Geopolitics

What If ISIS Gets Its Hands On Chemical Weapons?

A year after a chemical attack killed nearly 1,000 civilians in the Syrian rebel stronghold of eastern Ghouta, new fears that the Islamist radical group is building its own chemical stockpile.

Protest in Aleppo on Aug. 21 to mark the one-year anniversary of the Ghouta massacre.
Protest in Aleppo on Aug. 21 to mark the one-year anniversary of the Ghouta massacre.
Karen Leigh

On August 18, almost one year after an attack that killed nearly 1,000 civilians in the rebel stronghold of eastern Ghouta, U.S. officials say the Syrian government's chemical weapons cache had been successfully destroyed.

But now a new threat has emerged with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which, just two months after beginning its Iraq offensive, has begun taking control of small chemical stockpiles.

We asked Hamish de Bretton Gordon OBE, a chemical weapons expert focusing on the Syrian crisis and founder of London-based SecureBio, to weigh in on the state of chemical weapons in Syria, one year after the Ghouta attack.

SYRIA DEEPLY: Does the regime still have chemical weapons?
HAMISH DE BRETTON GORDON: There is a strong chance that the regime still has a small amount of chemical weapons. When the declared stock came in, it was 1,300 tons of largely precursors. Those of us looking at it think there were 100 to 200 tons missing. In documents presented to UN inspectors, there were a lot of irregularities that were commented on by Western governments. There is a general feeling that some elements, albeit fairly small, are still missing.

They also still have large stocks of chlorine, and we have seen them use that chlorine on a number of occasions, including in Hama province and in Tal Avez. And they still could use it, if they saw fit. Why would Assad keep some of his chemical stock? It's been good for him in battle, and the process to destroy it has kept the international community at arm's length this year.

Do rebel groups like Jabhat al-Nusra, the Islamic Front or the Free Syrian Army have chemical weapons?
It's very difficult to assess that. If we don't take ISIS into account, I haven't seen any decent reporting that suggests any Syrian rebel groups have chemical weapons as they are defined by the UN inspectors and the international community. But they could have access to chlorine and other toxic chemicals. We have seen how dangerous chlorine has been this year, but so far its use seems to fall squarely to the regime, as it's been dropped by helicopters — and the rebels don't have access to helicopters.

As it pushes further north and east in Syria, and continues its offenses in Iraq, is ISIS in control of any chemicals?
ISIS is currently in control of a stockpile in two bunkers at the old Iraqi army barracks at al-Muthanna, about 45 miles from Baghdad. It contains remnants of Saddam Hussein's stock — a couple thousand tons of chemical weapons. The only nerve agent there would be useless by now, but there's a mustard gas that would still be viable. They have yet to break the bunkers open. They've also stolen radioactive isotopes from Mosul University in the last few weeks, and while they couldn't make a chemical agent out of them, they could certainly use them to make dirty bombs.

When and why would they use them?
The key thing for which ISIS would use its chemical weapons is as a strategic tool for leverage against the international community, predominantly the U.S. There is a view, which I share, that the international community has been kept at arm's length from Syria by the chemical weapons destruction process, and that ISIS could try the same tactic in Iraq.

ISIS could use chemicals if things started to go very badly for it on the battlefield. One of the key reasons Assad allegedly dropped sarin on Ghouta last year is because the rebels were doing well, approaching his heartland, and the chemical attack worked to beat them back. Chemical weapons work very well in the insurgency warfare that we've seen in Syria and now in Iraq. ISIS seemingly has no boundaries, unlike al-Qaida, which did — they developed their own chemical weapons and never used them. But ISIS won't think twice to use chemicals if it's a situation of last resort.

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Geopolitics

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.


But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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