‘Possibility of jihadists using toxic weapons in UK, US is concern for security services’
Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA Journal) published some disturbing pictures on Sunday. They appear to support accusations IS militants have deployed chemical weapons against Kurdish fighters, who have been under siege in the city of Kobani in Syria.
RT:You've seen the pictures - does it look like evidence of chemical wounds to you?
Hamish de Bretton-Gordon: Certainly if these pictures are verified and do come from Kobani, the fact that there are no outward signs of injuries such as bullet and shrapnel wounds and that sort of blistering that I have seen on these pictures, they look very similar to the pictures seen after the Halabja attack back in 1988 where mustard gas and sarin was used. And some of the blisters would be consistent with a blister agent like mustard. So if they are real, there is a very strong chance that they might be some sort of chemical agent, possibly mustard. And we know that the Islamic State has already used chlorine in Iraq against the Iraqi army. That could also be in a mix too.
RT:These deaths are thought to have been in July. Why might it only be coming to light now?
HB: I was in Syria myself just three weeks ago training doctors on how to treat and prepare casualties from chemical weapon attack and a chlorine attack. Getting information around Syria is incredibly difficult, and of course Kobani has been under attack by the Islamic State for some time. That would maybe explain why these pictures have only just come to light. We must view it with a little bit of suspicion but that could be an argument.
RT:If it turns out to be Islamic State, where do you think it might have obtained a chemical arsenal?
HB: First of all, on the chlorine side, chlorine is not a prescribed chemical and it is widely available around the world – in the UK, Russia, the US – you can buy it for a number of purposes. So the chlorine, I’m sure they have just acquired from the various towns they ransacked. As far as chemical weapons per se, and in this case a mustard agent has been suggested, and I would go along with it as some of the casualties look like they have suffered from a blistering agent. I think there are two possibilities. As it was reported in July, the Islamic State overrun the Al-Muthanna stockpile, 45 miles north-east of Bagdad, where Saddam Hussein’s stockpile was collected between 1993-96, and there are two bunkers there. In one of these bunkers it is believed to be up to the thousands of tons of mustard agent, which although will be of poor quality, can still be very dangerous. The other possibility that I have heard, and heard while I was in Syria a few weeks ago, from various rebel forces on the ground, that some of the Assad stockpile of mustard agent was missing from the original declaration, some people are saying anywhere between three to six hundred tons of mustard agent that was believed to be a part of the Assad arsenal is either undercounted or missing. And that is not beyond the bounds of possibilities that the Islamic State took over some of those when they ransacked some towns controlled by the Assad regime.
RT:How big might the jihadists' chemical weapons stockpile be?
HB: First of all, the thousands of tons or so that is at Al-Muthanna at the moment there is no hard evidence to suggest that the Islamic State have broken out from those bunkers. The two bunkers are concrete re-enforced and were shut back in 1996. There is no evidence this far that I have seen that they have actually managed to extract anything from there. So if they have – even a thousand tons of poor quality mustard agent – that’s a very considerable amount. If they have managed to get over 100 tons or so from the alleged Assad stockpile that is missing - again, 100 tons is a lot of mustard agent. And of course on the chlorine side, there is limitless amounts of chlorine, thousands and thousands of tons that they could acquire which could be used. I think the concerning thing is that we know that the Islamic State did a lot of research in Iraq and Syria last year and the year before on the use of chemical weapons. It is now fairly clear that they have used chlorine against the Iraqi army, and if these allegations that they have used potentially mustard agent against the Syrian Kurds in Kobani – that is very concerning along with other atrocities that have been committed by the Islamic State. I would say the Islamic State appeared to have absolutely no boundaries in this sort of weaponry that they are going to use and the destruction that they are going to [bring] on the Iraqi and Syrian people. So it would not surprise me at all if they are now using chemical weapons and if they use them in future.
RT:Could Islamic State be holding on to dangerous weapons like this for use in other parts of the world?
HB: That is certainly a possibility and I think is a great concern for security agencies around the world. I think we need just to look at the effectiveness of an industrial toxic chemical like chlorine and the effectiveness that it has had in Syria, and the fact that you can buy chlorine in virtually any street around the world. The concern that the jihadists returning from working with the IS to the UK, to the US or to Russia would be a huge concern for the security services that they might try to use these toxic weapons in a subway in the UK or Russia or whatever else to create mass terror. I’m sure the security agencies are looking at that very closely indeed.
RT:Are the concerns being raised serious enough for the anti-Islamic State coalition to review its strategy in the Middle East?
HB: At the moment the strategy of the coalition to destroy the Islamic State predominantly with air power and supporting local troops on the ground is really their preferred option. If that doesn’t stop showing positive signs that the Islamic State is being pushed back, and if the Islamic State does start to use these chemicals more widely, then there will need to be a different approach and God forbid the nightmare scenario for coalition troops having boots on the ground both in Syria and Iraq to defeat the Islamic State. But the coalition has vowed to defeat the Islamic State and I believe that is what must to be done. The Islamic State is the greatest threat to global security and at the moment if it is not…destroyed now, they could be around for many years, terrifying people around the globe.
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