By Leslie Adkins
During Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) attacks and military occupation of Syria and Iraq, ISIS used existing civilian infrastructure to develop, produce, and deploy homemade explosives, chemical warfare agents, and other toxic chemicals. Many areas liberated from ISIS control were exposed to severe chemical contamination, creating a large public health crisis and requiring a multifaceted approach to ensure public safety and security.
The Director-General of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has since confirmed that sulfur mustard has been used in Syria and Iraq, likely produced and deployed by ISIS.[i] ISIS has also used chemical agents—either sulfur-mustard, chlorine, or toxic agricultural chemicals—in improvised explosive devices (IEDs), mortars, and missiles.[ii] Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, a former NATO chemical weapons specialist, noted in 2015 that ISIS is “training many jihadists to make and plant improvised chemical bombs.”[iii]
Public Health Threats from ISIS Efforts
ISIS used Mosul University’s laboratories to manufacture chemical bombs,[iv] and given the group’s tendency to leave booby trapped concealed weapons behind as they retreat,[v] there could be significant numbers of improvised chemical devices in Mosul and surrounding areas. In addition to intentionally placed chemical bombs, areas near ISIS chemical weapons labs and munition factories may have been contaminated with toxic chemicals or even the chemical warfare agents themselves.
As ISIS came under increasing pressure from military efforts, they moved their chemical weapons labs to “densely populated residential areas of Mosul.”[vi] Since ISIS was working without the use of rigorous safeguards required to safely handle precursors, agents, and hazardous waste, these facilities pose serious contamination risks to the surrounding environment. As a result, as Iraqi and Peshmerga security forces worked to reclaim and hold these villages and towns, they faced extraordinary challenges. In addition to the typical remnants of war including munitions stockpiles, small arms, and concealed IEDs, those seeking to make areas liberated from ISIS safe for civilians will also need to contend with the remnants of a significant chemical weapons program and improvised chemical devices concealed to cause civilian casualties.[vii]
Unfortunately, there are limited medical countermeasures for most of the chemicals ISIS used throughout Iraq and Syria. Sulfur mustard is particularly insidious, as even low-dose exposure can cause acute injury to eyes, skin, and lungs, sometimes resulting in severe chronic conditions.[viii] Sulfur mustard can persist for days after release, and while natural degradation of the sulfur mustard may be very effective in some cases, the effectiveness of natural degradation can be difficult to predict with confidence[ix] and the products of degradation can themselves pose health hazards.
Environmental decontamination (both indoor and outdoor) of traditional chemical weapons and other toxic chemicals is always challenging, and contamination in Iraq and Syria is further exacerbated by the wide range of materials causing the contamination, limited response capability, and low technical readiness. These challenges will require an innovative new approach that draws on experience from traditional counter-IED and demining efforts combined with chemical weapons disposal and remediation techniques.
The Road to Safety
Securing the territory reclaimed from ISIS will require multi-sector coordination—not only by the international community, but also between stakeholders within Iraq. CRDF Global has worked in Iraq since 2009 and has led sustainable initiatives to connect scientific communities with security forces to help mitigate the threats that Iraqis face from chemical weapons and attacks. CRDF Global partners are taking meaningful steps toward collaboration. For example, the Iraqi private sector recently formed a non-governmental organization for chemical vendors to raise awareness of security best practices and information sharing with law enforcement and to demonstrate the potential for cross-sector collaboration to improve Iraqi security.
First Responders and Receivers
Successfully removing, or at least reducing, the public health threat which this contamination poses requires a multifaceted approach. First, it is critically important to train and equip Iraqi first responders to detect and respond to improvised chemical devices, the hazards present in the laboratories used to produce them, and potentially contaminated surrounding areas. Iraqi security forces, including the military and civil defense, are already receiving training on responding to chemical attacks and incidents. However, given the scope of the problem and the new combination of IEDs with locally-produced chemical warfare agents, ensuring that these areas are safe for civilians requires a more targeted and more comprehensive approach.
Second, it is essential to provide both emergency medical personnel and first receivers at hospitals with the training, equipment, and countermeasures necessary to clinically identify and treat contaminated persons without undue exposure to themselves. Providing essential life-saving care while simultaneously protecting caregivers and physical infrastructure is both challenging and essential.
