Could ISIL go nuclear?
This year has shown that terrorism is again coming closer to Europe. After Madrid in 2003 and London in 2005, this year it has already visited Paris, Brussels and Verviers. Tomorrow it could be Frankfurt, Berlin or Rome.
Muslim countries in Asia are also at risk. The US has had its own terrorist experiences with New York, Boston and other attacks. While public attention is currently very much focused on military security in Europe, and in particular in Europe’s Eastern neighbourhood, much less attention is given to developments on the southern borders of NATO. Terrorist groups operating there, as inhumane as they are, are still considered primarily as a “conventional threat”.
But a further particular risk could become a major threat to Western societies. There is a very real – but not yet fully identified risk – of foreign fighters in ISIL’s ranks using chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear (CBRN) materials as “weapons of terror” against the West.
One can easily imagine the number of victims created by panic as well as the economic disruption if the ’Charlie Hebdo’ attacks had centred on “Chatelet les Halles”, the biggest Paris metro station, with an improvised explosive device containing radioactive sources or chemical material instead of using Kalashnikovs. The deadly Tokyo attacks in 1995 using toxic chemical material, (the so called “Sarin attack”), could have killed many more people. Had Aum Shinrikyo used all the Sarin they had actually produced, a large part of Tokyo’s population would have died. Thus the attacks led at the time to a complete rethinking of the threat perception, well before 9/11.
Until now, the Tokyo attacks have fortunately remained an exception and most terrorist groups have used “conventional” explosives or weapons, simply because they lacked access to know-how and material.
This may soon change. And there is a reason.
A new threat scenario
A lot has been written recently regarding the rising power of an organisation that calls itself the “Islamic State in the Levant” (ISIL) or “Daesh”. ISIL has attracted at least hundreds if not thousands of foreign fighters from Western countries to join its ranks. What makes ISIL different is exactly that.
Hundreds of foreign fighters, some with solid academic and educational backgrounds and intellectual knowledge, have joined the cause and continue to do so every day. Furthermore ISIL’s success is based on an effective media strategy of looking at the utmost possible “news effect” of their attacks. Together with their access to high levels of funding, these three elements bear the real risk of the group turning into practice what up to now has been largely a theoretical possibility: to actually employ weapons of mass destruction or CBRN material in terrorist attacks.
We might thus soon enter a stage of CBRN terrorism, never before imaginable. Worrying reports confirm that ISIL has gained (at least temporarily) access to former chemical weapons storage sites in Iraq. They might soon do so in Libya. They allegedly used toxic chemicals in the fighting around Kobane. Even more worrying, there are press reports about nuclear material from Iraqi scientific institutes having been seized by ISIL. This demonstrates that while no full scale plots have been unveiled so far, our governments need to be on alert. Generating improved military and civil prevention and response capabilities should be a high priority and should not fall victim to limited budgets in times of economic crisis.
Apart from their ideology, an even more fundamentalist and aggressive version of jihad than Al Qaida’s, four unique features make ISIL different:
First, their “possession” (or de facto control) of a huge “territory”, stretching from the Turkish border in Syria to close to Baghdad in Iraq and approaching the Lebanese border. Numerous air strikes by the international “Anti-ISIL coalition”, in which a number of NATO Allies are involved, tried to target ISIL and its strongholds. However, despite coalition and Iraqi Armed Forces successes in forcing ISIL to give up some territory, the group remains able to control and find refuge in large parts of Syria and Iraq, most recently by capturing the city of Ramadi.
Second, the reported access to extraordinary levels of funding. ISIL is reputed (much more than Al Qaida ever did) to earn money through “economic” and fundraising activities inside their territories, from supporters abroad and from the collection of ransom money. Most recently, the Ambassador of Iraq to the UN even claimed that ISIL was selling human organs from victims to earn money. They are said to be already involved in human smuggling of migrants from Libya to Europe to create funding.
Third, ISIL, in addition to its strong ideological motivation, is building its success on the use of social and other media in a way rarely seen before by other terrorist groups. This helps them gain attention at any cost for their atrocities, such as the decapitation or even the burning alive of hostages.
Fourth and most dangerously, the hundreds if not thousands of foreign fighters from the Arab world and Western countries in ISIL’s ranks, some of them with solid knowledge including in chemical, physical and computer sciences, makes ISIL special. A full assessment is still very difficult, as only a limited amount of information on the backgrounds of the fighters is publicly available. Notwithstanding that, it is clear that ISIL attracts growing numbers of young foreigners daily from all levels of society. Clearly reported cases show that ISIL actually has already acquired the knowledge, and in some cases the human expertise, that would allow it to use CBRN materials as “weapons of terror”.
Access to material
A full threat analysis needs to look specifically at how and where the terrorists could actually get hold of CBRN material. Reportedly in the past, it was exactly the difficulty of access and handling of this material that limited terrorist groups’ appetite, including Al Qaida, in using them in actual attacks. Osama Bin Laden is reported to have even advised against this. However, over the past few months several potential sources where ISIL has gained access, or had the possibility of access to such material, have been made public.
Most of the declared chemical weapons (CW) material has been removed from Syria in the past few months and destroyed. However, there are indications that some material still remains in the country and is potentially accessible to ISIL. In addition, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) suggested that chemical material not qualifying as CW and not subject to being declared under the CW convention, such as chlorine, has actually been used by the Assad regime in the fight against the Syrian opposition. Some press reports indicate that ISIL might have done the same.
