National Security & Defense

Why the ISIS WMD Threat Is Massively Underestimated


Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light / As under a green sea, I saw him drowning. – Wilfred Owen, “Dulce et Decorum Est”

Chemical agents, by disrupting a military adversary and sowing terror among its civilian population, make for powerful psychological weapons. And, as attested by Bashar al-Assad’s ongoing suffocation of innocent Syrians, chemical weapons are also tools of torture. The National Institutes of Health describes how concentrated chlorine gas affects a human body: “respiratory failure, pulmonary edema, likely acute pulmonary hypertension, cardiomegaly, pulmonary vascular congestion, acute burns of the upper and especially the proximal lower airways, and death.”

For ISIS, weaponized chlorine is a perfect instrument. And ISIS is using it. Reports suggest that ISIS has employed mustard- and chlorine-gas–based weapons in Iraq and Syria. Unfortunately, far worse is likely to come. After all, it’s increasingly obvious that ISIS regards its chemical-weapons programs as a key strategic priority. Last October, for example, the Associated Press described how European organized-crime groups are offering radioactive material to ISIS. And just last week, the Independent reported on the disruption of a ten-person ISIS cell in Morocco — a cell masterminded by ISIS leaders in Libya. The connecting threads are clear: Morocco, a favored destination of Western tourists, offered ISIS an opportunity to follow up in 2016 on its 2015 massacre of 38 people — including 30 Britons — in Sousse, Tunisia. ISIS wants to scare Western tourist investment away from moderate-Muslim nations and implode those nations into chaos. ISIS chemical weapons also threaten U.S. personnel. As ISIS confronts higher stakes — as it does in the battle for its Iraqi capital, Mosul — U.S. personnel will face a growing threat of chemical attack.

As ISIS confronts higher stakes – as it does in Mosul – U.S. personnel will face a growing threat of chemical attack.

This threat demands the strengthening of the U.S. deterrent posture against chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear threats. At present, that posture stands eviscerated because of the failure to punish Assad’s breach of President Obama’s “red line” on chemical weapons. But that’s only half the story. Consider, too, that an AP report from October highlighted how senior figures in WMD conspiracies are escaping consequences for their actions. That must end. In future, those who enable ISIS WMD programs should face one of two simple repercussions: detention by Jordan’s GID intelligence service, or death. The special urgency of this threat is unique. From Morocco and France to Turkey and Indonesia, ISIS has proven its ability to launch attacks from separate bases in Iraq, Syria, and Libya — and to do so while evading detection by Western intelligence. ISIS chemical-weapons plots must not be underestimated.

Of course, as Wilfred Owen reminds us, the use of chemical weapons in pursuit of human misery is nothing new. My British great-grandfather — a veteran of World War I– described German chemical attacks this way: “We could smell the gas coming. Every horse that we had was blind due to gas.” President Obama must recognize this new, old reality. In February 2016, “acute burns of the upper and especially the proximal lower airways, and death” are no longer peripheral concerns suffered by forgotten Syrians at the hands of Assad. Today, ISIS has the means and intent to drown Western civilians — and American credibility — in a green and yellow sea.

 – Tom Rogan writes for National Review Online and Opportunity Lives. He is a panelist on The McLaughlin Group and a senior fellow at the Steamboat Institute. He tweets @TomRtweets. His homepage is

Tom Rogan is a columnist for National Review Online, a contributor to the Washington Examiner, and a former panelist on The McLaughlin Group. Email him at

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