his narrow interpretation of Islam as legitimate targets. This justified a bloody sectarian war not just against non-Muslims and Shiites, but also against other Sunni Muslims.

In 2004 he pledged allegiance to Osama Bin Laden, leader of al Qaeda, and renamed the group the Organisation of Jihad’s Base in Mesopotamia, more commonly known as al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). Notwithstanding, tensions between both men existed right from the start and escalated over time. In particular, while sharing many aspects of al-Zarqawi’s views on Takfir, Bin Laden was also conscious of the negative image the indiscriminate killing of Muslim’s—whether Shiite or Sunni—projected on al Qaeda as a whole. He strongly condemned AQI’s murderous campaign against the Iraqi Shiites.

A US air strike in June 2006 killed al-Zarqawi. Continuing his predecessor’s strategy of merging with other groups, the new leader, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi rebranded the movement as Islamic State in Iraq (ISI). US and Iraqi forces killed him in 2010. His successor is Ibrahim Awwad Ibrahim al-Badri, better known as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

In the late summer of 2011, several months after protesters had first taken to the streets in Syria, ISI began expanding its operations into Syria. In a video message released in April 2013, al-Baghdadi claimed a merger with Jabhat al-Nusra, saying that the al-Nusra Front was ‘merely an extension and part of the Islamic State of Iraq’. Henceforth the two groupings were to be known as ISIL. Al-Nusra leaders rejected the claim and that same month Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama Bin Laden’s successor as leader of al Qaeda, ordered the merger invalid. Notwithstanding, ISIL expanded its territorial reach and membership by attacking rivalling groupings both inside Syria and later in Iraq. On 2 February 2014 the al Qaeda General Command disavowed ISIL. Al-Zawahiri ordered the grouping to disband and return to Iraq. He also declared that al-Nusra was al-Qaeda’s official branch in Syria. Unfazed, on 29 June 2014 al-Baghdadi proclaimed a global Islamic caliphate, a maneuver that would have subjugated all insurgent movements to the Islamic State, as the new entity was to be called. Its legitimacy was questioned by clerics and movement leaders alike. Meanwhile ISIL has extended its reach well into Asia and North Africa. Its videotaped killings and mutilations of hostages, prisoners, apostates and whoever does not follow its interpretation of Sharia law have earned it worldwide condemnation.

Allegations of insurgent use of chlorine on record

Most of the allegations of chlorine use implicate the Syrian government. The OPCW produced three investigation reports. On 4 February its Executive Council formally condemned the use of chlorine as a weapon in the villages of Talmenes, Al Tamanah, and Kafr Zita between April and August 2014. Even though no OPCW document formally accuses the Syrian government of a major breach of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), the unanimous decision marks the first confirmed case of chemical warfare on the territory of a party to the CWC. Indeed, the UN investigations into the sarin attacks in Ghouta on 21 August 2013 and some earlier incidents predate Syria’s accession to the CWC. The OPCW reports and Executive Council decision also represent the first time a state party has been implicated in the violation of one of the core prohibitions of the disarmament treaty.

Accusations against the insurgents, however, have been rarer and evidence to support them are sketchy at best. The Syrian regime and its backers have repeatedly blamed the alleged chlorine attacks on the insurgents. As Üzümcü stated in the interview with The Trench last October, the OPCW saw no evidence of insurgent groupings having obtained chemical weapons (CW) and Syrian authorities never reported to the OPCW that they ever had access to government CW stockpiles. However, he recognised the reports of separate ISIL attacks involving chlorine. In an interview with Affairs Today published on 26 November, he added: ‘I cannot say that we have any evidence of production or possession of chemical weapons by these groups but we have received reports that there have been some attempts.’

Speaking to the Japan National Press Club in Tokyo on 10 February, Üzümcü informed the audience that the Iraqi authorities had notified the OPCW of ISIL chlorine gas attacks against Iraqi soldiers north of Baghdad in October 2014.

The chronology below focusses only on those claims accusing opposition groups fighting the governments in Iraq and Syria of chlorine and other CW use or acquisition. It is based on searches in LexisNexis and my own press database. The incidents are allegations and their listing does not imply confirmation.

