15 October 2014

The very small Islamic State WMD threat

Dina EsfandiaryMatthew Cottee

Matthew Cottee

Matthew Cottee is a research analyst with the Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Programme at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

Dina Esfandiary

Dina Esfandiary is a MacArthur Fellow at the Centre for Science and Security Studies at King's College London.

Late last month British Home Secretary Theresa May, who is responsible for immigration and policing under Prime Minister David Cameron, alarmed many citizens when she warned that the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) could “acquire chemical, biological, or even nuclear weapons to attack us.” Joseph Cirincione, president of the global-security-focused Ploughshares Fund, warned that “the risk of a terrorist attack using nuclear or chemical weapons has just gone up.” And a little later Britain’s Sunday Times reported on what it called a “jihadist plot to grab Iran’s nuclear secrets,” saying that based on a captured policy manifesto, ISIS aimed to acquire Iranian nuclear know-how with Russia’s help.

With ISIS running amok over such a large swathe of territory, it’s no surprise that these kinds of fears are growing. But it is important to be realistic about the threat. It remains unlikely that the group will be able to acquire and effectively use chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons.

For a start, concerns that terrorists could buy or steal a nuclear device from a country that possesses them are exaggerated and have been comprehensively discredited. Very few countries sponsor terrorism or wish to be seen as doing so, and nuclear forensics would make it relatively straightforward to find the source of any given device. The consequences for any state conducting such business would be severe. 

Some of the hysteria surrounding ISIS and WMD is based on the theft in July of around 40 kilograms of uranium compounds from Mosul University. But if this was a targeted attempt to acquire nuclear material—rather than part of a broader raid on the university—it suggests that the thieves’ knowledge of nuclear bomb-making lacks sophistication. The stolen material cannot be turned into a viable nuclear device: The uranium was low-grade and would have to be further enriched and then weaponized, requiring obscure raw materials and technologies, a delivery means, and facilities that would take years and a significant sum of money to develop. It took the United States, with its vast resources and advanced knowhow, six years to develop a nuclear device. It took China roughly 10 years and Pakistan more than two decades. Needless to say, even for an established country, developing a nuclear weapon is not simple. 

The most likely threat is a radiological device of some kind. It is relatively simple to develop a so-called “dirty bomb,” in which explosives are combined with a radioactive source like those commonly used in hospitals or extractive industries. But the radioactivity released by a dirty bomb would have only limited health effects, causing more disruption than destruction. If ISIS used its stolen uranium in a dirty bomb, the weapon’s blast would be more deadly than the radiation it released.

What about chemical and biological weapons? In June, ISIS seized the Al Muthanna chemical complex in northern Iraq, leading to concerns that the group would acquire the ability to deploy chemical weapons. According to a letter circulated by the Iraqi government at the United Nations, the facility held 2,500 chemical rockets filled with the nerve agent sarin, as well as other chemical remnants and some empty delivery mechanisms. But the chemicals were old and either partially destroyed or degraded. As chemical weapons go, sarin is particularly susceptible to degradation if it is impure. Its shelf life is estimated to be one to two years. While sarin’s degraded remnants are still toxic, they cannot be used as chemical weapons.

The Al Muthanna facility also housed mustard gas, which is more stable. In recent days, reports have emerged that ISIS allegedly used mustard gas in an attack against Kurdish officers in Kobane. But the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM) and the United Nations Monitoring, Verification, and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC) inspectors reported two decades ago that these chemicals had been degraded. More important, the two bunkers ISIS seized had been chosen by UNSCOM for destruction operations because of their solid structures. Both were sealed, which means penetration by ISIS would not only be difficult but would expose them to the chemicals. In short, there is virtually nothing available for ISIS to use at the Al Muthanna complex. Moreover, even if the group were to get access to agents like sarin or mustard gas, deploying them without its own members being contaminated would present a considerable challenge, as they are not trained in chemical weapons use.

The use of chlorine, however, is a possibility. Chlorine is a readily available industrial chemical with many peaceful uses. It can be pressurized and cooled to a liquid state so that it can be shipped and stored relatively easily, which means it can be used in improvised devices. When dispersed it spreads quickly and hinders breathing. But it’s significantly less lethal than other chemical agents. While chlorine isn’t useful in battle, it’s an effective weapon of fear.

ISIS appears to have some interest in developing biological weapons, as files contained on a laptop seized in Syria last summer suggest. But the group would need sophisticated labs and technical expertise to develop, manufacture, and deploy such weapons. And as with chemical weapons, the use of biological weapons by untrained troops puts them at risk of contamination, too. While it is possible for ISIS to get its hands on biological toxins and pathogens, it would be very difficult for its soldiers to safely handle and disperse large quantities of the agents to cause mass casualties.

In short, ISIS does seem interested in acquiring chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons, but ambitions do not necessarily equate with reality. The complexities of such weapons, combined with the difficulties involved in obtaining and handling the necessary material, make the likelihood of its use remote. Let’s not exaggerate the threat.