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American Military News and CNN reported yesterday on the suspected use of mustard gas, or a similar agent, in a rocket or artillery shell by Daesh, the Islamic State, targeting U.S. and Iraqi troops at Qayyara air base south of Mosul. Fortunately, no deaths or serious injuries have been reported from this most recent attack.
The use, or suspected use, of chemical weapons by Daesh is not new. Two years ago there was a reported chlorine gas attack on Iraqi troops in Saqlawiyah, a town north of Fallujah, which was reported to have killed more than 300 Iraqis.
A major difference between Saqlawiyah attacks and Qayyara attacks is what occurred in the interim; Daesh inspired attacks in Europe and the United States.
Does this mean chemical weapons attacks in the West are imminent? By no means. However, it should not be ruled out given the relative ease of making chemical weapons and the abundance of “soft targets.”
Open another tab and Google “make mustard gas.” If so inclined, one can quickly learn how to use easily purchased household goods to create a chemical agent that will have the same effects as mustard and chlorine gas.
Chemical agents do have their limitations though. Homemade agents are not easily transportable and would most likely require on site mixing, which would require a group of attackers. This would make the plot more easily detectable because the more people who know the less likely it is to remain a secret and more likely to be discovered. Additionally, to be effective, chemical agents, especially homemade agents, would require a confined space with a high density of people to instill maximum harm on primary victims and cause terror among secondary victims.
Chemical weapons provide an advantage few weapons do: Chemical weapons inspire fear disproportionate to their destructive power. Chemical weapons instill a sense of terror in victims and potential victims beyond what a rifle, pistol, or bomb can. The thought of blistering skin, suffocation, and unimaginable suffering are more fear inducing than the quicker death of a projectile.
Terrorism seeks to cause a reaction. Even a small scale chemical attack would result in a level of unprecedented terror among a general populace. There would be a higher level of fear every time someone decides to go to a site similar to that of a singular chemical attack. A nightclub, a restaurant, or a subway platform would deliver the desired effects of causing a change in life and have economic ramifications as well.
Of further concern is the fact the battlefield in Syria and Iraq has provided Daesh and other Islamist organizations with a laboratory to create improvised weapons and delivery systems which can be used against U.S. and Western soldiers in theater and also against civilians. While there are no artillery shells or other high quality explosives laying around abandoned regime compounds in the West, the ingenuity and resourcefulness of insurgents and terrorist in Syria has shown an ability to improvise mass casualty producing weapons out of ordinary items and from scratch.
In the West the ingenuity beget by necessity has delivered advancements in medicine, communications, and the delivery of services. Terror organizations have a much more grim necessity. Terror organizations seek to stay relevant in order to draw in new recruits, receive funding, and impose fear. Daesh has maintained its relevance even in the face of tactical setbacks through atrocious execution videos, inspiring attacks in the West, and advanced terroristic weapons development.
There is no need to go and buy a gas mask but the threat of a chemical weapons attack in the West is not outside of the realm of possibility. Daesh does not need to direct, fund, or train the attacker. They provide guidance to domestic jihadist in the West through what they do in Iraq and Syria.
Even in the current conditions where terrorist attacks have increased in Europe and the West have become more frequent an attack with a non-conventional weapon would cause panic and fear among the populace and inspire others to conduct similar attacks, which are among the goals of any terror organization. We must recognize this danger so it may be confronted proactively rather than reactively.
Kenneth Depew is a retired Army NCO and served as an Infantryman and Human Intelligence Collector. He is an alumnus of Tel Aviv University (MA Security and Diplomacy ’16) and the University of St. Thomas (BA Political Science ’13). He served on Senator Cruz’s 2012 campaign staff and senate staff.