Why you should care
This is the Islamic State we’re talking about, after all.
John McLaughlin is the former deputy director of the CIA. He writes a regular column on OZY called “Global Eye: Foreign Affairs Through an Intelligence Lens,” and teaches at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).
The author, deputy director and acting director of the CIA from 2000 to 2004, teaches at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
When it comes to the intelligence profession, surprise is the ultimate enemy — and surprise just happens to be the Islamic State’s specialty. The IS has delivered one after another with wanton brutality, from dramatic, border-busting early successes to urban conquests and the attacks it has planned or inspired around the world. As much as we should resist mongering fear, it behooves us to imagine what surprises are yet to come and whether the IS could take it up yet another notch.
One clue worth pondering comes from U.S. military reports, which show that the IS twice used a chemical agent called sulfur mustard — once against Kurdish forces and another time against rival rebel groups in August. It’s unclear whether the IS was able to manufacture the agent or whether they grabbed Syrian agent at some point. Were the IS to acquire and use unconventional weapons on a broader scale or branch out into biological agents or nukes, it would, of course, be a real game changer.
Counterterrorism specialists have long anticipated some group trying this.
There are at least two reasons to worry that the IS would consider this route. First, while it remains strong and still draws recruits, its territorial losses have begun to mount, due to coalition bombing and ground operations by the Kurds in Northern Iraq and Syria and by Iraqi forces operating near Baghdad. These ops haven’t turned the tide yet, but the IS is probably experiencing at least some jitters, if not outright desperation. Its increased attacks outside the Middle East serve to keep its image of invulnerability, impress potential recruits and divide our resources. A startling new means of attack that produced even greater and more horrible casualties would serve the same purposes — and at a much more dramatic level.
Another reason for concern stems from the fact that the group operates with fewer restraints than any other terrorists we’ve encountered since 9/11. Al-Qaida leadership in the middle of the last decade scolded the IS predecessor, al-Qaida in Iraq, for killing too many Muslims. The IS seems to have no qualms about killing Muslims. And when it comes to unconventional weapons, even terrorist groups that have sought them may have hesitated because of the certainty that using such weapons would draw sharper retaliation from the U.S. and others. But the IS seems to want nothing more than to pull us into direct confrontation, on the theory that it could draw coalition blood and hasten the violent final confrontation with “infidels” that its bizarre theology predicts and seeks.
How hard would it be for the IS to obtain what it needs for unconventional weapons? More difficult than its other weaponry but by no means impossible. The IS is wealthier than any previous independent terrorist group, and money talks in the black market for illicit goods. Tons of nuclear explosive material are in the offing, scattered around the world in less-than-secure installations. The International Atomic Energy Agency maintains a database that shows more than 2,000 confirmed reports of illicit trafficking in nuclear and other radioactive materials between 1993 and 2014.
Though there are no known instances of actual nuclear weapons missing, intelligence officers are trained to worry about what they don’t know. Besides, for the purposes of terror, something short of a complete weapon, such as a “dirty bomb” — radioactive material mixed into conventional explosives — would serve the IS’s purposes just fine. Counterterrorism specialists have long anticipated some group trying this. And producing biological toxins, scientists say, is also no longer very hard to do given today’s technology, the available information online and the accessibility of strain cultures.
In fact, an IS laptop captured in 2014 reportedly contained a manual for making biological toxins, including a strain of plague. No one confidently knows why terrorists have not gone down this path (although al-Qaida did try unsuccessfully to make anthrax), unless they are just not as competent as we imagine or they have been hesitant to unleash such horrific devastation. Again, though, the IS brutality we’ve seen so far suggests that it respects no such boundaries.
Such nightmares may fall into the category of “black swans” — events that seem improbable but would be game changers were they to occur. Nonetheless, a possible IS /WMD conjunction deserves urgent policy attention, given the IS’s record of stunning tactical surprises. The administration should invigorate its ambitious nonproliferation agenda, inaugurated by President Obama at Prague in 2009 but seemingly pushed lower on the priority list by more immediate and apparent emergencies. At a minimum, the 60-plus countries we say are in an anti-IS coalition must quickly tighten their inventory and control of any dangerous materials they possess. This effort also requires a vigorous, broad-based and candid exchange of intelligence and an international effort to develop mitigation measures that could be carried out jointly if the IS ever goes down this horrific path.