Sunday, March 13, 2016

ISIS launches multiple chemical weapons attacks near Kirkuk, Iraq.

Mourners lay to rest the body of  a three year old girl named Fatma Samir, who was the only fatality in the attack. AP/Business Insider. 

ISIS has launched multiple chemical weapons attacks near the city of Kirkuk in northern Iraq. AP. One child, a three year old girl named Fatma Samir, was killed in the attack while 600 more people were wounded. Hundreds of other civilians have fled the area after the attack as well. ISIS launched two rocket attacks with chemical payloads at the town of Taza. The father of the child that died in the attack informed the media that she seemed to be ok after the attack but her condition deteriorated as her body swelled up and her skin burned and rotted away. Hundreds of other victims are being treated in local hospitals, for burns, dehydration and suffocation. Though the chemical agent used is a weak one, the attack is causing a state of panic for citizens in the area, especially the women and children. ISIS is known to have limited stockpiles of sulfur mustard gas and has used chlorine as a weapon as well. US defense officials are downplaying the threat of this attack. 

My Comment:
This attack is a message to the United States. Even though we have captured ISIS's top chemical weapons leader, and have begun to target their labs and scientists, ISIS still has chemical weapons and are all too willing to use them. I said in a previous post that ISIS was most likely saving their chemical weapons for a major attack and it looks like this is it. 

However, the details of this attack tells me quite a bit about ISIS's capabilities. For one, they only attacked in the Kirkuk area. Though the area has strategic importance, I thought that Baghdad would have made a much better target. The fact that they hit Kirkuk instead of Baghdad shows me that ISIS just don't have the ability to operate in the center of the country like they used too. I speculated that any attack on Baghdad would be difficult to pull off and would be easily disrupted by Iraqi security forces. It looks like on that count I was right. 

Secondly, ISIS seems to have rejected a chemical weapons attack outside of the Iraq/Syria theater of war. I was somewhat concerned that ISIS would strike outside of those two countries. A local neighbor, like Saudi Arabia or Jordan could have been targets, but I wasn't ruling out the possibility of a strike as far away as Europe. 

That doesn't seem to be all that likely now. The fact that ISIS used these weapons in Kirkuk tells me that they just don't have the capability to transport these weapons outside of Iraq and Syria. Given how they are delivering these chemicals, via rockets and mortars, that isn't all that surprising. Getting a loaded shell or two out of Iraq or Syria wouldn't be that difficult but ISIS is missing an effective delivery system for targets outside of those two countries. I guess a terror attack outside of areas near ISIS control is still possible, but I think it is unlikely. 

From the description of the wounds suffered by Fatma and the others, it seems as if this is was a sulfur mustard gas attack. Chlorine can be deadly and can burn the skin, but the presence of necrosis makes me think that it is mustard gas. I'm not expert though, so it is possible that it was Chlorine, or even another chemical agent. The good news is that mustard gas is rarely lethal, so the vast majority of the people hurt in this attack should survive if it was that agent used. 

It sounds as though this attack is causing a panic. I think that is justified. Though the attack only killed one person, a small child who would be especially vulnerable, it sickened hundreds. It is possible that some of those people that were sickened will still die from their injuries, but even if nobody does, it's hard to ignore an attack that affected hundreds. Even car bombings rarely injure this many people, even though the death tool would likely be higher. I also get the feeling that the Iraqi civilians have zero protection from chemical agents and likely don't even know what to do when an attack occurs. 

As for ISIS, this is a distraction attack. They know that forces are gathering to attack Mosul. Along with there terror operations in the Baghdad area, the threat of chemical weapons attacks in the north will tie down forces that would otherwise be arrayed against them in Mosul. Though it is a brutal plan, you can't argue that it doesn't make sense from a strategic point of view. Iraqi forces will be tied down trying to find and destroy the units that have carried out these attacks and to secure any remaining chemical weapons.

It remains to be seen if ISIS will be able to continue to launch chemical weapons attacks. The man in charge of their chemical weapons, Sleiman Daoud al-Afari, was captured in a commando raid a couple of weeks ago. Intelligence gathered from al-Afari led to the destruction of a couple of chemical weapons labs. It seems clear that ISIS's chemical weapons production, at the very least, has been reduced, if not destroyed entirely. What we don't know is if those were the only production labs, or if they have the capability to rebuild the ones that they lost. Either way it appears that the chemical weapons that ISIS has already produced were not effected by the raids. Depending on how much mustard gas ISIS has created, there may be more of these chemical weapon attacks before the year is over, even if their production of chemical weapons has stopped.   

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