MS Risk Blog

Officials Warn that IS May Be Seeking to Develop Chemical/Biological Weapons

Posted on in France title_rule

Late last week, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls warned that France could face a chemical or biological attack from terror groups, as deputies voted to extend the state of emergency, which was imposed after the attacks, for another three months from 26 November. Speaking to the lower house of Parliament on Thursday ahead of the vote, the prime minister stated that “terrorism hit France not because of what it is doing in Iraq and Syria…but for what it is,” adding, “we know that there could also be a risk of chemical or biological weapons,” however he did not talk of a specific threat.

On Thursday, US and Iraqi intelligence officials also reported that IS is aggressively pursuing development of chemical weapons, setting up a branch that is dedicated to research and experiments with the help of scientists from Iraq, Syria and elsewhere in the region.   While US intelligence officials currently do not believe that IS has the capabilities to develop sophisticated weapons, such as never gas, that are most suited for a terrorist attack on a civilian target, the Islamist terror group has in the past used mustard gas on the battlefield in Syria and Iraq. Militants have used mustard gas against Iraqi Kurdish fighters and in Syria. In mortars that hit Kurdish forces in northern Iraq earlier this year, preliminary tests by the US showed traces of the chemical agent sulphur mustard. Furthermore, US intelligence agencies have consistently underestimated IS, which has shown itself to be more capable and innovative than al-Qaeda and has greater financial resources.

According to a senior Iraqi military intelligence officer and two officials from another Iraqi intelligence agency, IS has set up a branch that is tasked with pursuing chemical weapons. While these officials have not provided details of the programme, including how many personnel it is believed to have or its budget, Hakim al-Zimili, the head of the Iraqi parliament’s security and defense committee, citing intelligence reports he has access to, disclosed that the group has managed to attract chemical experts from both abroad as well as Iraqi experts, including ones who once worked for Saddam Hussein’s now-dissolved Military Industrialization Authority. Iraqi intelligence officials have disclosed that the foreigners include experts from Chechnya and southeast Asia. According to Al-Zmili, IS recently moved its research labs, experts and materials from Iraq to “secured locations” inside Syria, adding that the move was apparently out of concern of an eventual assault on Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, which ws captured by IS in the summer of 2014. Iraqi officials have also expressed their concern that the large safe haven the extremists control since overrunning parts of Iraq and Syria last year has left Iraqi authorities largely in the dark in regards to the IS programme. A senior Iraqi intelligence official has disclosed that “they now have complete freedom to select locations for their labs and production sites and have a wide range of experts, both civilians and military, to aid them.” It is evident that Iraqi authorities fear that the use of chemical weapons could be expanded. Over the summer, Iraq’s military distributed gas masks to troops deployed in the regions west and north of Baghdad. According to a senior officer in the province of Salahuddin, which is located north of Baghdad, 25 percent of the troops deployed there were equipped with masks. More recently, Hakim al-Zamili, the head of the Iraqi parliament’s security and defense committee reported that the country’s military had received from Russia 1,000 protective suits against chemical attacks.

What is known is that developing chemical weapons has been an ambition of the group, and various other jihadi movements, for years. According to two senior officials, in a 2013 report on IS’ weapons procurement efforts, a senior deputy of IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi wrote of “significant progress” toward producing chemical weapons. The officials further disclosed that in the report, Sameer al-Khalifawy wrote that chemical weapons would ensure “Sift victory” and “terrorize our enemies,” adding that what was needed was “to secure a safe environment to carry out experiments.” Al-Khalifawy was killed by rebels in Syria in early 2014, just months before IS overran Mosul and much of northern and Western Iraq. Furthermore in May 2013, Iraqi security forces, acting on a tip from US intelligence officials, raided a secret chemical weapons research lab in Baghdad’s Sunni-majority district of al-Doura. According to Iraqi intelligence officials, security forces arrested two militants running the lab, Kefah Ibrahim al-Jabouri, who held a master’s degree in chemistry, and Abdel Mahmoud al-Abadi, who has a bachelor’s degree in physics and who worked at Saddam’s Military Industrialization Authority before it was disbanded in 2003. Iraqi officials have disclosed that the two men were working with al-Baghdadi, citing IS correspondence that they seized from al-Jabouri. International officials however have disputed these claims, stating that the men were not connected with IS. Iraqi officials have also complained of a lack of cooperation from neighbouring Syria, citing the case of a veteran Iraqi jihadist and weapons expert, Ziad Tareq Ahmed, who fled to Syria after Iraqi security agents raided his home in Baghdad in 2010 and arrested several members of his cell. At the time, Iraqi agents found large amounts of material that could have been used for making mustard gas. Ahmed, who holds a master’s degree in chemistry and who has worked with several Islamic militant groups without formally joining any, was arrested by the Syrians last year. While the Syrian government allowed Iraqi officials to interrogate him in prison, they refused to hand him over. According to Iraqi intelligence officials, last month, Syrian officials released him. One of the officials has since stated that “this is a very grave development, adding that “his release adds significantly to our concerns.”

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