Containment, Decontamination, and Monitoring
Third, it will be necessary to contain and then decontaminate immediate affected areas, and more expansive containment and decontamination may be necessary depending on the nature of the chemical and the potential for groundwater contamination. These measures will require specialized training and equipment. Because of the wide range of potential contaminants, developing an effective protocol for assuring decontamination necessary for unrestricted use of land and assets will require significant expertise.
Finally, beyond the initial response and decontamination, it will be necessary to test and monitor exposed territory to ensure it is safe for habitation and agricultural activities. Iraqi academia has the expertise required to conduct this vital technical analysis of soil, water, and other materials. Collaboration between local academia and security forces to identify and combat improvised chemical devices and other chemical threats would deepen security forces’ access to crucial scientific knowledge and additionally build trust and collaboration between the civilian community and law enforcement.
CRDF Global’s partners at universities in former ISIS-held territories report widespread looting and destruction at their campuses and laboratories, and Mosul University itself was used by ISIS as a chemical weapons laboratory. CRDF Global is already working with some of these universities to partially restore their facilities, yet they will also need new equipment to conduct environmental testing and chemical analysis. This will not only provide Iraqi academia with the tools required to ensure their communities and campuses are safe, but also help to rebuild Iraq’s higher education capacity.
A Collaborative Approach to Safety and Security
Despite its territorial losses, ISIS still possesses the expertise and access to materials to continue to present complicated and new chemical threats in Iraq, Syria, and worldwide. Just like in Iraq, improvised chemical devices, dangerous laboratories, and contaminated sites are likely to be present in reclaimed territories in Syria, since it is probable that ISIS has moved its chemical weapons production facilities to Raqqa after Mosul’s liberation.[x]
Building a model for Iraqi stakeholders to use existing resources to combat these risks will help counter the deadly international threat ISIS poses while strengthening local capacity to prevent future threats. Such a model will require a cross-sector approach that involves local government agencies, the scientific community, and law enforcement. The private sector, NGO partners, academia, and community stakeholders must come together to identify hot spots, conduct environmental testing and develop remediation strategies that directly address this serious threat to public safety and security. There must be strong leadership and investments from multiple stakeholders including the international security sector and other multinational agencies facing the complex task of rebuilding Iraq following the defeat of ISIS.
[i] Tomaž Murkovič, “IS likely used chemical weapons in Syria, Iraq; could use them elsewhere, OPCW head says (interview),” Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, May 11, 2016, https://www.opcw.org/is-likely-used-chemical-weapons-in-syria-iraq-could-use-them-elsewhere-opcw-head-says-interview/.
[ii] Henrik Bliddal, “CBRN Terrorism and the Challenge of Daesh,” in Critical Infrastructure Protection Against Hybrid Warfare Security Related Challenges, ed. Alessandro Niglia (Washington, DC: IOS Press, 2016), 54-55.
[iii] Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, “Don’t let ISIL terror attacks surprise us,” Al-Jazeera, June 27, 2015,
[iv] Tom Murray, “Tragic images from inside the University of Mosul — a recently-liberated ISIS stronghold,” Business Insider, Jan. 31, 2017, http://www.businessinsider.com/inside-the-university-of-mosul-a-recently-liberated-isis-stronghold-2017-1/#the-university-of-mosul-was-once-milling-with-over-30000-students-and-4200-faculty-members-it-was-known-as-one-of-the-middle-easts-most-highly-respected-educational-institutions-1
[v] Emma Graham-Harrison, “The cunning and cruel bombs used by Isis to stall the Mosul offensive,” Guardian, Oct. 30, 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/oct/29/isis-booby-trapped-toys-mosul.
[vi] Bliddal, 55.
[viii] Kamyar Ghabili et. al, “Sulfur mustard toxicity: History, chemistry, pharmacokinetics, and pharmacodynamics,” Critical Reviews in Toxicology 41, no. 41 (2011) http://dx.doi.org/10.3109/10408444.2010.541224.
[ix] Argonne National Laboratory, Recovery from a Chemical Weapons Accident or Incident: A Concept Paper on Planning, by C. L. Herzenberg et al. (April 1994), https://www.osti.gov/scitech/servlets/purl/10165958, 13.
[x] Richard Spencer and Ammar Shammary, “Army Closes in on Islamic State Chemical Weapons Headquarters,” The Australian, Jan. 13, 2017, http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/world/the-times/army-closes-in-on-islamic-state-chemical-weapons-headquarters/news-story/20dba0d5feff24782116dcf72e81c24f.