Reports of chlorine use come in two major clusters. The first one concerns allegations by the Syrian government that the al-Nusra Front had captured a factory that could produce the gas and the first reports of CW attacks in the spring of 2013. The second cluster groups reports of chemical warfare by ISIL in the north of Syria and Iraq.

  • 8 December 2012: The Syrian government sent a letter to both the UN Secretary-General and the Security Council informing them of possible chemical attacks by an insurgent grouping. In particular it alleged that earlier in the week rebel fighters from the jihadist Al-Nusra Front had captured a ‘toxic chlorine’ plant of the Syrian-Saudi Chemicals Company (SYSACCO) near the town of al-Safira, southeast of Aleppo. This factory was producing sodium hydroxide and hydrogen chloride. In November 2014 Bashar Jaafari, Permanent Representative to the United Nations in New York, reminded the Security Council of these letters during a discussion on Syria’s CW disarmament and the chlorine allegations. He reiterated that the rebels stole 200 tonnes of materials from the factory and that Syria had warned of the possibility of chlorine use. (The discussion report misstates the date of the letter as 8 January 2012.)
  • 11 April 2013: Journalists and civilians on the scene reported a poison gas attack in Khan al-Assal the week before. Victims were suffering from respiratory problems, vomiting and some other possible indicators of exposure to toxic chemicals. There were claims of a chlorine smell in the impact zone. State-run Syrian television blamed members of the al-Nusra Front for the attack, saying they used chlorine gas to kill two people and injure more than 100. The TV report also asserted that the al-Nusra Front was preparing additional chemical attacks in the northern province of Idlib and the area around Hama. It did not specify how it was able to confirm chlorine usage or how it came to know about the impending attacks.
  • 19 June 2014: ISIL captures al Muthanna, a former CW production site under Saddam Hussein. The event led to plenty speculation as to whether ISIL would be able to extract workable CW from the ruined bunkers.
  • July 2014: During clashes between ISIL and Kurdish fighters at Avdiko village, 12 km east of Kobani, Syria, some Kurdish casualties displayed outward signs of exposure to as yet unidentified toxicants. The MERIA Special Report that broke the news also established the link with ISIS’ capture of al Muthanna.
  • 15 September 2014: Via a series of Twitter messages a Wall Street Journal reporter pointed to a possibly serious CW incident at Dhuluiya in Salah ad Din Province north of Baghdad. According to an Iraqi Defence Ministry official, ISIL fighters had rigged a bomb with chlorine canisters and suggested that its main purpose was to terrorise the defenders. A later statement by the Defence Ministry suggested that ISIL had gained access to the chlorine after having captured several water purification plants around Dhuluiya. The exact number of casualties remains unclear. An Iranian source suggested that around 40 Iraqi soldiers and Shia fighters repelling an ISIL offensive against the town showed symptoms of chlorine exposure, which included coughing and vomiting. A more detailed description published in the Washington Post six weeks after the event only mentions 11 Iraqi police officers.
  • 20 September 2014: Press TV-Iran and RIA Novosti, drawing on Shafaq News (Iraq), reported on a military operation in Muqdadiyah, Diyala Province, during which Iraqi forces kill 18 ISIL fighters and destroy a warehouse with seven missiles containing chlorine gas. (Via LexisNexis.)
  • 22 September 2014: Several reports pointed to a coordinated attack by ISIL against a brigade headquarters of the Iraqi army near Saqlawiyah, northwest of Fallujah in Anbar Province. ISIL had cut off all supply routes. They managed to capture the base by disguising themselves as an Iraqi military relief party and detonated car bombs and suicide bombers blew themselves up. The defenders lost several hundreds of military personnel. The initial Iraqi counter-attack failed, leading to several Iraqi military commanders being imprisoned. During ISIL attacks prior to the capture of the base, at least one release of chlorine gas was reported. Col. Ihab Hashem, the deputy commander of an 8th Division battalion, said that the chorine canisters had fallen short of the base.
  • 28 September 2014: RIA Novosti quoted Iraq’s Ministry of Defence stating that ISIL several times used chlorine in hand-made fougasses. The devices, which were used to mine roads, did not have significant destructive effects. (Via LexisNexis.) It is possible that this was the same statement referred to under ‘15 September’.
