Don’t let ISIL terror attacks surprise us

Vigilance and effective mitigation strategies can provide resilience to ISIL’s threats to the capitals of the world.

Blood and material on the ground near the area where an attack took place in Tunisia [AP]
The aftermath of the attack in the coastal town of Sousse, Tunisia [AP]

There should be no doubt in anybody’s mind at the scale of horror that the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) is determined to inflict on any one in order to further the caliphate and repress dissent, so clearly personified by Friday’s horrific attacks in France, Tunisia and Kuwait.

There should now be no doubt about the sophistication of ISIL’s ability to wage war in Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere. But, I do have some doubt that we are fully prepared for further and highly likely attacks on democracy globally, which the ISIL hierarchy is undoubtedly planning from Raqqa, Mosul, and franchises around the world.

With the news recently that three British women have been tempted into Syria to join ISIL from Bradford in the UK, why are we so surprised when allegedly up to 900 British citizens have already followed this path? 

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Britain is not unique in this, and most European countries have a similar number of their citizens now fighting under the ISIL banner and ISIL’s franchises, which are growing and terrorising across Africa, the Far East as well as the Middle East and Europe.

Greatest advantage

But foremost we must not let ISIL surprise us; as this is its greatest advantage against the international community, just look at Friday’s attacks, 9/11, 7/7.

To underestimate ISIL is a fatal error; always assume your enemy is cleverer, more resilient, better equipped, has superior intelligence compared to you, and has no limits to terror and destruction; this is the start point to facing ISIL.

There are three tenants to this terror; the “active shooter” Charlie Hebdo type attack (which also includes suicide bomber, executions, conventional explosives, etc), cyberattack against all things electronic, and irregular or asymmetric attack, predominantly chemical biological radiological and nuclear (CBRN) but also anything we haven’t thought about which will enhance ISIL’s psychological campaign of terror.

ISIL does have a chemical weapons or even CBRN programme, albeit primitive, and they are training many jihadists to make and plant improvised chemical bombs.


ISIL has used the first two types many times around the globe to great effect, but at least we are now not overly surprised by them and are starting to put effective mitigation measures in place to provide resilience. The corollary of this resilience will force ISIL to the third tenant where we are less prepared to defeat.

To date, I have seen one attempt by returning jihadists to perpetrate a CBRN attack and that was in Jakarta where they planted a chlorine bomb in a shopping mall, which fortunately did not properly detonate, but showed a level of sophistication which appeared to be taught by experts rather than just gleaned off the internet.

Use of chlorine

Julie Bishop, Australia’s foreign minister, warned that ISIL is now capable of building chemical weapons in a speech two weeks ago to an anti-chemical weapons group in Australia.

At this meeting in Perth, she said: “Apart from some crude and small scale endeavours, the conventional wisdom has been that the terrorist intention to acquire and weaponise chemical agents has been aspirational. The use of chlorine by [ISIL], and its recruitment of highly technically trained professionals, including from the West, have revealed far more serious efforts in chemical weapons development.”

Bishop is the first senior politician in a major Western power to express so clearly and unequivocally and the Australian government’s concern that ISIL now has the desire to develop chemical weapons for use on the battlefields of Iraq and Syria and perhaps beyond. Is this a wake-up call for the international community to act demonstratively to mitigate this threat or unhelpful scaremongering?

ISIL has seen how effective chemical weapons have been in Syria, which have pretty much kept Assad in power since he nearly fell in August 2013, and were on the receiving end of chlorine barrel bombs in Deir Ezzor in December, which lead to their local tactical defeat. It is the ultimate terror weapon, and not unsurprising that they crave it, as they have imbued the people of Iraq with so much terror that in some places, hitherto, they face little resistance.

However, even given this so-called expertise, in my opinion, ISIL will not any time soon be able to produce deadly nerve agents like Sarin or VX, or fashion its much vaunted uranium in Mosul into any kind of viable nuclear device, though Bishop does suggest they could produce “dirty” bombs or possibly an Improvised Nuclear Device (IND) from these isotopes which I believe is possible but unlikely.

Real significance

ISIL will, however, continue to terrorise its attackers in Iraq and Syria with the very much less toxic, but highly effective, improvised chemical weapons such as chlorine. But the real significance to draw from the Australian foreign minister’s comments is that ISIL does have a chemical weapons or even CBRN programme, albeit primitive, and it is training many jihadists to make and plant improvised chemical bombs.

Some of these people will find their way back to their home countries where they may continue the ISIL fight, as we’ve seen with the Lee Rigby murder in London, the Charlie Hebdo killings in Paris, and many more. 

What and where next? ISIL aims to create terror and inertia globally in order to further its efforts to establish a caliphate and very evidently from Friday’s apparently coordinated attacks across the Middle East, Africa, and Europe, nothing is off limits. But vigilance and effective mitigation strategies, put in place now, can provide resilience to these threats to the capitals of the world, and stiffen the resolve of those who oppose this terror through the will to not allow this psychological terror campaign to daunt us. 

Some experts suggest we should not discuss such matters in public so as to encourage these terrorists – these experts have evidently never been on the battlefield fighting such terror and completely underestimate this terrorist – I have and we shouldn’t.

Hamish de Bretton-Gordon is a chemical weapons adviser to NGOs working in Syria and Iraq. He is a former commanding officer of the UK Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN) Regiment and NATO’s Rapid Reaction CBRN Battalion.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.