Bad chemistry: ISIS and mustard agents

October 9, 2015

Gabrielle Tarini

The following is an excerpt of a piece published in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists’ Voices of Tomorrow series. 

Image courtesy of Bulletin of Atomic Scientists

Two years after the dismantlement of Syria’s declared chemical weapons arsenal, chemical warfare continues in the Middle East, attended by little public outcry.

US officials have identified at least four occasions in the last two months when the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has used mustard agents on both sides of the Iraq-Syria border. While early claims by US officials suggested that ISIS militants obtained the deadly chemicals from caches in Syria, officials now believe the group has developed the capacity to manufacture its own mustard on a small  scale.


ISIS’s recent use of chemical agents fits with the historical pattern established by Hussein and Assad. The militant group certainly sees itself as a state and behaves like one—administering territory, levying taxes, and managing large numbers of fighters across vast amounts of land. The group’s increasing use of mustard agent points to a belief that chemical weapons are an important tactical asset on the battlefield.

ISIS’s alleged chemical attacks in Marea in August are a good example of this strategy. Located in northern Syria, Marea is a key town along the border with Turkey, close to a vital supply route for the Syrian rebels. Capturing Marea would make ISIS well-placed to control the nearby Bab al-Salaama border crossing with Turkey, providing it access to more supplies, weapons, and foreign recruits. […]

Read the full article at

Comments Are Closed