assessments

Assessing Libya's Chemical Weapons Threat

6 MINS READFeb 15, 2016 | 09:30 GMT
For the Islamic State, poisons and nerve agents are hard to produce and even harder to use.

Missiles and shells lie among the stones outside the town of Waddan, in southern Libya. The fall of Libya's government in 2011 left various weapons, potentially including chemical agents, available for the taking by rebel and jihadist groups.

(PHILIPPE DESMAZES/AFP/Getty Images)
Forecast Highlights

  • The Islamic State in Libya is unlikely to acquire viable nerve agents left over from Moammar Gadhafi's chemical weapons program. 
  • Despite fears to the contrary, the Islamic State is unlikely to conduct chemical weapons attacks in the West.
  • Simple bombings and armed assaults will still pose the biggest terrorist threat to Western countries.

Jihadist groups have long fixated on chemical and biological weapons, from al Qaeda's pre-9/11 programs, in places such as the Deronta training camp in Afghanistan, to its 2003 plot to deploy improvised cyanide weapons on subways. Now there are growing fears that Islamic State militants in Libya have access to such weapons and could use them in battle or in terrorist attacks in the West. However, these fears are overblown. Chemical weapons have been an ineffective tool for terrorists in the past, and the challenges of transporting large quantities of chemical materials — though surmountable — nearly always outweigh the benefits for terrorist groups.

Recent concern over Libya's chemical weapons stems from the Islamic State's capture of several sites where former Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi reportedly produced and stockpiled chemical agents. Specifically, observers fear that militants will find and use sarin, a clear, unassuming liquid that when vaporized acts as a nerve agent that can cause paralysis and respiratory failure. When inserted into rocket warheads and artillery shells and properly employed, the chemical agent could help the Islamic State decimate opponents in its battle for control over the region.

Chemical agents and their effects
But while the group has used some chemical weapons in Iraq and Syria, where it manufactures small amounts of low-quality chlorine gas and mustard agent, there is no indication at all that it has access to sarin. Nor has there been any sign that the Islamic State is trying to export chemical weapons out of Syria and Iraq — perhaps in part because it has had such mixed success with chemical weapons closer to home. In 2007, Islamic State predecessor al Qaeda in Iraq deployed several large truck bombs laced with chlorine, but the attack inflicted few casualties. The Islamic State's own chemical attacks against rebel opponents have been only marginally successful and have not produced the mass casualties the group hoped for.

If the Islamic State could transport enough chemical agent into Western countries for an attack, the group would no doubt use it. However, a mass-casualty chemical weapons attack would require a large amount of nerve agent.

In Libya, No Sign of Chemical Weapons

Unlike their counterparts in Iraq and Syria, Islamic State militants in Libya have not used any chemical weapons so far. They did manage to take over numerous sites where Gadhafi's government allegedly stored sarin, but the facilities may well have been empty or destroyed before their arrival. During the multilateral intervention in Libya, the United States and its allies heavily targeted sites associated with the country's chemical weapons program. And what Western powers could not bomb, they may have bought. After the revolution, U.S. and other foreign intelligence services purchased weapons in the country to keep them out of regional arms markets. Regardless, even in the midst of incredibly brutal battles against the government and other jihadist groups, the Islamic State has not used any lingering remnants of the Gadhafi administration's chemical weapons program.

If some of the former government's sarin stockpiles did survive, they would likely be useless by now. Sarin degrades quickly, and countries often wait to produce it until just before an attack. In fact, U.S. chemical warheads had separate chambers to keep the chemicals apart until deployment. Any sarin mixed before Gadhafi's fall has long since expired, and after being stored in half-ruined facilities for five years, any precursor chemicals — and the equipment needed to mix them — may be just as useless.

If the Islamic State in Libya did have access to sarin or other chemical agents, we believe it would use them on the battlefield in Libya before attempting to export them abroad as its counterparts in Iraq and Syria have done.

Little Potential for Attacks in the West

If the Islamic State could transport enough chemical agent into Western countries for an attack, the group would no doubt use it. However, a mass-casualty chemical weapons attack would require a large amount of nerve agent. Beyond the difficulties the Islamic State would face transporting it, once in the target country militants would have trouble formulating an effective plan for using it. In Iraq, al Qaeda used some old chemical artillery rounds filled with sarin in improvised explosive devices; more recently in Iraq and Syria, the group used mortar rounds filled with mustard agent and chlorine. But an attack in a Western country would require a new and unfamiliar method.

In fact, no sarin attack in the West would be worth the effort: While a small quantity of an agent such as sarin can theoretically kill many people, using it to cause mass casualties is a challenge. There is a reason military attack plans involving chemical weapons include extensive barrages of artillery or rocket artillery carrying large quantities of agents such as sarin to generate a thick, choking cloud. Small releases of chemical agents are far less effective, and it is difficult to administer a lethal dose of something like sarin, which is a very volatile substance that dissipates quickly. 

The Islamic State would not be the first terrorist group to find the use of chemical weapons a daunting and ineffective way to wreak havoc on civilian populations. In the 1980s, Aum Shinrikyo, a Japanese terrorist group, used sarin in multiple attacks and poured millions of dollars into biological and later chemical weapons production programs, with few results. In addition to sarin, the group used hydrogen cyanide gas, anthrax and botulinum toxin in its largely failed attempts to orchestrate dramatic mass casualty attacks. For example, in Aum Shinrikyo's 1995 strikes against the Tokyo subway system, group members on five different subway trains punctured 11 plastic bags filled with sarin, yet killed only 12 people.

It is far easier, cheaper and more deadly to plan and execute attacks using explosives or firearms than it is to attempt to smuggle chemical agents into a Western country. This has been proved time and again by chemical weapons terrorist attacks such as those conducted by Aum Shinrikyo and al Qaeda in Iraq. All are relative failures compared with bombing operations, such as the Madrid or London train attacks in 2004 and 2005, and with armed assaults such as the November Paris attack. In the end, the real-world simplicity and effectiveness of simple bombs and jihadist armed assaults will prevail over the attraction of chemical weapons.

 

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