The Home Secretary warns that if they are not disrupted, the Islamic State group could acquire weapons of mass destruction – but has that threat been ‘sexed up’?
It’s not 2003, it’s not Tony Blair, but it does involve Iraq – and some incendiary warnings about weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) that could be used against Britons.
Once again, the warning comes from a government minister who knows their onions, or at least, who should.
In her speech to the Tory conference, Home Secretary Theresa May issued some dire predictions about the Islamic State group (IS) forming a terrorist state “within a few hours flying time of our country”.
And she crystallised the risk that IS, “with the capability of a state behind them”, could get hold of “chemical, biological or even nuclear weapons to attack us”.
Carefully phrased words, and no sign of a beefed up intelligence dossier being waved from the stage – just some political posturing designed to boost party morale and show the country she means business.
It’s unlikely that IS will get their hands on any WMDs Dina Esfandiary, IISS
But the substance of the words is potentially startling. Do they mean IS is seeking out the essential parts to assemble and deploy a WMD, whether chemical, biological or nuclear?
"If Isil succeed in firmly consolidating their grip on the land they occupy in Syria and Iraq, we will see the world's first truly terrorist state established within a few hours flying time of our country. We will see terrorists given the space to plot attacks against us, train their men and women, and devise new methods to kill indiscriminately. We will see the risk, often prophesied but thank God not yet fulfilled, that with the capability of a state behind them, the terrorists will acquire chemical, biological or even nuclear weapons to attack us." Home Secretary Theresa May
How far have IS got in this quest, and how long will it be until a serious threat is posed? In short, how worried should we be?
None of these necessary details was explored, meaning the casual listener may have gone away thinking they should just assume that IS is after WMDs, might well get hold of some, and that dropping bombs and firing missiles at their members is therefore the best thing to be doing right now.
Perhaps not surprising that in a time of war a minister wants to stack up the reasons for Britain’s actions against IS (also known as Isis).
But dig a little deeper, and a different picture emerges.
Matthew Henman, manager of the Terrorism and Insurgency Centre at IHS Jane’s, says Mrs May’s comments are “designed to grab headlines and embellish the threat”.
“Established nation states struggle to pull together the necessary material and infrastructure to produce such weapons, let alone for a group such as Isis,” he told Channel 4 News.
Such a threat “seems unfeasible in the short and medium term”, he says.
Reports emerged in July that insurgents stole nuclear materials from Mosul University in Iraq, but Mr Henman says IS would not be able to make the most of their uranium haul “because of the technology and materials they would need to acquire to use it”.
“The small quantities of uranium seized were not enriched or weapons-grade, so are actually no real use to the group. It’s the kind of thing al-Qaeda have been trying to do for a decade or so on and off without success.”
He concedes that in one sense, Mrs May “makes a valid point”, since if IS were able to establish a semi-permanent area of control “then their transnational threat increases exponentially”.
I am very doubtful that there are terrorists able to get samples of Ebola Dr Mirko Himmel, Research Group for Biological Arms Control
“There remains an ongoing risk that the group may get access to weapons being held by the Syrian regime, but they would go to great lengths to prevent groups from getting hold of such materials. ” he adds.
His view is shared by Dina Esfandiary, Research Associate for the Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Programme at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
“It’s unlikely that IS will get their hands on any WMDs,” she told Channel 4 News. “On nuclear, firstly, and perhaps most importantly, neither Syria nor Iraq have any nuclear weapons for IS to get their hands on.
“Secondly, even if they came across some uranium – which they reportedly have – going from having a small amount of that to an actual nuclear device is not easy.”
As for biological weapons, there are strong indications IS was very interested in carrying out such an attack, even if its ability to do so remains in question.
A laptop seized from a Syrian IS hide-out in January contained hidden documents describing instructions for carrying out a biological attack, according to the journal Foreign Policy.
Instructions were included for testing such materials before using them for a terrorist attack.
But as pointed out by Dr Mirko Himmel, scientist for the Research Group for Biological Arms Control at the University of Hamburg, there is often little distinction made between biological agents, and biological weapons.
Biological weapons are “much more complex in terms of scientific and technical requirements”, requiring a high degree of sophistication to develop and manufacture, he told Channel 4 News.
That said, terrorists could still get hold of the raw materials – the viruses and bacteria themselves – even if dispersing them over a wide enough area would still be an issue.
“I really could imagine that IS are getting hold of toxins or pathogens to make an attack,” he adds.
The instructions contained on the Syrian laptop “would maybe enable them to handle biological agents in a safe and proper way”, and a small-scale terrorist attack “could still be quite harmful to people”, he says.
But fears that IS could use the Ebola virus in a large-scale attack are wide of the mark, he adds.
“I am very doubtful that there are terrorists able to get samples of Ebola and propagate to increase the number of active viruses under culture conditions,” he says. “There are no indications that they’re able to handle large numbers of these things.”
Trying to acquire chemical or biological weapons is not a novel concept and even the IS capture of a Saddam-era chemical weapons factory in Iraq proved useless because of the chemicals were in a state of disuse.
Emily Chorley, Proliferation Editor for IHS Jane’s, admits that “technically there’s a risk of any state or group” getting their hands on chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear weapons.
“But in this case, as in most, I’d say the risk is relatively low,” she told Channel 4 News.
“There are no chemical, biological or nuclear weapons left in Iraq, and all of the chemical weapons declared by the Assad regime have been removed from the country.”
“Iran certainly wouldn’t share its nuclear technology with Isis and its facilities are fairly well-secured,” she adds
“There is always the possibility that Isis might try to get their hands on ‘orphan sources’ of radiological material – not under proper regulatory control – for use in a ‘dirty bomb’, but that would require a lot of effort and risk of apprehension for limited impact.
“This type of weapon would also be difficult to smuggle into Western countries.”
So what analysis backs up Mrs May’s claim? Nothing was offered in her speech, and the Home Office told Channel 4 News intelligence “is not something we would provide or comment on”, adding that her speech to the Conservative party conference was not something “that involved the Home Office”.
So in a strange echo of another Iraq war, we’re left with claims that WMDs could be developed by a malicious group within reach of the UK, but without sufficient detail to back up the claims.
If such evidence does exist, then hopefully the home secretary has it, and surely it’s worth us having it too.