The Islamic State is assembling a large number of chemical weapons specialists to create what U.S. intelligence officials are calling a “chemical weapons cell” in the last bit of territory controlled by the terror state. Intelligence analysts fear the odds of large-scale chemical weapons deployment in the death throes of the caliphate are increasing.
CNN reports that ISIS has essentially relocated its capital from the Syrian city of Raqqa to a new area in the Euphrates River valley along the Iraq-Syria border, where “thousands” of Islamic State fighters and sympathizers are swarming.
ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi may also be hiding in the area, along with other high-profile Islamic State officials fleeing Raqqa. “We know they have been moving a lot of their leadership out of Raqqa and we suspect much of their technical expertise and planning as well,” Pentagon spokesman Major Adrian Rankine-Galloway said.
Along with this movement of ISIS leadership, analysts believe ISIS is moving its chemical weapons experts into the area and encouraging them to work together, so its stockpile of weapons of mass destruction can be upgraded.
“We have seen ISIS use low-grade chemical agents in the past. We know ISIS is willing to use chemical weapons. This is not something we want to see them get good at,” said Colonel Ryan Dillon, a spokesman for the anti-ISIS military coalition. Dillon stopped short of confirming the theory about a new chemical weapons unit forming up in the Euphrates Valley.
As CNN notes, the use of low-grade chemical weapons by ISIS has increased recently, with at least 15 attacks reported since April 14 in the battle for Mosul, the terror state’s capital in Iraq. Iraqi troops fighting in Mosul are now routinely carrying chemical warfare gear into battle. A number of Iraqi soldiers fighting in Mosul have been treated for chemical exposure.
None of these exposures has been fatal yet, but that could change if ISIS takes chemical warfare to the next level. In previous attacks, the Islamic State has sought to maximize the terror of chemical weapons, while U.S. and Iraqi officials downplayed the effects of low-grade chemical attacks or denied them outright. In short, there has been little military significance to the ISIS chemical attacks perpetrated so far.