Even more worrying, ISIL actually controlled the so-called Al Muthanna site in Iraq for some months during 2014. At this site, according to UN reports, bunkers from the past Iraqi CW programme contained “2,000 empty artillery shells contaminated with mustard agents, 605 one tonne mustard containers with residues and heavily contaminated construction material”.
Iraqi forces claim to have retaken possession of the site. However, the fragile state of these buildings makes it too dangerous for regular Iraqi forces (but not necessarily for ISIL “martyrs”) to enter the bunkers and check whether any looting has taken place. While it is reported that the stored material would be of limited toxicity due to its age, it can still be used to create panic.
Also, no one is able to tell how much material so far has landed in the hands of ISIL. According to most recent reports in the New York Times, in mid-2000 the CIA repeatedly purchased nerve agent rockets from a secretive Iraqi seller but that the relationship “dried up” in 2006. Nobody knows with certainty how much material is still out there. Libya, where ISIL is establishing a new stronghold, has still not destroyed all its chemical materials from previous programmes. They could also fall into ISIL’s hands.
Equally of concern is that ISIL fighters or supporters have stolen nearly 90 pounds (approx. 40kg) of low enriched uranium from scientific institutions at the Mosul University in Iraq. Due to its limited toxicity, again this material can be used rather to spread panic than to inflict serious physical harm. Yet, it is not without risk.
It’s not for nothing that the US and other Western countries have been helping Iraqi authorities since the mid-2000s secure and recover other more dangerous material. The programme included securing and removing orphaned and disused radioactive sources and nuclear waste from previous Iraqi programmes that were dismantled after the second Gulf war.
The clear aim of these efforts was to reduce the risk of terrorists acquiring these dangerous nuclear materials. It remains questionable whether all dangerous materials have indeed been removed from Iraqi territory. As for Syria, there are still unconfirmed reports that the country has moved nuclear material, intended to be used in the destroyed Dair al-Sour reactor, to an undisclosed storage site near the city of Kusair.
Finally, despite existing but often loose controls, accessible industrial chemicals, radioactive sources or other CBRN material out of regulatory control might be used by returning fighters or home grown “lone wolves” to plan or commit acts of terror. On February 16 this year, the UK police reportedly arrested a man called Mohammed Ammer Ali charged with trying to obtain 500g of Ricin, a material used in chemical weapons.
Access to know-how and the resulting threat to the West
Still not enough is known publicly about the exact level of knowledge and expertise of ISIL fighters and foreign fighters in their ranks for dealing with CBRN material. Some of them have reportedly received higher education in Western universities or otherwise acquired the necessary knowledge. One confirmed case is a former Saddam WMD specialist, Salih Jasaim Muhammad Falah al-Sabawi, who was allegedly killed by a US air strike near Mosul on 24 February 2015. According to US intelligence sources, Al-Sabawi had previously worked at the Al Muthanna site referred to above, and was allegedly gathering relevant equipment. ISIL’s ambitions to acquire chemical weapons are referred to by these intelligence sources as “more than just notional”.
The threat to Western nations and for the region
To understand the threat, one needs to distinguish between different groups of possible perpetrators.
First there are the returning foreign fighters. They could be ready to bring their “fight” to Western countries at any price either directly or as so-called “sleeper cells” (or “human time bombs”) awaiting a signal to act. While a smaller group of them might have lost any illusion about the “legitimacy” of ISIL fights and are willing to change course, others have been further radicalised.
Second, there are the so-called “home grown” terrorists within Western countries, radicalised followers of ISIL or Al Qaida. Most of the perpetrators of the terrorist attacks in Paris and of uncovered plots in Belgium, UK, and other European countries, belonged to the latter group.
Third, there is an undeniable threat by fighters in the Iraqi, Syrian and Libyan combat theatres, creating a risk for the local population and the countries in the immediate vicinity. As referred to above, ISIL is reported to have made use of a widely available industrial chemical, chlorine, in the ongoing fighting, as did the Assad regime.
Returning foreign fighters could be ready to bring their “fight” to Western countries at any price either directly or as so-called “sleeper cells” (or “human time bombs”) awaiting a signal to act
NATO’s response does not need to start from scratch. Over more than 15 years, NATO, as well as individual Allies, have built up capacities to prevent, protect and recover from WMD attacks or CBRN events. Some activities started well before the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
NATO tools include the Combined Joint CBRN Defence Task Force, a strong military capacity created by volunteering Allies to be at the disposal of NATO in case of a WMD or CBRN attack. Regular training ensures its operational readiness. Intelligence sharing and reporting to Allies helps to identify potential threats.
The Joint CBRN Centre of Excellence, established by Allies in the Czech Republic, provides training and expertise to military customers and first responders in Allied and partner countries. It integrates a “Reach Back facility” operated 24/7 to react and provide scientific and operational advice in case of an attack, having access to a large secondary network of expertise in Allied countries.
The Defence against Terrorism Centre of Excellence (CoE) in Ankara, Turkey, provides advice and undertakes research on the terrorist threat including the issue of foreign fighters. Other NATO CoEs and agencies as well as Allied national military capacities are consistently reviewing, together with Allied civil protection forces (police, firefighters etc.) preparedness plans against possible CBRN attacks. These response capacities are also regularly trained in exercises and are on standby in case of any attack, whether committed by state actors, ISIL members or lone wolf terrorists.
As terrorism is again coming closer to Europe, more attention needs to be paid to the developments on NATO’s southern borders to the possible use of CBRN material in terrorist attacks not just in the region but also in Western societies. NATO and its Allies need to step up their preparedness and be ready to act jointly, including by ensuring that necessary military and civil prevention and response capabilities remain adequately funded – even in periods of defence and public spending being under stress in many Allied countries.