  • Late September 2014: According to the BBC, 15 ISIL fighters were reportedly killed while filling rockets with chemicals.
  • 26 October 2014: Shaaban Obaidi, commander of the rapid intervention forces in Anbar province, is reported to have said that ISIL fighters ‘fired seven shells filled with chlorine on the residential district in Western Iraq’. No casualties were reported as a consequence of the gas attack. Residents had left the buildings and some shells had not gone off. No further precision about the location of the incident seems available.
  • 28 October 2014: The Al-Hayat website (London, in Arabic) carried a story that according to an Iraqi government source ISIL had ‘robbed the chlorine containers from the drinking water purification stations and sterilization materials from the warehouses of the irrigation and water departments in Al-Anbar.’ The source added that ISIL experts were working on mixing the chlorine with TNT and C-4. (Via LexisNexis.)
  • 12 November 2014: the UN General Assembly adopts six texts on cooperation between United Nations and other international organisations, including the OPCW regarding continuing cooperation over Syria. A testy exchange took place between the Turkish and Syrian representatives after the vote, with Syria using its right of reply to accuse the Turkish government of providing terrorist organisations, including ISIL, with chemical weapons and other types of weapons. (Plus Media Solutions, via LexisNexis.)
  • Mid-December 2014: A claim surfaced that ISIL was trying to deploy a dissemination system for scorpions. Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, a former UK military commander and press commentator on chemical and biological weapon matters, described the delivery system as a 2-foot (± 60cm) bomb which can release the creatures in flight, adding that they are robust enough to withstand the forces of launch and release. He believed that the weapon was intended to maximise psychological impact on defenders and civilians alike. Video footage exists of the Iraqi army arresting a man carrying a large number (‘thousands’) of scorpions supposedly for use in an attack. A month later an Egyptian retired general described the weapon as follows: ‘The poisonous scorpions are loaded into canisters in the shape of artillery shells that are launched either with cannons or catapults and open up upon impact with the ground, after which [the scorpions] spread quickly’. The latter item orginated from, a web site sponsored by US Central Command to counter support for terrorism.
  • 24 December 2014: The town of Hit, northwest of Ramadi in Anbar province, was reportedly shelled with a large number of mortar rounds loaded with chlorine gas. (Also: Shafaq News website, Baghdad, 24 December 2014, via LexisNexis.)
  • 29 December 2014: Russia Today quoted the Russian Foreign Ministry as saying that Syria had supplied the OPCW with evidence proving that opposition forces, notably ISIL, were using chlorine from captured facilities used to store this material. (Sana, via LexisNexis.) It is not clear whether the Syrian evidence is based on earlier Iraqi statements (see 28 October) or it concerns separate incidents inside Syria.
  • 24 January 2015: Salih Jasim al-Sabawi, also known as Abu Malik, died in a US air strike near the city of Mosul. According to US Central Command, he was a CW engineer under Saddam Hussein who had joined ISIL. Although it went on to claim that he provided the grouping with expertise to pursue a CW capability, a US intelligence official acknowledged that his precise role within ISIL is unknown. A Department of Defense official concurred that there was no evidence of al-Sabawi’s involvement in the acquisition of CW, but ‘our fear was that he would develop them’.
  • 24 January 2015: Kurdish forces shelled the city of Mosul late in January, reportedly hitting a chlorine storage depot and causing poisonous gases to be released. (Twitter message in Arabic by @sonawa1 of 24 January and PMS Media Solutions, news digest, 30 January via LexisNexis).
  • 5 February 2015: Iraq’s al-Sumaria satellite TV network reportedly quoted an Iraqi source that ISIL had taken hold of large quantities of chlorine gas after an attack against a major water treatment facility in the northern province of Nineveh. The unspecified source also claimed that ISIL transferred the chlorine along with large quantities of mustard gas brought from Syria to one of their hideouts in the area. He added that ISIL fighters had overrun an industrial area known as Kokjali to the east of Mosul, and are manufacturing rockets filled with chemical agents to use against Iraqi army forces.

