Stopping the ISIS Chemical Weapons Program

Saddam's chemical weapons scientists find a new home.

ISIS continues to threaten the homeland. “Paris isn’t far from you - we will by Allah’s permission do to your country what we did to Paris. We will kill, slaughter and burn your people. Inshallah, we will attack you very soon,” warned an ISIS narrator in a recent video.

ISIS is not limiting itself to the kind of mass shootings that Paris experienced last year. Indeed, ISIS has made it clear that it will stop at nothing to kill as many Americans as possible. Either we destroy ISIS wherever they operate or they will cause mass casualties here at home, possibly with the use of weapons of mass destruction, which they are beginning to get their hands on. 

ISIS is putting its considerable resources into developing chemical weapons. And they are leveraging the expertise of former Saddam Hussein regime scientists who have joined the ISIS jihadists. 

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) has reportedly confirmed that ISIS fighters have already used chemical weapons in Iraq and Syria, perhaps obtained from stockpiles they took control over in those countries. “It raises the major question of where the sulphur mustard came from,” an OPCW source was quoted by Reuters as saying. “Either they (IS) gained the ability to make it themselves, or it may have come from an undeclared stockpile overtaken by IS. Both are worrying options.”

In an important counter-strike to thwart ISIS’s ability to develop chemical weapons, U.S. Special Operation Forces have reportedly captured a top man in ISIS's chemical weapons development program. The capture took place last month in northern Iraq, according to two senior Iraqi intelligence officials cited by the Associated Press. U.S. officials have refused to identify the ISIS leader, but the Iraqi officials claimed he was formerly involved in Saddam Hussein's chemical weapons program. Based on information learned from interrogation, unnamed U.S. officials told CNN, the U.S. was able to conduct strikes against ISIS chemical weapons facilities in Iraq.

According to the CNN report, a “U.S. official said the goal is to locate, target and carry out strikes that will result in the destruction of ISIS's entire chemical weapons enterprise -- mainly mustard agent ISIS produces itself.”

Defense Secretary Ash Carter was true to his word in his testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee last December, when he said, “This is a no-kidding force that will be doing important things.” But Carter and the military can only go so far as their commander-in-chief lets them. They can only continue doing “important things” if they are not held back by restrictive rules of engagement that could leave ISIS chemical weapons facilities in place for fear of inflicting any civilian casualties in an attack. 

President Obama's belated decision to more aggressively utilize covert Special Forces on the ground to kill high level ISIS personnel, or preferably capture them for interrogation, and to disrupt its critical operations is welcomed. However, the question remains whether he is still too wary of utilizing sufficient means of enhanced interrogation of the captured ISIS personnel involved in WMD programs to learn everything we can that they know. We can only hope that, given the existential stakes in stopping ISIS from deploying weapons of mass destruction, President Obama is now willing to abandon his opposition to using enhanced interrogation techniques on captured jihadists held in secret facilities outside the United States. Perhaps, last month’s capture and useful interrogation of a top man in ISIS's chemical weapons development program is a turning point. It remains to be seen.

Chemical weapons are not the only WMD threat that ISIS poses. The Associated Press reported last October that ISIS is actively seeking radioactive material in the black market, particularly in Eastern Europe. "In the age of the Islamic State, it's especially terrifying to have real smugglers of nuclear bomb material apparently making connections with real buyers," said Matthew Bunn, a Harvard professor whom the Associated Press described as having studied the security of Russia's nuclear arsenal for the Clinton administration.

ISIS does not presently have the capability to produce its own nuclear bombs, although it is not out of the realm of possibility. A German journalist Jurgen Todenhofer, who spent time with ISIS fighters in northern Iraq in 2014, wrote “ISIS intends to get its hands on nuclear weapons." He characterized ISIS as a "nuclear tsunami preparing the largest religious cleansing in history."

Even before ISIS can reach that goal, it can seize or purchase enough radioactive material to produce a dirty bomb. While technically a dirty bomb is a conventional weapon, its effects if exploded in the middle of a densely populated area can be devastating. 

ISIS won’t stop their campaign of death and destruction unless they are destroyed first. Degradation or containment of ISIS are insufficient. As General George Patton famously declared, “There is only one tactical principle which is not subject to change. It is to use the means at hand to inflict the maximum amount of wound, death, and destruction on the enemy in the minimum amount of time.”