Blog Post - Nuclear Security Matters

How much of a nuclear, chemical, or biological threat might ISIS pose? (Part I)

    Author:
  • Nate Sans
| Sep. 15, 2014

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel recently described the Islamic State (IS, referred to by the U.S. government as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant [ISIL] and by many others as the  Islamic State of Iraq and Syria or the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham [ISIS]) as an “imminent threat to every interest we have,” with sophistication, funding, and military prowess “beyond anything that we’ve seen.” As yet, there is no convincing publicly available evidence that IS aspires to attain or use nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons (Matthew Bunn debunked alarmist press coverage over the group’s seizure of uranium from Mosul University). But good sense demands that policy makers not discount the possibility that ISIS might pursue unconventional weapons, given the vast resources of money and weapons ISIS has amassed during its rampage across Syria and Iraq. Evaluation of the threat might be divided into two categories: the inclination to pursue CBRN weapons, and the means to manufacture or capture them, and afterwards, to plan an attack using them.

Inclination to pursue CBRN

There is not yet any publicly available evidence that ISIS currently poses a serious nuclear, chemical, or biological threat, or that it aspires to become one.  The historical record shows that terrorist attempts to pursue these weapons have often not been successful. But given ISIS’s heritage and means, there is reason to worry – and all the more reason to do everything possible to ensure that nuclear weapons and materials everywhere are secure and accounted for.

ISIS’s predecessor organization, al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), pursued chemical weapons extensively, and in 2006 then-AQI leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi called for “…especially nuclear scientists and explosives experts” to join the jihad. This evidence alone is cause for alarm in decision-making circles. ISIS is well-funded and well-equipped - two traits that make ISIS more likely to succeed in the pursuit of unconventional weaponry, which may increase the likelihood that ISIS leaders opt to pursue these weapons.

ISIS has demonstrated an ability to leverage technology in order to attract foreign fighters from across the globe. The group’s foreign fighters are not just from the region; some are from Western Europe, and others migrated to ISIS from the Caucasus. These militants could return to their home countries and pursue operations against nuclear facilities that would utilize their battle-tested knowledge of sophisticated tactics. Militants from the Caucasus have also already demonstrated consistent interest in nuclear targets and weapons. The conflict in Iraq provides a training and proving ground for these militants that could serve them well in follow-on attacks on behalf of ISIS or some other organization that they might join later.

Just as important as the inclination to pursue CBRN attacks is the ability to do so. Sophisticated operational and tactical abilities, and the use of a safe haven in its conquered territory are ISIS traits that would be very useful to it if it decided to pursue a CBRN attack.

For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Sans, Nate.How much of a nuclear, chemical, or biological threat might ISIS pose? (Part I).” Nuclear Security Matters, September 15, 2014, https://nuclearsecuritymatters.belfercenter.org/publication/how-much-nuclear-chemical-or-biological-threat-might-isis-pose-part-i.

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