US official: 'IS making and using chemical weapons in Iraq and Syria'

By Paul Blake
BBC News, Washington

  • Published
Fighters from Islamic State march through Raqqa, Syria, from an undated imageImage source, AP
Image caption,
Islamic State forces control large swathes of territory in Syria and Iraq

There is a growing belief within the US government that the Islamic State militant group is making and using crude chemical weapons in Iraq and Syria, a US official has told the BBC.

The US has identified at least four occasions on both sides of the Iraq-Syria border where IS has used mustard agents, the official said.

The official said the chemical was being used in powder form.

A BBC team on the Turkey-Syria border has seen evidence backing these claims.

The US believes the group has a cell dedicated to building these weapons.

"They're using mustard," the individual said of IS. "We know they are."

The mustard agent was probably being used in powder form and packed into traditional explosives like mortar rounds, the official said.

"We've seen them use it on at least four separate occasions on both sides of the border - both Iraq and Syria."

When these weapons explode the mustard-laced dust blisters those who are exposed to it.

What is mustard agent?

The term "mustard gas" is commonly used to describe the agent, but it is liquid at ambient temperature.

Sulphur mustard sometimes smells - like garlic, onions, or mustard - and sometimes has no odour. It can be clear to yellow or brown.

People can be exposed through skin contact, eye contact or breathing if it is released into the air as a vapour, or by consuming it or getting it on their skin if it is in liquid or solid form. It causes blistering of the skin and mucous membranes on contact.

Though exposure to sulphur mustard usually is not fatal, there is no treatment or antidote to mustard which means the agent must be removed entirely from the body.

The official said the intelligence community believes the most plausible explanation is that they are manufacturing it.

"We assess that they have an active chemical weapons little research cell that they're working on to try and get better at it," the official said.

The official said knowledge to make the mustard agent is widely available, and it is not a complex chemical to produce.

The alternative theories are that IS militants found chemical weapons caches in Iraq or in Syria.

It is unlikely that militants found the chemical agent in Iraq, the official said, because the US military would have probably discovered it during the military campaign it waged in the country for about a decade.

The official said that militants were unlikely to have seized the chemical agent from the Syrian regime before the regime was forced to hand over its stockpile under the threat of US air strikes in 2013.

The US government's position continues to be that it is investigating claims of chemical weapons use in Iraq and Syria, but the official speaking to the BBC said that many intelligence agencies now believe there is now enough evidence to back up these claims.

The official requested anonymity because that person was not authorised to speak about it publicly.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Special care must be taking when handling sulphur mustard, because contact causes blistering of the skin, eyes and respiratory tract

In 2014, Islamic State seized large swathes of territory in Syria and Iraq, and a US-led coalition has vowed to destroy it.

In recent days, the BBC's Ian Pannell, working from the Turkey-Syria border, has seen new evidence of chemical attacks being carried out in Syria - potentially by the regime and rebels.

Syria is supposed to be free of chemical weapons after a UN-backed deal that saw the Syrian government hand over 1,180 tonnes of declared toxic agents and precursor chemicals to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).

That process began in October 2013, and was completed by June of the following year.

More than 200,000 people have died since the Syrian civil war began following anti-government protests in early 2011, but only a tiny percentage are believed to have died as a result of chemical weapons.

Media caption,

Harrowing footage showed the aftermath of an alleged chlorine gas attack by Syrian government forces

Last month, the UN launched an investigation to determine which individuals, groups or governments are involved in the use of chemicals as weapons in Syria.

And that same month, the US military said tests on IS mortar fragments from fighting in Iraq showed traces of chemical arms.

US Brig Gen Kevin Killea said in late August that the US had found traces of the chemical agent sulphur mustard on mortars used by IS to attack Kurdish forces in northern Iraq.

At the time, however, he also said that the tests were not conclusive and final testing was needed.

He described sulphur mustard as a Class 1 chemical agent, one that is rarely used outside of chemical warfare.