Monday, August 11, 2014

Are Iraq's Chemical Weapons Still Haunting Us?

Updated February 2015

An interesting article by Stephen Hummel at the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point looks at the possibility that ISIL/ISIS has managed to acquire some rather frightening items.

According to the author,  in June 2014, ISIL seized control of nuclear material that was under the control of the Iraqi government at the University of Mosul.  As well, on June 19, 2014, ISIL entered the  Al Muthanna project site near the town of Samarra where the remnants of the former Iraqi chemical weapons program were kept.  While his thesis is that there is little threat from either the radioactive or chemical agents because ISIL does not possess the infrastructure to create weapons of mass destruction, there is always the possibility that ISIL may just act as an intermediary, passing along their finds to another party that is capable of creating a so-called "dirty bomb" or releasing the chemical agents into a water supply.  

Here's an interesting quote on the issue from Defense News and Amy Smithson from Center for Nonproliferation Studies:

"ISIL militants may find uses for the materials, albeit a limited one, with the aid of chemical experts, said Amy Smithson, senior fellow at Center for Nonproliferation Studies and a chemical weapons expert.

“I doubt they [could use the materials on their own] because these are things that only chemical weapons experts and manufacturers would know,” she said.
She added that it’s not time to panic, however, “if there is an event where chemical weapons are used in Iraq, then this would be an indication that they found a chemist or somebody who has enough understanding to get the containers open, understand what’s in it, and how to use it.”
Smithson said some of the precursor chemicals, if combined with other chemicals, could allow for something potent to be created, however, the quantity and quality are likely to be low."

Let's look at a bit of background on the al-Muthanna facility.  

According to the CIA, Iraq's pursuit of chemical weapons began in the early 1960s when members of Iraq's armed forces travelled to the United States and the United Kingdom to receive training for chemical and biological warfare (CBW).  From this initial phase, Iraq formed the Chemical Corps.  During the first part of the 1970s, the Army attempted to develop a chemical weapon but failed.  In 1975, the first laboratory that was devoted to the development of CBW was built in suburban Baghdad at the Al Hasan Institute.  Interestingly, Al Hasan was funded through the Ministry of Higher Education and was intimately supported by the Iraqi Intelligence Service (IIS).  Some of the most prominent members of the development team received advanced degrees from the Chemical Warfare Academy in Moscow between 1973 and 1979.  In 1978, the Al Hasan Institute closed after a fraud and embezzlement scandal led to imprisonment of staff.

After Al Hasan closed, Project 1/75 was undertaken in a small facility southwest of Samarra.  Funding for this CBW program came from the Ministry of Defense.  The project, renamed Project 922, was greatly expanded after Saddam Hussein took power, particularly with the war looming between Iran and Iraq.  German corporations built facilities and supplied equipment that was solely designed to mass produce CBW agents.  To keep the program under wraps, it was publicly known as the State Establishment for Pesticide Production (SEPP).  By 1984, the Al Muthanna Chemical Weapons Complex was in full production, producing mustard,  Tabun, Sarin and VX.  In 1987, the facility produced almost 900 tons of mustard agents and between 1984 and 1986, Iraq was producing between 60 and 80 tons of Tabun annually.  In 1988, Iraq produced 394 tons of Sarin and 2.5 tons of VX.  Once the Iran-Iraq War ended, Al Muthanna changed its focus to research and development in an attempt to purify and stabilize their chemical weapons.  Al Muthanna's ability to produced chemical weapons ended with the Gulf War.  During the war, the facility was bombed, causing the roofs on the research facilities to collapse.    The precursor and agent production areas as well as the Chemical and Material Storage areas were not completely destroyed.  Here is an arial photo showing the facility after Desert Storm:

Between 1992 and 1994,  United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM) Chemical Destruction Group (CDG) oversaw destruction of the facility, part of which was converted into a chemical weapons destruction facility.  Over that time frame, the CDG oversaw the destruction of 30,000 pieces of ordinance, much of which was supplied by Egypt, 480,000 litres of chemical agents and more than 2 million litres of chemical precursors.  Two large cruciform bunkers that contained chemical munitions, old bulk chemical agents and other hazardous materials that were considered too dangers for destruction were sealed, however, the contents were never fulling declared to the United Nations.  Here is an arial photo of the cruciform bunkers:

Here is a side view of the cruciform bunker:

After Operation Iraqi Freedom, a fact-finding mission of more than one thousand Americans, British and Australians called the Iraq Survey Group (ISG) was formed to find the weapons of mass destruction that received so much attention from Colin Powell and the  rest of the Bush II Administration.   ISG conducted multiple excursions to the Al Muthanna site to determine whether the site had been tampered with since the last visit by UNSCOM in the mid-1990s.  Here is a quote from the CIA report:

"ISG is unable to unambiguously determine the complete fate of old munitions, materials, and chemicals produced and stored there.The matter is further complicated by the looting and razing done by the Iraqis... ISG is unable to unambiguously determine the complete fate of old munitions, materials, and chemicals produced and stored there.The matter is further complicated by the looting and razing done by the Iraqis...ISG exploitations indicate that the storage area still remains a threat despite testing. Chemical storage containers filled with unknown hazardous chemicals are showing signs of rusting-through and leaking."

With this information in mind, it appears as though it is entirely possible that ISIL/ISIS has managed to get their hands on the remnants of Saddam's much-dreaded and often used chemical weapons, particularly when it appears that ISG was unable to determine the complete fate of the chemicals involved.

Let's close this posting with a quote from the 2006 Iraq Study Group Report, the Congress-appointed study group that examined the options for Iraq's future:

 "There is no magic formula to solve the problems of Iraq. However, there are actions that can be taken to improve the situation and protect American interests.

Many Americans are dissatisfied, not just with the situation in Iraq but with the state of our political debate regarding Iraq. Our political leaders must build a bipartisan approach to bring a responsible conclusion to what is now a lengthy and costly war. Our country deserves a debate that prizes substance over rhetoric, and a policy that is adequately funded and sustainable. The President and Congress must work together. Our leaders must be candid and forthright with the American people in order to win their support.

No one can guarantee that any course of action in Iraq at this point will stop sectarian warfare, growing violence, or a slide toward chaos. If current trends continue, the potential consequences are severe. Because of the role and responsibility of the United States in Iraq, and the commitments our government has made, the United States has special obligations. Our country must address as best it can Iraq’s many problems. The United States has long-term relationships and interests at stake in the Middle East, and needs to stay engaged.

In this consensus report, the ten members of the Iraq Study Group present a new approach because we believe there is a better way forward. All options have not been exhausted. We believe it is still possible to pursue different policies that can give Iraq an opportunity for a better future, combat terrorism, stabilize a critical region of the world, and protect America’s credibility, interests, and values. Our report makes it clear that the Iraqi government and the Iraqi people also must act to achieve a stable and hopeful future." (my bold)

Odd isn't it, how prescient they were?

While it does not appear as though ISIS has used chemical weapons to this point, one can never be certain that the group will use this tactic when needed.

1 comment:

  1. Best chance at a lasting peace is going to be a split up of Syria and Iraq into 3 parts. Kurdistan in the North of both Syria and Iraq. Sunnistan in much of Syria and Iraq. Alawite Coastal region In Syria and Shitestan in Southern Iraq. If no large powers get invovled this is what would happen natrually after the wars played out.