No, Iraqi Terrorists Aren’t About to Gas Us
ISIS captured a stockpile of useless chemical weapons
One of the first things that the fighters of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria may have noticed when they rode up to a jumble of ruined bunkers 80 miles north of Baghdad was the smell of garlic.
This is the odor of dispersed mustard gas. Now picked over by locals seeking scrap metal, Al Muthanna was the centerpiece of Saddam Hussein’s chemical weapons program. “The smell of garlic is likely to linger in the desert air around Muthanna until well into the next century,” The Financial Times reported in 1991.
Between June 11 and 12, ISIS ejected Al Muthanna’s guards and began “looting” the site, Iraqi officials informed the U.N. Two sealed bunkers at the site reportedly hold sarin-filled 122-millimeter warheads, empty 155-millimeter mustard gas warheads and decontaminated sodium cyanide solution. One of these two bunkers also contains unexploded ordnance from a U.S. air raid during 1991 Gulf War.
But the militants will not find thousands of ready-to-use chemical weapons.
The short shelf life of Iraqi gas munitions precludes this nightmare scenario. Iraq never learned how to manufacture in bulk the stabilizers needed to extend the shelf-lives of nerve agents, according to the U.N.’s 2007 compendium on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.
Iraqi sarin, which Baghdad used against Iranian soldiers and Iraqi Kurds in the 1980s, had a effective military shelf live measured in months. Iraq’s work on tabun and VX likewise suffered due to stabilizer problems. Only Iraq’s mustard gas could be reliably stored for years on end.
This does not mean that leftover Iraqi chemical weapons have turned into harmless gels. Since 2003, authorities have found still-lethal mustard gas shells in desert dumps. And although Iraqi sarin quickly degraded, it could still kill for years after it ceased to be effective by military standards.
However, the gas-filled artillery rounds are so rusty that it would be suicidal for a crew to load and fire them. Similar decay affects chemical-packed 122-millimeter in storage at Al Muthanna.
Unlike conventional explosives, chemical munitions are so specialized that it’s hard to repurpose them. ISIS would be better off testing the remaining precursor chemicals at Al Muthanna to create its own chemical weapons from scratch. Fortunately, the Iraq Study Group reported in 2004 that it had found no working production equipment on site.
Iraqi terrorists already have a limited gas capability in the form of chlorine-dispersal bombs. But they’re more of a psychological weapon than practical military one. In the case of the chlorine bombs, the heat from the blast often neutralizes much of the agent.
It would take ISIS a lot of trial and error to build a proper dispersal mechanism for a custom sarin bomb. And unlike chlorine, which is a commercial industrial chemical, Al Muthanna’s chemicals are not safe for anyone to handle or transport normally without protective gear.
Locked inside brick and concrete sarcophagi, the greatest danger these decaying weapons pose right now are to inept handlers. Of whom ISIS would not be the first.
U.N. inspectors arrived on site in 1991 and stayed full-time until 1994. They found that Iraqi safety measures left much to be desired. The Iraqis were using a dry stream bed as a dumping site. They left chemical-filled barrels out in the open.
Leaks were an ever-present danger. Even though the U.N. estimated that most of Iraq’s existing CW stock had lost 90-percent of its potency as early as 1992, its degraded contents were not inert. Leaks sent people to the hospital and allegedly killed two Iraqi officials who mistook a sarin-filled warhead for a conventional one.
The Iraq Study Group surveyed the ruins during the U.S. occupation and found that there has been widespread looting since Baghdad expelled the U.N. in 1998. Given the poor living conditions for Iraqi guards, such neglect is hardly surprising. Fortunately, even as chemical canisters lay scattered around the grounds, thieves seemed to be focused on stealing recyclable metals.
Despite the site’s lax security, none of the site’s materials or former personnel have turned up in terrorists’ hands. As of now, ISIS has not broken into any of the sealed bunkers. Al Muthanna is in poor shape for ISIS to take advantage of its toxic legacy.