Long Before Mosul Offensive, U.S. Spooks Worried About Chemical Weapons
Concerns and fears may still be slowing operations
by JOSEPH TREVITHICK
On Jan. 22, 2017, Iraqi troops were looking for help cleaning up an apparent chemical weapon laboratory that Islamic State terrorists set up inside Mosul University, according to Stars and Stripes. Later in January, Baghdad’s troops showed journalists from the Associated Press another chemical warfare site in the eastern half of the city.
U.S. Air Force intelligence summaries show American officials had worried about these toxic materials for months before Iraqi and Kurdish forces began the offensive. War Is Boring obtained the heavily redacted documents through the Freedom of Information Act.
“ISIL will probably continue to employ chemical weapons as a force multiplier and to exploit the weapon’s psychological impact,” intelligence analysts at the Coalition Intelligence Fusion Cell wrote in May 2016, using a common acronym for Islamic State. “Nevertheless ISIL chemically modified munitions are unlikely to be very effective due to distance from production centers, inadequate storage and poor quality material.”
Situated within the U.S.-led Combined Air and Space Operations Center at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar, the cell includes American and other coalition personnel. Based on the records we received, the group puts out at least one comprehensive intelligence summary every week.
More than four months later, concerns and fears about deadly chemicals might be one of many factors slowing efforts to finally eject the extremists from their de facto capital in Iraq.
When Iraqi and Kurdish troops moved into Mosul in October 2016, Islamic State had already shown it was ready and willing to use chemical weapons. The next month, information analytics company IHS Markit released a report compiling data on more than 50 reported chemical attacks the terrorists had launched since 2014.
This hadn’t gone unnoticed by the intelligence specialists in Qatar. “As reports of the usage of chemical agents spreads via open sources, ISIL will likely leverage the attention it receives as a tool for propaganda as well,” they noted in August 2015.
But the news reports and witnesses generally described weapons better suited scaring civilians rather than killing troops. The home-brew rockets or artillery rounds, full of chlorine or mustard agents made in small laboratories, simply didn’t have the accuracy, range or capacity to cause serious casualties.
“It’s not a high threat.” U.S. Army Col. Steve Warren, then the top spokesman for American forces fighting Islamic State, told reporters on March 11, 2016. “We’re not, frankly, losing too much sleep over it.”
Still, Warren acknowledged the weapons were a “legitimate threat,” even if they hadn’t killed anyone yet. The intelligence personnel at Al Udeid clearly felt the same way.
In April 2016, another Air Force intelligence report warned about growing discoveries of chemical weapon stockpiles. The next month, additional information suggested Islamic State was trying to move more of its toxic arsenal up to the front lines.
By October 2016, the reports included information on the terrorists’ attempts and possible successes building laboratories and production sites to churn out more and better poisonous weaponry. The month before, American pilots had blasted one such suspected chemical weapons factory in Iraq.
“It is likely that Daesh gained some level of expertise on the production of [chemical warfare] agents and other relevant knowledge,” a review for the period ending on Oct. 12, 2016 noted, using a common term for Islamic State. “This knowledge will still be available through scientists who learnt their trade during the Saddam era.”
However, the terrorists were “not capable, at the moment, to use [chemical warfare] munitions in an effective way,” the analysts concluded, echoing Warren’s earlier statements.
But how deadly the weapons actually were wasn’t the only problem. Their very presence in cities like Mosul was threat enough all by itself.
Chemical weapons are “highly likely to cause delays to advancing forces by creating fear and providing additional time for Daesh to react,” the intelligence cell added.
Judging from the January 2017 report about the situation at Mosul University, Iraq’s military — to say nothing of less well trained militias fighting alongside it — has a limited ability to secure and dispose of toxic materials. In October 2016, the Pentagon announced it had only distributed 24,000 gas masks to regular Iraqi and Kurdish forces in the lead up the offensive.
“Claims that Islamic State’s chemical capabilities remain low are consistent with the available reporting,” Karl Dewey, a chemical weapons analyst and proliferation editor for Jane’s Intelligence Review, told War Is Boring in an Email. “That said, mustard agent is mustard agent, regardless of quality and will need to be taken into account by those on the receiving end.”
Not knowing where chemical storehouses or production houses might hamper operations. Artillery fire, air strikes or just errant bullets could release dangerous fumes or particles — a long-standing problem for any military trying to destroy these types of weapons on the battlefield.
“The impact it has on operations will depend very much on the doctrine/training of those it’s used against,” Dewey added. “News travels fast and fears that [chemical weapons] have been used will naturally increase the hesitancy of advancing militias who are unlikely to be trained to the same extent … as Western troops, if at all.”
On top of that, even a chemical accident could become an Islamic State propaganda victory if it killed or injured troops or innocent bystanders. And these threats were in addition to the more conventional booby traps and die-hard fighters who remained in the city.
However, Dewey noted that open-source reports of chemical attacks had “pretty much dropped away” by the end of November 2016. As of January 2017, there was no evidence Islamic State had mounted a massed chemical assault anywhere in Mosul.
The unredacted potions of the Air Force intelligence report for the period ending on Dec. 7, 2016 — the last one in the batch we got through the FOIA — make no mention of poison liquids or gases. Censors did remove a significant portion of the review, but the document’s glossary does not include any common abbreviations for chemical warfare or weapons.
From the continuing reports coming out of Mosul, Islamic State’s chemical weapons are still a major headache — one that no doubt makes Iraqi and Kurdish forces move cautiously as they fight through the city.