ISIS used chemical weapons '52 times'

Independent analysis finds use of chlorine and sulphur mustard agents by militants

WASHINGTON • ISIS has used chemical weapons, including chlorine and sulphur mustard agents, at least 52 times on the battlefield in Syria and Iraq since it swept to power in 2014, according to a new independent analysis yesterday.

More than one-third of those chemical attacks took place in and around Mosul, an ISIS stronghold in northern Iraq, according to the assessment by the IHS Conflict Monitor, a London-based intelligence collection and analysis service.

The IHS findings, which are based on local news reports, social media and propaganda from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria itself, mark the broadest compilation of chemical attacks in the conflict. US and Iraqi military officials have expressed growing alarm over the prospect of more chemical attacks as the allies press to regain Mosul and Raqqa, the ISIS capital in Syria.

DELAYING TACTIC

As ISIS loses ground around Mosul, there is a high risk of the group using chemical weapons to slow down and demoralise advancing enemy forces.

MR COLUMB STRACK, a senior analyst and the head of the IHS Conflict Monitor.

"The coalition is concerned about (ISIS') use of chemical weapons," Colonel John Dorrian, a military spokesman in Iraq, said in an e-mail on Monday. ISIS "has used them in Iraq and Syria in the past, and we expect them to continue employing these types of weapons".

Col Dorrian said ISIS' ability to use chemical weapons is "rudimentary", and that American, Iraqi and other allied troops are equipped to deal with the impact of these attacks - typically rockets, mortar shells or artillery shells filled with chemical agents. The effects of these munitions thus far have been limited to the immediate area where they land.

In an effort to blunt ISIS' ability to make the weapons, the US-led air campaign has bombed militants associated with overseeing their production and the facilities where chemical ordnance is made. In September, for instance, allied warplanes attacked a converted pharmaceutical factory in northern Iraq thought to have been a chemical weapons production facility.

As Iraqi forces advance into Mosul, analysts warned that ISIS could unleash more chemical attacks as they cede control. Iraqi forces have reclaimed about one-third of Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city.

"As ISIS loses ground around Mosul, there is a high risk of the group using chemical weapons to slow down and demoralise advancing enemy forces. And to potentially make an example of - and take revenge on - civilian dissidents within the city," said Mr Columb Strack, a senior analyst and the head of the IHS Conflict Monitor.

At least 19 of the 52 chemical attacks took place in and around Mosul, according to the IHS data, but the assessment noted a decline in attacks before the Iraqi-led offensive against the city.

"Mosul was at the centre of the Islamic State's chemical weapons production," Mr Strack said. "But most of the equipment and experts were probably evacuated to Syria in the weeks and months leading up to the Mosul offensive, along with convoys of other senior members and their families."

ISIS is not the only actor in Syria to carry out strikes with chemical weapons: The Syrian government has conducted several such attacks.

Beginning last year, US officials confirmed the first instances of ISIS using sulphur mustard, a chemical warfare agent, and the presence of the mustard gas on fragments of ordnance used in attacks by the group in Syria and Iraq.

It was unclear how ISIS had obtained sulphur mustard, a banned substance with a narrow chemical warfare application.

One theory is that the militants were manufacturing a crude mustard agent themselves, US officials say. Another theory is that ISIS acquired sulphur mustard from undeclared stocks in Syria, either through capture or by purchasing it from corrupt officials, although this theory is not widely held by US analysts.

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 23, 2016, with the headline 'ISIS used chemical weapons '52 times''. Print Edition | Subscribe