Middle East

ISIS and WMD: New Danger in the Middle East

About 75 Iraqi activists staged an anti-terrorism rally in front of the White House on June 20. However, near the non-existent border between Iraq and Syria, identifying "terrorism" can be a subjective matter. (Photo: Stephen Malkisethian)

"The Islamic State decided to establish an Islamic caliphate and to designate a caliph for the state of the Muslims," Abu Mohammad al-Adnani, a spokesman for ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria), said recently. The self-proclaimed "caliphate" is hardly likely to be recognized by the international community as any form of state. Nevertheless, jihadists take the caliphate within Syria and Iraq as a legitimate Islamic Republic with one leader—a military dictator. Based on confrontation and warfare, the caliphate has only one foreseeable raison d'être: ongoing conflict within the state system. The entire earth belongs to Muslims, alleges its despotic leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. On that basis he's called all Muslims to immigrate to his "Islamic State."

How did this dangerous turn in Middle Eastern conflicts arise? Militias in the region are increasing. Likewise, political voids and civil wars have developed. And underpinning it all is a long history of military interventions by Western democracies. Russia, Europe and the West have been flooding the region with military apparel for decades. And more recently, sending U.S. military trainers to conflict zones now seems practically protocol. In Iraq, current MPs are backed by militias. In Syria and Iraq, ISIS forces are empowered with abandoned U.S. military equipment. Who knows how much strategy, bomb-making skills and basic fighting abilities have been gleaned and applied by sectarian forces in the region via Western interventions? One thing is clear, though. Today there exists an all-pervasive animus sweeping Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel and beyond.

"Clearly when the Iraqi commander believed in the mission, he would find the forces to make it happen," wrote Lieutenant Colonel Carl D. Grunow, senior U.S. Army adviser to an Iraqi Army armored brigade in June 2006. Needless to say, instead of developing political cohesion among tribal and sectarian schisms, sectarianism is rife. And today in Iraq and Syria, overcoming the "infidel" seems to be the only unifying direction of radical forces.

"Define the enemy and unite to fight the enemy" has seemed like a mantra at the heart of Western military training. That phrase seems to have resounded with jihadists. The language the jihadist would use, however, is "overcoming the infidel." Is this not two sides of the same coin? What is an infidel if not a defined enemy? Instilling this idea of defining and uniting against the enemy into Iraqis and Afghanis by Western military trainers could quite logically have radicalized many latent sectarian forces into ISIS jihadists. Where has been the training in parliamentary discourse by Western democracies? Where have been the venues for political expression by all sectors of the community?


Recently there have been contradictory reports about whether ISIS forces have uncovered a complex with stockpiles of WMD in Iraq. "We do not believe that the complex contains CW materials of military value," the U.S. State Department said on the ISIS matter of WMD discovery. They express concern, but both the CIA and the United Kingdom have admitted downplaying the issue to waylay fears on the ground in Iraq. "It is doubtful that ISIS has the expertise to use a fully functioning chemical munition, but there are materials on site that could be used in an improvised explosive device," Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, a former commander of Britain's chemical weapons regiment, said on the issue. However, ISIS could well have the expertise to develop useable WMDs, if not now, in the foreseeable future. The West underestimates the capabilities of local militias at their peril. The underestimation of local forces and over-estimation of Western invincibility, by the United States specifically, is surely a central reason why ISIS has designated conquered territory in Syria and Iraq a caliphate.

A former commander of Britain's chemical weapons regiment has warned, "We have seen that ISIS has used chemicals in explosions in Iraq before and has carried out experiments in Syria." ISIS bears the hallmarks to wreak greater havoc. One, there is a despotic nature to the ISIS leadership. Two, ISIS is comprised of radicalized forces—radical enough that al Qaeda has distanced themselves from ISIS. And three, there are many engineers amongst ISIS. Is it thus likely that concrete bunkers would impede such a militant group from an objective of conquering the world via massive destruction? They seem hell-bent on using any force at their disposal regardless of the consequences. In his article for Townhall.com titled "Obama hands ISIS WMD," John Nantz warned that if mustard and sarin agents are present in Iraq, then the remnants of a nuclear program are possibly there as well. Whether ISIS has access to one such program could really be a matter of time. Already ISIS has uncovered 40 kg of nuclear material from Mosul University.

WMDFZ and Israel

"In 2003 we proposed the U.N. to get rid of WMD in the entire Middle East, but the U.S. was against the proposal," Syrian President Bashar al Assad said in an interview last September. Hard to believe given the conflict raging in and around Syria today under his watch. Even so, establishing a WMD-free zone (WMDFZ) in the Middle East could be gaining approval in the region. According to the Arms Control Association, there's extensive international support for a WMDFZ in the Middle East. There are also resolutions endorsed by all regional states there, with one highly contentious exception. Apparently, a WMD-free zone in the Middle East faces enormous obstacles from Israel.