 A few concluding thoughts

Contrary to AQI’s campaign of car bombings with chlorine canisters in Iraq in 2006–07, there does not seem to be a clear line linking the various allegations of ISIL attacks with toxic chemicals. With the exception of the incidents on 15 and 22 September 2014 details are sketchy at best and few direct witness reports seem available. Even for the attacks in Dhuluiya and Saqlawiyah many particulars of the delivery systems used are missing, making it hard to draw firm conclusions about possible future chemical warfare.

Nevertheless, a few aspects are worth highlighting for future discussions.

First, virtually all terrorist incidents involving toxic substances last year seem to have taken place inside Iraq rather than Syria.

Second, no fatalities have been recorded, but several people exposed to the gas required some medical attention. Even though certain accounts suggest the deployment of chlorine in support of tactical operations against military positions, witnesses tend to view use of the agent as attempts at psychological warfare or to destroy morale. These assessments are not unlike the ones offered for the AQI campaign, which backfired for the organisation.

Third, the accounts hint at opportunistic use of chlorine. ISIL captures stores of chlorine at or near water purification installations, but does not appear to manufacture the chemical itself. In this respect, opportunity seems to parallel that of AQI.

Fourth, rather than crudely rigging gas canisters to explosives like AQI, ISIL seems more intent on mastering the technology to fill chlorine into weapons. The references to shells, mortar bombs and fougasses as some sort of improvised explosive device may hint at an armament dynamic with respect to optimising delivery systems. In this scenario the incidents over the past half year could have been field tests under operational conditions, and ISIL might launch more concerted chlorine attacks in a not too distant future. However, if the grouping masters the technology for a reasonably effective dissemination device, then the possibility of ISIL filling them with more potent industrial or agricultural toxicants cannot be discounted.

Finally, in view of the Takfir ideology espoused by ISIL, emphasising international or religious norms against the use of poisonous substances are unlikely to have any moderating impact on the grouping’s behaviour. ISIL does not perceive its opponents as equal, a fundamental condition for normative conduct. Therefore, the international community, including the OPCW, will have to come up with innovative approaches to counter the possible escalation of the insurgency to more systematic chemical warfare.

The third and last article on the challenges for CW disarmament posed by ISIL will look into how the OPCW can address the questions emerging from the opportunistic use of toxic industrial chemicals as a method of warfare.

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About JP Zanders

Jean Pascal Zanders (Belgium) has worked on questions of chemical and biological weapon (CBW) armament and disarmament since 1986. He was CBW Project Leader at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Director of the BioWeapons Prevention Project and Senior Research Fellow responsible for disarmament, arms control and non-proliferation questions at the European Union Institute for Security Studies. He now owns and runs The Trench.

2 thoughts on “Chlorine: A weapon of last resort for ISIL? (Part 2)

  1. nrerzsi

    Dear JPZ,
    thanks for this.
    I would just like to add that even before Syria’s joining the CWC there had been news in the different regional press that some elements of the so-called Syrian opposition (mainly pointing to the Nusra Front) have chemical weapons or at least the material to it. See e.g. the Lebanese The Daily Star at , or in Turkey and , and the Iranian allegations that they had notified the US before that some elements have chemical weapons.
    Best, as always, Erzsébet 🙂

    1. JP Zanders Post author

      Thanks for your comments, Erzsébet.

      Yes, I am aware of these allegations. However, the question is how to get them confirmed. After the sarin attacks against Ghouta there were several reports hinting at insurgent use of toxic chemicals, which could just as well be interpreted as a way to deflect responsibility from whoever conducted the attacks.

      The stories about the CW in Turkey similarly lack depth. Close reading of the articles actually reveals very little about the CW plot, but there is quite a lot of description of other activities. The last line of the article says: ‘providing raw material for the production of chemical weapons’, which does not really say anything, except that there is no chemical weapon as they still have to produce it. We also have no idea of volumes, because there is a big difference between a laboratory batch and a volume that can usefully be deployed to the battlefield. And there is no information about dissemination systems.

      But thanks again for pointing these out.

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