The news: As if the swift and bloody rise of Islamic State wasn't disturbing enough: A new report suggests that the group now has access to chemical weapons.
Three Iraqi officials speaking to the Associated Press under the condition of anonymity alleged that IS is now using chlorine gas against government and militia forces attempting to dislodge them from the towns of Duluiya and Balad, 80 kilometers north of Baghdad.
In the attacks, about 40 troops and Shiite militiamen were slightly affected by the chlorine and showed symptoms consistent with chlorine poisoning, such as difficulty in breathing and coughing, the three officials said. The troops were treated in hospital and quickly recovered.
Aysa Abdullah, a senior Kurdish official based in the town, said the attack took place late Tuesday, and that a number of people suffered symptoms that included dizziness and watery eyes.
The background: Iraqi officials told the Associated Press they believe the chlorine gas used in the attack was made using stockpiles stolen from water purification plants or chlorine storage sites in areas under IS control, not from Saddam Hussein's notorious abandoned chemical weapon junkyards (which did not, it's worth mentioning, contain functional WMDs).
Luckily, the soldiers in question were only "slightly affected" and "quickly recovered," and while IS may have access to chlorine gas and has proven it is more than willing to use it in combat, it's clear that they don't have resources or expertise to deploy chemical weapons on the same scale forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad have throughout the Syrian civil war.
Still, that the IS has access to chemical weapons in any form and are willing to use them against their growing list of enemies should be cause for alarm. Banned under the Geneva Protocol, chemical weapons are a uniquely terrifying way to wage war, their use an atrocity akin to biological warfare or the use of cluster munitions in populated areas. As the BBC notes, chemical weapons are particularly feared because they are often invisible, agonizing and indiscriminate. During a chemical weapons attack, there's often no ability to retreat or surrender — just suffer.
Chlorine gas is not considered as deadly a toxin as nerve agents like VX or sarin, but it still causes horrifying symptoms (h/t Toxipedia):
Inhalation, which is most common, has multiple effects on the body. Low-level inhalation causes skin, eye and airway irritation along with a sore throat and a cough. Higher concentrations result in chest tightness, dyspnea, bronchospasms and wheezing. Severe exposure can result in non-cardiogenic pulmonary edema. Other symptoms of chlorine poisoning appear as runny nose and choking. As fluid builds up in the lungs increases after continuous exposure, the person is often at increased risk of pneumonia. 3.5 ppm of chlorine can be detected by its characteristic odor, while 1000 ppm is likely to be fatal after a few deep breaths.
Why you should care: Now that IS has demonstrated it is capable of manufacturing chlorine gas, expect fears that the group will develop more effective chemical weapons to rise. However, the next step — creating chemical weapons that can be used to terrorize entire populations — is a major technical hurdle few extremist groups have succeeded in accomplishing. Simply strapping the agents to some form of improvised or retooled explosive is much cheaper and easier to do, but far less lethal.
As the Associated Press report notes, militants in Iraq have used chemical weapons before. Dr. Wm. Robert Johnston logged 16 such attacks in Iraq from 2004 to 2007 mostly using chlorine, resulting in 115 deaths and 856 injuries, as well as a spate of (sometimes unconfirmed) attacks in Afghanistan.
So when Secretary of State John Kerry says the attacks "will not change our strategy," that's not to downplay the awful disregard for human life IS has shown on the battlefield. Rather, it's an acknowledgement that IS hasn't demonstrated uniquely new or terrifying capabilities — but they're learning. And that's enough to worry even the most casual observer of the new war on terror in Iraq.