Thursday, 19 November 2015

ISIS Is Developing Chemical Weapons Using Scientists From Iraq And Syria, US Intelligence Officials Warn

The Islamic State group, also known as ISIS, is pursuing development of chemical weapons, setting up a branch dedicated to research and experiments with the help of scientists from Iraq and Syria, Iraqi and US intelligence officials to The Associated Press on Thursday.

Their quest raises a worrying scenario for the West, given the group's determination to strike major cities. On Thursday, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls warned that Islamic extremists might at some point use chemical or biological weapons.

"Terrorism hit France not because of what it is doing in Iraq and Syria... but for what it is," Valls told the French Parliament. "We know that there could also be a risk of chemical or biological weapons," he added, though he did not talk of a specific threat.

US intelligence officials don't believe Isis has the capability to develop sophisticated weapons like nerve gas that are most suited for a terrorist attack on a civilian target. So far the group has used mustard gas on the battlefield in Iraq and Syria.

But Iraqi officials expressed concern that the large safe haven the extremists control since overrunning parts of Iraq and Syria last year has left Iraqi authorities largely in the dark over the militant's programme. "They now have complete freedom to select locations for their labs and production sites and have a wide range of experts, both civilians and military, to aid them," a senior Iraqi intelligence official told AP.

The official, like others from the Iraqi and US intelligence agencies who have first-hand knowledge of the Isis chemical weapons programme, spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive information. 

So far, the only overt sign of the group's chemical weapons program has been the apparent use of mustard gas against Iraqi Kurdish fighters and in Syria. In mortars that hit Kurdish forces in northern Iraq earlier this year, preliminary tests by the US showed traces of the chemical agent sulfur mustard.

Iraqi authorities clearly fear the use could be expanded. Over the summer, Iraq's military distributed gas masks to troops deployed west and north of Baghdad, one general told the AP. 

A senior officer in Salahuddin province, north of Baghdad, said 25 percent of the troops deployed there were equipped with masks. More recently, Iraq's military received from Russia 1,000 protective suits against chemical attacks, said Hakim al-Zamili, the head of the Iraqi parliament's security and defense committee.

Isis has set up a branch tasked with pursuing chemical weapons, according to a senior Iraqi military intelligence officer and two officials from another Iraqi intelligence agency. They wouldn't give details of the program, including how many personnel it is believed to have or its budget.

But al-Zamili, citing intelligence reports he has access to, told the AP that the group has managed to attract chemical experts from abroad as well as Iraqi experts, including ones who once worked for Saddam Hussein's now-dissolved Military Industrialisation Authority. The foreigners include experts from Chechnya and southeast Asia, the Iraqi intelligence officials said.

Isis recently moved its research labs, experts and materials from Iraq to "secured locations" inside Syria, al-Zamili added — apparently out of concern of an eventual assault on Mosul, Iraq's second largest city, captured by Isis in the summer of 2014. "Daesh is working very seriously to reach production of chemical weapons, particularly nerve gas," al-Zamili said, using an Arabic acronym for the group. "That would threaten not just Iraq but the whole world."

Still, US intelligence officials say they don't believe Isis has the technological capability to produce nerve gas or biological agents, and that the militants were more likely to harm themselves trying to make them. A European official privy to intelligence on the extemist group's programmes agreed, saying so far even Isis production of mustard gas was in small quantities and of low quality.

Retired Lt. Gen. Richard Zahner, who was the top American military intelligence officer in Iraq in 2005 and 2006 and went on to lead the National Security Agency's electronic spying arm, noted that al-Qaida tried for two decades to develop chemical weapons and didn't succeed, showing the technical and scientific difficulties.

However, he said, US intelligence agencies have consistently underestimated the Islamic State group, which has shown itself to be more capable and innovative than al-Qaida and has greater financial resources. 

Given that and its inheritance of Saddam-era experts, he said, it could realistically reach a "limited" programme for battlefield uses. "Even a few competent scientists and engineers, given the right motivation and a few material resources, can produce hazardous industrial and weapons-specific chemicals in limited quantities," Zahner said.

Source: Huffington Post