Toward a WMD-capable Islamic State?

The military-strategic culture in the Middle East tends to see strategic weapons as means of compensating for conventional-military shortcomings, ensuring regime security through deterrence.

August 23, 2015 21:42
3 minute read.


Recently, The Wall Street Journal reported that Islamic State (IS) used chemical weapons (CW), most probably mustard gas, against Kurdish forces in Iraq. Mustard gas, a blister agent, is not as deadly as nerve agent CWs, and the alleged was not even on a tactical level. Yet if true, this incident would suggest a critical turning point for the IS threat in the Middle East.

More than WMD terrorism

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The CW allegations about IS cannot be simply reduced to a case of WMD terrorism.

Clearly, IS is a political-military entity, which could be categorized as a “proto-state” with revolutionary jihadi-Salafist doctrinal references. It poses an existential threat to nearly all state actors and societies in the region, including the two democracies NATO -member Turkey and Israel, as well as Shi’ite theocracy Iran and the GCC monarchies.

Without a doubt, such a political-military terrorist entity needs ultimate security assurances – enter strategic weapons.

The military-strategic culture in the Middle East tends to see strategic weapons as means of compensating for conventional-military shortcomings, ensuring regime security through deterrence.

This paved the ground for Ba’athist Syria’s chemical and biological weapons (CBW) programs, Saddam Hussein’s pursuit of all kinds of WMDs and their delivery means, as well as Iran’s ballistic missile proliferation and nuclear program.

Islamic State’s dangerous WMD ambitions

The recent reports on IS’s CW use are not the first indication that the terrorist quasi-state is “interested” in WMDs.

In early 2015, US CENTCOM announced the death of one of Saddam Hussein’s chemical weapons experts, Abu Malik, in a coalition air-strike targeting IS positions. Furthermore, in 2014, a laptop captured from an IS-member Tunisian national revealed an instructive document on developing biological weapons, particularly on weaponizing the bubonic plague. Notably, the bubonic plague was used between 1937 and 1945 by the notorious Japanese Unit 731 in China during the biological and chemical warfare campaign under General Shirō Ishii’s command. General Ishii’ forces sprayed infected fleas and dropped specially designed bombs on the civilian population for ethnic cleansing purposes.

Recently some intelligence agencies also publicly voiced their concerns about IS’s interest in radiological material and suspected attempts to obtain “dirty bombs.”

Between stoppable and inevitable

If Islamic State survives, it will probably acquire some level of CBW capability.

Unfortunately, current technological and scientific trends could unwittingly ease such a scenario by making CBW components more accessible to nonstate actors. Firstly, CBWs depend on dual-use technologies, many of which are commercially available. IS would not face many hardships in obtaining the bio-reactors and agricultural sprayers required to weaponize naturally occurring pathogens. When it comes to bioengineering and genetic modification more advanced scientific know-how is needed, but it is not unimaginable that IS will develop such capabilities.

The latter possibility would seriously stress the medical counter-measures of neighboring states, as modified pathogens would bear little semblance to natural diseases.

Secondly, commercially available chemicals and emerging micro-reactor technologies are expected to make chemical weapons more precise, lethal and complicated in future.

Thirdly, it is not a secret that some remnants of the Iraqi Ba’athist regime are aligned with IS now, and Hussein-era Iraq was infamous for CBW development.

Finally, as the dust settles following some optimists’ premature euphoria with regard to the Syrian CW disarmament, it has now surfaced that the US Central Intelligence Agency is not convinced the Assad regime acted transparently.

Some experts also believe Assad might have even hidden part of deadly VX agent arsenal. If confirmed, we can fairly say that now there exists risk in Syria that IS could obtain CW capability equivalent in destructive potential to a low-yield tactical nuclear weapon.

Future WMD-capable IS?

In sum, while political scientists keep discussing whether IS could be a “real state” in the Middle East in a Weberian sense, the sober wisdom of the War Studies discipline suggests that it will be very difficult for the apocalyptic terrorist entity to become a true and permanent state actor in the region without obtaining some kind of strategic weapons capabilities.

Unchecked, this scenario could well become reality.

In order to prevent such an doomsday scenario, the international community must re-examine Syrian CW declarations and verifications, closely monitor both persons with critical scientific knowledge and information flow into IS-controlled areas, and trace the sensitive dual-use technology transactions in the region.

The author is a research fellow at Istanbul-based independent thinktank EDAM, and an academic at the Girne American University.

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