Sulfur mustard, better known as mustard gas, was one of the most horrific weapons of the First World War – so much so that it became a driving force behind the move to ban the use of chemical weapons in warfare. The gas causes severely painful blisters and long term health problems including cancers, and in an extremely sinister twist, the onset is slow, so patients may not realize they’ve been exposed until several hours of high toxicity.
Last week, evidence emerged that Islamic State may be using mustard gas in Iraq – and it’s not the first time the terrorist group has been accused of chemical weapons, with some claiming IS has also used chlorine gas. The shocking incident is evidence that IS is growing both bolder and stronger, and that the stakes are rising when it comes to fighting the group.
Mustard gas is a class one chemical agent, with essentially no use other than in chemical weapons. Most of the world has signed and ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1993, which specifically bans the production of mustard gas, but some nations continue to make it – and there are substantial stockpiles of the weapon, including some under guard and slated for disposal in nations like the US, and more poorly controlled silos in nations like Iraq and Syria. IS is likely obtaining its sulfur mustard and other chemical weapons from these poorly guarded stockpiles, taking advantage of the chaos and recovery of war to access munitions and other materiel along with specifically banned substances; as a terrorist organization, IS doesn’t care about and isn’t bound to the conventions of war.
Reports of the gas emerged in the wake of an attack on Kurdish Peshmerga – the soldiers who represent the Kurdish minority – holding a position near the city of Irbil. Historically, Iraq’s Kurds have experienced systemic discrimination and violence, including attacks with chemical weapons by Saddam Hussein during his time in power. The IS attack is an eerie throwback for them and a reminder that fighting terrorism can be an extremely dangerous proposition.
According to Military Times and many other sources, field tests reveal the presence of sulfur mustard, but such tests need to be repeated in the laboratory to confirm the results and determine the source of the chemical. Such forensics can provide key information about where IS is getting mustard gas, which may make it possible to cut off the supply by clearing out a previously unknown munitions bunker or prosecuting individuals who may be involved in the process of storing or transporting mustard gas.
ISIS may have used mortar or rocket shells to deliver the gas during a sustained attack on the town of Marea. Testimony from witnesses indicates that the bombardment included several dozen shells. Victims initially developed injuries consistent with shrapnel, but later began experiencing symptoms of chemical exposure, including blisters, foul-smelling pus and extreme pain. Many of the wounded were civilians, including children. Kurdish fighters have reported similar symptoms after other skirmishes with IS forces, indicating that the group may gained access to a significant cache of chemical weapons, a potentially serious issue for forces working to beat back IS in Syria and Iraq – while Kurds are currently experiencing the brunt of alleged chemical weapons attacks, that doesn’t mean IS will stop there.
Just last week, IS forces beheaded a professor of antiquities, a reminder that the group is making war not just on people, but ideas – the group wishes to promote an extremely fundamentalist version of Islam and is attempting to destroy thousands of priceless cultural, archaeological and anthropological artifacts. These attacks on multiple fronts are incredibly damaging to a region already recovering from civil wars as well as invasion by US forces, and widespread use of chemical weapons could result in the need for years of recovery – as with the use of depleted uranium in the First Gulf War, chemical weapons will leave a toxic legacy that needs to be cleaned up to protect both people and the environment.