Is the Islamic State making chemical weapons?

A child with scars of a chemical weapon attack in her home in Marea, Syria. — PHOTO: THE NEW YORK TIMES  

The warning from the front lines came by walkie-talkie. An Islamic State artillery position had boomed to the east, signalling that an incoming round was whistling toward Marea, a town on northern Syria’s agricultural flatland.

“One shell fired!” the voice on the radio said. “Be careful!”

Inside the house he shared with his family, Abu Anas Ishara, a rebel fighter defending his hometown, knew the routine. Usually 10 to 15 seconds passed before shells landed and exploded.

But Marea had been struck so often that Abu Anas had wearied of it all. He did not seek cover. Nada, his wife, kept feeding their infant daughter, Sidra, delivered by cesarean section five days before. The shell hit the roof of their home.

As the couple were enveloped by dust and foul-smelling smoke, Shahad, their three-year-old daughter, cried out. “Papa!” she screamed. Abu Anas and Nada staggered outside, each carrying a child, all seemingly unharmed. It was the morning of August 21. Their descent into the confusion and scorching pain of a chemical warfare attack had begun.

Struck from afar by a blister-agent shell, the family would suffer from an agonising form of violence that since the 1990s — when the Convention on Chemical Weapons took force in much of the world — had seemed to fade into the past, only to be revived by the Islamic State.

Since the spring, the group has used two types of chemical weapons in Iraq and Syria multiple times, according to international arms analysts, victims, local activists and Western officials, joining Syria’s government as a party in the conflict that has used chemical weapons.

The weapons have included improvised bombs containing chlorine, a toxic industrial chemical that Sunni militants in Iraq have crudely weaponised in vehicle and roadside bombs for roughly a decade, and artillery or mortar projectiles containing a blister agent that appeared this summer after being fired from Islamic State battlefield positions.

These projectiles have delivered sulfur mustard, an internationally banned chemical warfare agent, according to U.S. officials familiar with the analysis of soil samples, ordnance and victims’ clothing collected after several attacks. Two U.S. officials said items analysed from the August 21 attack on Marea were among those that confirmed the agent’s use.

Chlorine and sulfur mustard are typically less lethal than high-explosive ordnance and other common instruments of battlefield violence. But they are difficult to defend against and fundamentally indiscriminate. Moreover, because they are regarded by their victims as poisons that can be carried on air, the outrage and fear surrounding their use lends them potent psychological and political power.

The appearance of distinctly different chemical weapons across a long section of Islamic State territory has led private and government analysts to venture that the world’s most violent jihadist organisation has developed at least a small-scale chemical weapons programme, and may have manufactured low-quality blister agent or obtained chemical arms from undeclared or abandoned government stocks.

How much chemical warfare capacity the Islamic State has and its militants’ ambitions for its use remain publicly unknown. Often boastful, the group has offered little clear and verifiable insight into its unconventional weapons. But a commonly held view is that it could attack with such weapons again, perhaps in more spectacular fashion.

Many of the chemical attacks have been against Syrian rebel or Kurdish militia positions. The attacks on Marea, which began on August 21 and continued intermittently into the next week, were more complicated.

Incoming chemical shells sailed past rebel lines and landed in neighbourhoods, medical officials and activists in Marea said. Some struck homes.

Abu Anas and Nada, and members of their extended family, agreed to be interviewed about their much heavier exposure on the condition that their surnames not be published, because they feared retaliation by the Islamic State. — New York Times News Service

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Printable version | Jan 21, 2022 8:31:03 AM |

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