Israel is one of four non-parties to the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Israel has up to 400 nuclear weapons, some thermonuclear with a megaton range. The WMDFZ is blocked by sharp disagreements involving Israel over the terms and means to establish it. While acknowledging the WMDFZ would mean durable peace, Israel expects its establishment to comply with international obligations by states in the region with respect to Israel. Yet Arab states say the establishment of a WMDFZ would of itself contribute to peaceful relations. For that reason alone, a WMDFZ precludes any obeisance by them towards Israel. Israel, in its constant state of defense, won't accept that. Israel perceives security threats from Iran, Syria and other neighboring Arab countries and thus feels justified in spending $71.3 billion on yet more defense over the next three years. And so it goes—more weapons flooding the region, more conflict and more chance radicals will get their hands on WMD and use them. Not to mention Israel with its 400 nuclear weapons retaliating.

Complicating matters on a WMDFZ is Israel's relationship with Palestinians and, by extension, Iran. This strongly suggests that a security resolution between the Palestinians and Israel is now vital. A collective security arrangement involving strict geopolitical regulation of weapons and their industry in the region should culminate in a WMDFZ. What are the alternatives to prevent the worst-case scenario of a nuclear war in the Middle East? Regional accord by all states of the Middle East, along with members of the U.N. Security Council, is crucial to preventing such a crisis from eventuating. A collective security arrangement requires Israel and the Palestinians solving their dilemma through either advancing Israel into a bi-national state and focusing on the politics of the situation rather than its religious history, or designating the two-state solution likewise.

"Differences amongst Islamic countries in the region are giving terrorist groups an opportunity to escalate their activities," Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani of Iran said when calling on Saudi Arabia to help Iran stop extremism. Setting aside both political and religious differences is necessary to overcoming extremism. Well, what hope is there of any collective security while Iran, Israel, the United States and Russia are at odds with each other? For example, as spokesman of Iran's parliament Hossein Naqavi Hosseini pointed out last month, "America wants to achieve its political goals in Iraq, therefore Iran will never stand next to the U.S."

A geopolitical way forward transcending religious differences

Political mistrust seems as rife as the animus of sectarian foment now sweeping the Middle East. This latest round of sectarian violence gripping the region is entangled with strategic power plays. Fingers point to a diverse array of contenders, ranging from the United States to Saudi Arabia and Iran. "They play the game of great power politics and the chess pieces they choose inflame the sectarianism," said Vali Nasr, dean at John Hopkins University. Well, who would deny strategic power plays have been in force in the region for decades? Sectarian wrath and radicalization have a long history transcending Western interventions in the Middle East. But the combination of strategic interference with religious fundamentalism is likely causing the massive instability.

Some say ISIS represents a new scramble for power in political voids left by the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the Arab Spring. The resurgence of Sunni-Shi'ite animus could concern the dying military dictatorships in the Middle East. The insecurity of the Arab Spring, for example, could have led anxious citizens to rely on their sectarian identity. The same could be said of their insecure rulers. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Malaki, for instance, has surrounded himself with Shi'ites, shutting out members of the opposition at every turn. Either way, ISIS has been empowered, rising up through a mantra of religious fanaticism and animus.

The power of ideology and religion cannot be denied. "With their ignorance regarding the divine concepts of Islam, [extremists] are leading innocent and simple-minded youth into performing un-Islamic and inhumane actions under the guise of jihad and a divine path to heaven." Ayatollah Rafsanjani warned of ISIS. He's not alone in this sentiment. "There are forces that keep the tension alive in order to get a bigger piece of the cake," said Sheikh Maytham al-Salman, a Shiite scholar detained and tortured for supporting the 2011 uprising in Bahrain. He thinks Bahrain is the next powder keg of ISIS. He could be right, but not just because of sectarianism.

Environmental concerns

Interestingly, at the heart of Islam is a creed of humankind's responsibility to guard the environment. ISIS is apparently ignoring that. Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani could be prescient in his warning about extremism undermining Islam. "Do not desire corruption in the land," notes the Qur'an. "Do not commit abuse on the Earth, spreading corruption." Similar verses can be found in the Bible and the Torah. None of that seems to factor with radicals these days.

Since designating conquered territory in Syria and Iraq as a caliphate, Lake Assad has dropped so low that citizens of Aleppo and Ar-Raqqah are drawing water from unreliable sources. "The whole drop happened since the Islamic State group took over. They took control and then we saw major issues," a mechanical engineer from al-Tabqa named Hassan told Al Jazeera. "In spite of these alarming indications, both Syria's regime and opposition groups are in a state of denial. Neither is preparing for a food and water crisis," wrote Nouar Shamout of Chatham House. "If the lake loses one more meter, the water system will stop working. … The deliberate targeting of water-supply networks and related structures is now a daily occurrence."

How long before other parts of the Middle East start experiencing similar problems? Without geopolitical regulation on the environment, energy and security, no one state can assure security for generations to come. And no radical fighting force such as ISIS can claim religious authority and leadership true to their hallowed divinity.

View the Worldpress Desk’s profile for Laurelle Atkinson.