The dreadful image of the aftermath of a Chemical or Radiological attack in the United Kingdom has edged a little closer over the past few weeks as the turmoil in Syria and Iraq has created new opportunities for international terrorism to exploit these deadly weapons.
On 10 July Iraq formally informed the United Nations that armed militants, presumed to be members of the newly defined Islamic State had “seized nuclear materials used for scientific research” at a university in the north of the country. In a letter to the United Nations Secretary General the Iraqi Ambassador to the United Nations noted that about 40 kilogrammes of uranium compounds were present in the University at Mosul when it was taken over by Islamic militants.
Although subsequent reaction to this news by the International Atomic Energy Authority in Vienna has sought to play down the threat suggesting the material was ‘low grade’ this latest development simply adds to the sense that the use of chemical and radiological weapons are gaining traction again in international terrorist circles.
Further reading: A complex multi-dimensional threat
This news comes days after another announcement that Islamic extremists in Iraq allied to the Islamic State had taken over the former Iraqi Chemical Weapons facility at Muthanna on 11 June. This was the primary location of the Iraqi chemical weapons programme which was situated to the north-west of Baghdad. At the height of the Iraqi programme before its disruption this facility stored over 2,500 chemical rockets filled with a cocktail of various chemical weapons including sarin.
Parlous state of the security situation
The understandable reaction of the United States to this news emerging from Iraq has been to play down the threat that this poses to the west. The State Department was quick to point out that there were no intact chemical weapons left at the site. That said, in the statement circulated by the Iraqi ambassador to the United Nations he made the point that at this moment Iraq was unable to fulfil its obligations to destroy chemical weapons because of the parlous state of the security situation in his country.
As if to illustrate his concerns the Iraqi Ambassador specifically cited two bunkers at the facility in at Muthanna (called bunkers 13 and 41) as being of the most concern. In the last report by United Nations inspectors on the status of Iraq’s chemical weapons programme noted that Bunker 14 had contained 2,500 sarin-filled 122 mm chemical rockets which had been produced and developed in 1991. Around 180 tonnes of sodium cyanide were also reported to be in the bunker. This is an important precursor for the warfare agent tabun. In Bunker 41 a further 2,000 empty 155 mm artillery shells were also discovered alongside 605 one-tone mustard gas containers with residues and heavily contaminated construction material.
The State Department spokesman Jen Psaki did express “concern” over the seizure of the Muthanna facility but played down the importance of the two bunkers mentioned by the Iraqi Ambassador noting they contained “degraded chemical remnants” adding that the material dates back to the 1980s and that it would be “very difficult, if not impossible, to safely use this for military purposes or, frankly, to move it”.
In spite of all of these reassuring noises these latest two incidences come at a time when the debate on the use of chemical weapons in Syria has yet to reach any conclusive outcome. Rumours (which ultimately turned out to be false) of small quantities of sarin being discovered at a house in Turkey added to other concerns emerging from Iraq.
Deteriorating security in the Syria creating conditions for attack in the West
In June last year simultaneous raids by Iraqi security forces on three locations in Baghdad discovered relatively crude sarin production facilities. This all occurred several weeks before the onslaught of chemical attacks in Syria were unleashed – some of which are still rumoured to have been conducted by groups affiliated to ISIS and Al Qaeda determined to force the American President to cross his ‘red line’ of the use of chemical wepons. Under interrogation those arrested at the facilities in Baghdad confessed to having tried to manufacture sarin. They also were very clear in their response to questions that they had “established networks” that would move the sarin into Western Europe.
Much of this could of course all be bluster. ISIS and Al Qaeda benefit hugely when the perceived threat in the west from weapons of mass destruction grows. It is always in their interests to see commentators exaggerate the threat for effect and to get headlines.
But there is another possibility, one to which the Home Secretary referred to recently when she implied terrorists were only “a matter of hours away” from conducting attacks in Western Europe. That is that the deteriorating security situation in both Syria and Iraq may well be creating the conditions which may enable terrorists to plan and conduct chemical and radiological attacks in Western Europe.
Whilst the Home Secretary would no doubt not have wished her language to have been compared so directly to the now infamous warning 45 minute warning issued by Tony Blair in the run-up to the second Gulf War time may prove her warning to have been prescient. Smuggling chemicals or radiological material from Iraq into Western Europe will certainly take more than 45 minutes and may even take more than a few hours to arrive but they can still have a deadly effect.