Chemical attacks escalate
by KEVIN KNODELL
Officials in Northern Iraq’s Kurdish region are reporting more and more Islamic State chemical weapons attacks. The most recent was on April 19, when a mortar round allegedly containing chemical agents struck Peshmerga troops in the town of Makmour.
The fighters told Kurdish news outlet Rudaw that the wounded suffered nausea, vomiting and burning eyes after the attack — all tell-tale signs of chemical weapons. It was the second gas attack in just a week.
On the same day as that attack, the Turkish foreign ministry said that Ankara Polatli State Hospital had admitted 68 Iraqi Turkmen from the town of Tuz Khurmato in northeast Iraq. The men were apparently suffering from exposure to chlorine gas.
“As it always has, Turkey will continue to embrace brotherly Iraqi Turkmens,” the ministry stated.
Many of Islamic State’s chemical weapons have been simple, improvised weapons like the chlorine bombs. In some cases, the militants have mixed a chemical shell or two in with a conventional artillery barrage. These weapons haven’t actually proved particularly deadly in Islamic State’s hands. But they do have a profound psychological impact.
These attacks evoke painful memories of a much earlier campaign of chemical warfare targeting the Kurds. Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s cousin Ali Hassan Al Majid — better known as “Chemical Ali” — deployed poison gasses and nerve agents in the regime’s genocidal Anfal campaign against the Kurds in the 1980s.
On March 16, 1988, Iraqi planes gassed the Kurdish town of Halabja, killing as many as 5,000 people.
There was a minor panic among some commentators in June 2014 when Islamic State seized the Al Muthanna chemical weapons storage facility in northern Iraq. But the munitions at the facility are aging, decrepit artifacts of Iraq’s 1980s weapon program and have been poorly maintained.
The unstable weapons would probably be as dangerous to ISIS weaponeers as they would be to any of the militants’ enemies. Early reports indicated that Islamic State fighters left the weapons where they were.
But aging stockpiles of chemical weapons can be found around the region. And militants have also allegedly seized Libyan chemical weapons stockpiles kept by the late, deposed Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi. There are indications that some of these weapons may have wound up in Islamic State’s arsenal.
“In some sense they might not even know what they are firing,” British Army major Gareth Morris told The Telegraph. “The labeling on the munition is not sufficiently clear, and they can’t read, or it could be in Chinese or Russian and they might not even know they are firing mustard.”
Morris was part of a British Army chemical warfare scout unit that was eliminated as part of recent defense cuts. But the prospect of Western troops facing militant gas attack prompted the Ministry of Defense to reverse its decision and rebuild the unit.
Many U.S. commanders have also expressed concern that American troops have grown complacent when it comes to potential chemical and biological attacks.
There have been many reports of chemical weapons being used in Syria, usually by the regime of Syrian president Bashar Al Assad. In 2012, a defecting Syrian army officer told Syrian newspaper Zaman Alwsl that North Korean and Iranian military advisers were helping the regime maintain offensive chemical weapons.
But it doesn’t take much to deploy deadly gas these days. “The threat globally absolutely is in knowledge with the internet now,” Morris said. “If you were to look back to the ’90s or the height of the Cold War, this sort of knowledge of chemical warfare agents, radiological sources and nuclear weapons sat with state players. It is now migrating towards terrorist users.”
“There’s a difference between weapons of mass destruction versus mass disruption,” a member of the U.S. Army’s 1st Special Forces Group’s Chemical Recon Detachment told War Is Boring during Exercise Gryphon Longsword in 2014. The exercise included a simulated attack on an industrial-scale chemical weapons facility.
The 1st Special Forces Group has sent troops to both Iraq and Afghanistan, but its primarily responsibilities lie in East Asia and the Pacific. The main chemical threat in that region is from terror groups and rogue regimes. “Most of what we see [in Southeast Asia] is small-scale, clandestine operations,” he explained.
On April 29, 1997, the U.N. Chemical Weapons Convention went into effect. U.N. secretary-general Ban Ki-moon commemorated the convention on its 19th anniversary in April 2016.
“Sadly, instead of being consigned to history, chemical weapons have re-emerged as a tool of war,” Ki-moon said. “ We have witnessed new allegations of their use and have seen painful new evidence of the suffering they inflict upon their victims. This cannot and should not become the new normal. We have come too far to go back.”
Tell that to Islamic State.
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