Islamic State capable of making chemical weapons, human rights officials say

Officials say the indications might be proof that the Islamic State has attained the capability to manufacture improvised chemical mortars.
By Doug G. Ware  |  Updated July 17, 2015 at 10:17 PM
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MOSUL, Iraq, July 17 (UPI) -- It appears that Islamic State radicals have manufactured improvised chemical mortar shells and used them against Kurdish targets in Syria and Iraq in recent weeks, a British human rights organization said.

The U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the terror group used the chemical weapons against the targets as many as three times in recent weeks, the New York Times reported Friday.

The report cited Kurdish officials and a Western ordnance disposal technician who examined the incidents and recovered one of the shells.

Some analysts believe the scenario -- which involves repurposing toxic industrial and agricultural chemicals -- reflects a possible step forward for the Islamic State in its fight against the West. The use of chemical weapons is nothing new in the contentious Middle East, but the Islamic State has not previously been known to possess the technical proficiency to create such munitions themselves.

On June 21 or 22, authorities said, a 120-millimeter chemical mortar shell struck a Kurdish military position near Mosul and caused several fighters to become ill. However, the shell did not detonate because whoever made it left the fuse out, officials said. But it did fracture and leak a liquid believed to be chlorine -- an abrasive element becoming more popular in Mideast attacks.

"Soon we should have an exact composition of the chemical in this projectile, but I am certain it is chlorine," researcher and munitions expert Gregory Robin said.

Last month, Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said Islamic State terrorists appeared to have the capability to manufacture chemical weapons.

The attack may be an example of the Islamic State's new ability to launch attacks with homemade chemical weapons. Officials said the June attack marked the first time such an improvised mortar shell was found in the Islamic State-led conflict.

Researchers remarked that the shell appeared to have been made in an "ISIS workshop by casting iron into mold method. The mortar contains a warhead filled with a chemical agent, most probably chlorine."

Then in early July, an investigator reportedly found evidence of two additional attacks with chemical projectiles -- one in Kurdish territory the other in the northeast corner of Syria. Those munitions contained an industrial chemical, possibly phosphine, often used as a pesticide.

Kurdish forces claimed they have also confiscated gas masks from Islamic State fighters in recent weeks, the Times report said.

"It smelled like a spicy onion smell. It was strange. It wasn't something I could put my finger on immediately," one investigator said. "We were there for perhaps 30 seconds when it started burning the nose; more than 90 seconds and the throat started to burn."

However, exactly what was in the shells remains unclear -- as tests were inconclusive and no independent authorities were able to forensically examine their contents.

Whatever the mortars are made of, investigators believe they will see more of them soon enough.

"My guess is that this is going to happen again because it was effective," the investigator, who didn't want to be named for security reasons, said.

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