Iraqi Kurdish forces take position as they fight jihadist militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant on June 29 in the Iraqi village of Bashir. Experts are assessing the potential impact of ISIL's seizure of the al-Muthanna chemical weapons facility. (Karim Sahib / AFP via Getty Images)
DUBAI — As extremist militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) announced their new caliphate this week, experts have been closely following their June 19 invasion of al-Muthanna chemical weapons facility and assessing the danger.
The mega-facility 60 miles north of Baghdad was the bastion of Saddam Hussein’s chemical weapons development program. The now-defunct facility was occupied in a rapid takeover, which the US government said is a matter of concern.
The facility, according to CIA documents, amassed mega-bunkers full of chemical munitions in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and provided Iraq with a force multiplier sufficient to counteract Iran’s superior military numbers.
However, two wars, sanctions and the United Nations Special Commission’s oversight reduced Iraq’s premier production facility to a stockpile of old damaged and contaminated chemical munitions sealed in bunkers, a wasteland full of destroyed chemical munitions, razed structures, and unusable war-ravaged facilities, the documents stated.
Michael Luhan, communications chief for the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), said that despite the weapons not being “weaponizable,” they remain toxic and can cause human and environmental dangers.
“The only threat that we see that could emerge from someone trying to access these bunkers and get at this stuff is that there are some materials that are considered to be toxic but are not weaponizable, but still if they are taken out and spilled on the ground they could pose a certain danger to people and cause environmental contamination,” he said.
Furthermore, he added that access to the bunkers by ISIL militants would be “extremely hazardous” due to the presence of aerial munitions.
“There are two bunkers in al-Muthanna, both of which contain chemical weapons which are pre-1991,” he said. “One of the bunkers has an unexploded aerial munition buried in it, which makes it extremely hazardous to try to access.”
The bunkers in al-Muthanna were sealed off by Iraqi forces in 1994 for security reasons, he said.
“Just putting those two facts together as well as the fact that those bunkers have no air conditioning or climate control sitting in a sealed bunker out in the desert for 20 years, now we can plausibly assume that none of it is really of use now.”
Despite that assertion, Luhan said the only chemical weapons stored there known to the OPCW were the items declared by the Iraqi government in 2010.
“What we know in terms of the contents is simply what the Iraq government declared to the OPCW when Iraq joined the chemical weapons convention four years ago that gave us a list of stuff that they understood was in the bunkers,” he said.
ISIL militants may find uses for the materials, albeit a limited one, with the aid of chemical experts, said Amy Smithson, senior fellow at Center for Nonproliferation Studies and a chemical weapons expert.
“I doubt they [could use the materials on their own] because these are things that only chemical weapons experts and manufacturers would know,” she said.
She added that it’s not time to panic, however, “if there is an event where chemical weapons are used in Iraq, then this would be an indication that they found a chemist or somebody who has enough understanding to get the containers open, understand what’s in it, and how to use it.”
Smithson said some of the precursor chemicals, if combined with other chemicals, could allow for something potent to be created, however, the quantity and quality are likely to be low.
She said it would be difficult for them to disperse them in a wide manner, but they might still be able to harm “a dozen, two dozen, maybe up to 100 people or so, but not huge casualties.”
“If they understand what is in these bunkers and if they try to open a munition or fire a munition or open a container that has any of these chemicals, they are unlikely to be as potent as when they were made.”