Expert Commentary

Russia — the Most Likely Target

March 4, 2016 | Hamish de Bretton-Gordon

The Paris attacks last year bought home that ISIL intends to terrorise all those who oppose the group, wherever they may be.  Outside the Syria and Iraq environs, ISIL strives for evermore spectacular attacks with ever more shocking outcomes.  The 130 dead in Paris came just after 228 (mainly Russians) were blown up on an airliner out of Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt and many others, including 38 British citizens, were murdered on a beach in Tunisia. 

Many, especially those who oppose air strikes and ground assault on ISIL, point to the lessons learned in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which in part was caused by ‘incomplete’ information on the state of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD).  However, having been involved in both Gulf Wars and having been in both Syria and Iraq last year, I see very few similarities—except for the WMD concern.  In this case, ISIL does have WMD, in particular mustard gas, albeit in very small quantities, and the desire, but probably not the capability, to produce an Improvised Nuclear Device (IND).  There is also speculation that they are trying to develop a biological weapon with anthrax and possibly plague.

There appears to be little doubt that the global coalition will shortly move to include ground operations against ISIL with air strikes extending into Syria, as well as Iraq, depending on the success of the impending ceasefire.  A key issue is whether this is going to make terror attacks, including chemical and biological attacks, more likely in the U.S. and UK. 

I expect the U.S. and UK are already near the very top of the ISIL attack list, marginally behind Russia and France, and marginally ahead of the other coalition members—but, especially considering the security provided by the large bodies of water surrounding the U.S. and the UK, they are probably not the highest priority targets.  Secondly, with the major offensive about to begin to drive ISIL out of Mosul in Iraq, I do see an increased likelihood of ISIL using their chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear (CBRN) capabilities to defend Mosul.  If ISIL loses Mosul, they lose their center of gravity in Iraq, and that would likely signify the beginning of the end of the ISIL Caliphate as a ground holding ‘state.’

It is in Mosul where ISIL is developing its chemical weapons programs and nuclear isotopes, which could be used as dirty bombs. The terrorists are likely to use WMD to stave off defeat, and have attacked the Iraqi Kurd Peshmerga forces 10 times in the last two weeks with mustard agent (gas).  They saw how effective Assad’s chemical attacks were in Syria when he defeated the ISIL assault on the key military air base of Deir Ezzor in December 2014 using chlorine barrel bombs, and his defense of Damascus in August 2013 using the nerve agent sarin, which killed 1500, mainly women and children. We then saw the extensive use of chlorine improvised explosive devices by ISIL in Iraq to defend Tikrit in March and April with varying degrees of success – but it certainly terrified the Iraqi Army.

One of the most startling aspects after the Paris attacks was the French Prime Minister’s warnings of the threat of chemical and biological attack from ISIL.  This shocking revelation was accompanied by the French government’s issuance of atropine—the nerve agent antidote—because it believes there is a high probability that a nerve agent will be used against the military and police. Apparent threats to poison the Paris water supply and a hoax anthrax attack in Brussels heightened the possibility that ISIL may have some WMD capability in Europe.  Chemical and biological weapons are the ultimate terror weapons, and it appears very plausible that the ultimate terror organisation, ISIL, would want to use them if possible.

So what is the threat outside Syria and Iraq?  It would be very difficult to get even the smallest amount of class 1 chemical weapons, like mustard agent (aka gas) or nerve agent (aka gas), into the United States.  Western security forces and police are on high alert and have very effective procedures to interdict this type of threat.  It would be a similar story with radiological isotopes to build a dirty bomb or an improvised nuclear device. 

The likelihood of WMD material being smuggled into the UK or U.S. is highly unlikely.  But that is not quite the end of it. The threat to the U.S. is from ISIL ‘clean skins’ or ‘sleepers.’  These are people who have been radicalised online or through visits to Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, or other training camps, potentially some time ago, who are undoubtedly present in the U.S. and other Western nations, waiting for the opportunity to strike.  As it becomes more difficult to acquire guns and explosives in Europe to replicate a Paris-style attack, these ‘clean skins’ are likely to look for asymmetric weapons, mainly WMD, in order to have the desired shock effect. 

Russia is most at threat from ISIL WMD.  It appears that the Chechen jihadists in ISIL are behind much of the ISIL WMD development.  Russia is their sworn enemy and, with nuclear isotopes and legacy chemical weapons apparently available on the black market in Russia and former Soviet states, it is most likely that ISIL would try a WMD attack in Moscow or other Russian cities.

In a similar respect, Asia is probably also a slightly easier target for ISIL chemical attack, with toxic industrial chemicals relatively easy to get hold of in that region.  In April 2015, I was in Jakarta looking at a Chlorine Improvised Explosive Device allegedly made in Indonesia and planted by returning Jihadists from Syria.

It is clear that ISIL has been teaching their followers in the use of CBRN for attacks in Mosul and Raqqa in Iraq. This appears to be focused on improvised chemical weapons like chlorine, organophosphates (pesticides), and dirty bombs, which Australian Foreign Secretary Julie Bishop detailed in June 2015.  Chlorine and other toxic chemicals are widely available in the U.S., and there are many radiological sources in the U.S., which could be fashioned into ‘dirty’ bombs, but would hardly have the power to be considered a WMD. 

Is it possible for a terrorist to poison the water supply? Yes, but they would need thousands of tons of toxic chemicals, like chlorine or cyanide, to have any real effect, and I think we might notice somebody dropping that amount into a reservoir.  Could a terrorist release chlorine gas on the underground or subway?  Possibly, but it would probably also be noticed.   To have an effect, you would need to release or explode a lot of chlorine, and the Transport Police and security would pick somebody up trying to enter a subway station with such a device.

With threats of chemical & biological attacks apparent in mainland Europe, it is time to dust off our WMD attack and post attack procedures, which were confined, gleefully, to the bin at the end of the Cold War.  

Attacking ISIL with all means does not increase the threat of attack in the U.S. because, simply, the threat couldn’t be higher. But increased assaults on ISIL, might trigger a ‘clean skin’ attack.  It is time to check that we are doing all we can collectively to ensure a terror attack in the U.S. doesn’t materialise.  That being said, these are much more psychological weapons than physical ones in terms of impact.  ISIL wins if they terrorize us into inactivity, so any undue related fear from their WMD threat is absolutely not necessary, especially outside Syria and Iraq. 

The Author is Hamish de Bretton-Gordon

Hamish de Bretton-Gordon is the Managing Director of Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear (CBRN) at Avon Protection Systems, the recognized global market leader in respiratory protection system technology for military forces, law enforcement teams, fire fighters, and industrial personnel.  He previously served as commanding officer of the UK CBRN Regiment and NATO’s Rapid Reaction CBRN Battalion.  

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