With ISIS desperate and on the run, is there a heightened danger that the group will use chemical weapons against Israel or against European targets, including Jews and Israeli tourists there? The Prime Minister’s Counter-Terrorism Bureau (LOTAR) warned over the weekend that ISIS might be plotting to carry out chemical attacks in Europe in the coming months.
LOTAR intends to issue a travel advisory to the tens of thousands of Israelis planning to vacation in Europe over Passover.
The bureau is particularly concerned with the possibility that, due to losses ISIS is sustaining in Iraq and Syria, foreign fighters there will return to their homes in Europe and carry out attacks along the lines of the truck attack in Berlin in December that killed 12 people, including Dalia Elyakim, a tourist from Herzliya, and wounded 56 others.
ISIS is believed to have access to chemical weapons that it has taken control of in Syria, Iraq, Libya and possibly elsewhere.
In addition to that scenario, experts have written for some time that ISIS might try to use chemical weapons against Israel or to get such weapons to its followers in Israel or the West Bank to carry out an attack.
Until now, ISIS has had a major tactical challenge in that it has been at war against almost every part of the world with an interest in Iraq and Syria, including many Sunnis and all Shi’ites, reducing whom it could attract to join its fight.
However, experts have pointed out that an attack on Israel could rally support from new corners in the Muslim world and blur the opposition of others to ISIS.
Both targeting Europe, and potentially Jews or Israeli tourists in Europe, and targeting Israel, have the advantage of being “closer targets” – as opposed to al-Qaida, which has sometimes focused on “far targets” such as the US.
And certainly ISIS is not deterred ideologically or rationally from using chemical weapons.
ISIS video threatens Israel in January 2016
ISIS has used chemical weapons in Iraq and Syria at least 52 times, according to a report published late last year by IHS Conflict Monitor, a London-based research and intelligence gathering group.
There is some confusion as to whether ISIS used chemical weapons again in early March during the battle for Mosul, but there is no question it has used it numerous times in the past.
So what is standing in ISIS’s way? Dr. Ely Karmon of the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya says there is a low probability at this stage of a chemical attack in Europe, and did not appear to take the chances of an attack on Israel seriously either.
The fact is that even as ISIS has sparked significant interest among Israeli Arabs and among Palestinians in the West Bank, that it has had little success in terms of actual attacks or forming a permanent presence.
Further, ISIS is not in control of areas directly bordering Israel, with the Syrian side of the Golan being controlled by other groups during most of the civil war.
ISIS could also try to fire chemical weapons at Israel on a missile, but its capability for such a sophisticated operation is unclear and Israel has strong preemptive strike and missile defense capabilities.
Finally, unlike the West, which has plagued ISIS with air strikes, Israel has been careful not to focus attacks on ISIS, if anything conducting occasional air strikes against ISIS’s opposition, including Hezbollah and the Assad regime.
Regarding an attack on Europe, Karmon says that even if it occurs, it could be a very primitive one or there could be just threats without an attack materializing.
He says he is worried more about an attack on a chemical facility, such as the suspected Islamist extremist attack on an Air Products & Chemicals industrial gases plant on June 26, 2015, in L’Isle-d’Abeau, near Lyon, France.
In that attack, one man crashed a car traveling at high speed through the gates of the site and then into gas canisters, causing an explosion.
Karmon explains that Turkey, especially near the border with Syria or Iraq, could also be a much easier target for ISIS.
Due to bilateral tensions, fewer Israelis are traveling to Turkey these days, though that is opening up somewhat.
ISIS has shown a tendency to encourage simple but deadly attacks that require limited planning and logistics.
In short, as it enters a new, desperate phrase, ISIS presents a wide number of possible chemical weapons threats to Israel and to Jews and Israelis abroad, particularly in Europe.
But ultimately, a complex, devastating chemical weapons attack is less likely than a low-grade attack that might not kill any more people than a regular bomb or a shooting in a crowded area.