ISIS and Chemical Weapons Disarmament: The Political Necessity of Technological Progress

The issue of chemical weaponry, since its inception during the First World War, has increasingly become a political concern. The Assad regime’s August 2013 use of nerve gas against civilians remains fresh in international memory, as does the political confrontation that followed. In July 2014, the issues of weapons storage and disarmament gained further attention when the Iraqi government confirmed reports that ISIS rebels had seized the retired Al Muthanna Chemical Weapons Complex. The seizure of the facility draws attention to the larger imperative of dismantling the region’s remaining chemical weaponry, which should be addressed with a combination of political finesse and the furthering of disarmament technologies.

On June 11, 2014, ISIS rebels overwhelmed guards at the Al Muthanna plant and proceeded to raid the facility, raising concerns that active chemical weapons agents may have come into their possession. The facility, located 45 km northwest of Baghdad, had been producing up to 4,000 tons of chemical weapons per year under the Hussein regime, including the nerve gas Sarin and the blister agent sulfur mustard.1 Following the Gulf War, the United Nations shut down the facility’s productive capabilities, leaving a small amount of chemical weaponry sealed in two bunkers at the site. The contents of these bunkers is at the center of the international response to the seizure, a response that has included both reassurance and concern.

Those who seek to reassure refer to the most recent report on the contents of the Al Muthanna facility, which was conducted by the Iraq Survey Group in 2004. While the report conceded that the stored weapons could be dangerous, it also noted evidence of chemical leaks within the bunkers [1]. These leaks would render the munitions both militarily useless and immediately hazardous to anyone who attempted to move them. A full inspection of the bunkers was impossible due to issues of safety, but if substantial leaking was indeed present at the time of the raid, ISIS rebels could not have obtained usable chemical weaponry.

Even so, ISIS’s seizure of the Al Muthanna facility has raised concerns about the security of additional, more recently produced chemical weapons agents in Iraq and Syria. The seizure of Al Muthanna reveals an important political fact: the region’s current instability makes the long-term securing of chemical weapons agents unfeasible, even if these weapons are declared properties of the United Nations and guarded by a small military force. Consequently, there is substantial pressure to accelerate the process of disarmament.

Alison McManusThe process of chemical weapons disarmament may take a variety of forms, many of which are either dangerous or costly. Burial of chemical weapons was once common practice, as was dumping liquid weapons into local oceans and seas. These practices are currently outlawed by the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1993, in favor of two far safer methods of disarmament: closed incineration and neutralization [2].

The first of these methods, in which chemical weapons agents are simply burned into inert ash, water, and carbon dioxide, was the U.S. Army’s preferred method for the destruction of its chemical weapons stockpile [3]. While this method is valued for its speed, it has also been criticized for its environmental impact. The Chemical Warfare Working Group cites a number of drawbacks to incineration methods, including malfunction, which would expose workers to dangerous agents, and the formation of toxic byproducts, which would present a public health concern even if incineration procedure is followed perfectly [4]. Mustard gas, for instance, is often contaminated with mercury, making incineration impossible due to the release of toxic fumes [5].

These considerations prompted research into neutralization as an alternative procedure for disarmament. While the majority of the U.S. chemical stockpile was being destroyed by incineration, the Assembled Chemical Weapons Assessment Program, established by Congress in 1996, investigated a series of neutralization techniques [3]. Of the methods it investigated, it selected neutralization by hydrolysis as the most feasible option. In this process, chemical warfare agents are combined with hot water and sodium hydroxide to form a less dangerous but still toxic hydrolysate compound, along with other organic products. The hydrolysate is then further neutralized by one of three methods: incineration, chemical oxidation, or biotreatment. The latter two methods have been the focus of recent efforts to improve neutralization technologies.

A 2009 study by Fallis et al. examines how the efficiency of hydrolysate oxidation might be improved [6]. He aims to bridge what he calls the “fundamental dichotomy” in the oxidation step of neutralization, namely that the hydrolysate to be oxidized is immiscible in water, while effective oxidizing agents tend to be water miscible. This phase incompatibility is typically overcome through a process known as supercritical water oxidation (SCWO), in which superheated water allows for increased mixing of the hydrolysate and the oxidizing agent. However, Fallis’s work suggests that oxidation of the hydrolysate may not require such high temperatures. Through the use of a manganese Schiff-base as a catalyst, he demonstrates that oxidation may occur at the phase barrier between the hydrolysate and the oxidative agent, eliminating the need for difficult phase mixing and improving the process of neutralization.

Alternatively, the toxic hydrolysate product may be broken down by microorganisms, as demonstrated by the disarmament of the U.S. Army’s Pueblo, Colorado chemical weapons stockpile. The full report on the facility’s disarmament, released in 2006, indicates that the neutralization of sulfur mustard agents may be achieved through the activated sludge process, in which bacteria decompose organic contaminants in specially-designed reactors known as Immobilized Cell Bioreactors (ICBs) [7]. Notably, this process is effective for both aged and contaminated chemical munitions. If implemented on a larger scale, it could facilitate the disarmament of the world’s numerous stockpiles of old chemical weapons.

The issue of disarmament is no doubt both relevant and complex, requiring immediate international cooperation and carefully calculated political action. Yet the process of disarmament is constrained not only by politics, but also by technological progress. At the moment, neutralization technology is functional but cumbersome. Its improvement would not alone provide an exhaustive solution to the issue of chemical weaponry. It would, however, offer a wider variety of strategies for disarmament and, in doing so, allow greater flexibility in international responses to chemical warfare.


[1] Charles A. Duelfer. “Duelfer Report on Chemical Weapons in Iraq.” Iraq Survey Group. 30 September 2004.

[2] Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. “Chemical Weapons Convention.” 13 January 1993.

[3] Philip A. Marrone, Scott D. Cantwell, and Darren W. Dalton. “SCWO System Designs for Waste Treatment: Application to Chemical Weapons Destruction.” Industrial & Engineering Chemistry Research, Vol. 44, 2005.

[4] Michael R. Greenberg. “Public Health, Law, and Local Control: Destruction of the U.S. Chemical Weapons Stockpile.” American Journal of Public Health, Vol. 93, No. 8, 2003.

[5] Lois Ember. “Chemical Arms Disposal.” Chemical & Engineering News, May 2007.

[6] Ian A. Fallis, Peter C. Griffiths, Terrence Cosgrove, et al. “Locus-Specific Microemulsion Catalysts for Sulfur Mustard (HD) Chemical Warfare Agent Decontamination.” Journal of the American Chemical Society, Vol. 131, 2009.

[7] Mark A. Guelta. “Biodegradation of HT Agent from an Assembled Chemical Weapons Assessment (ACWA) Projectile Washout Study.” Edgewood Chemical Biological Center: U.S. Army Research, Development, and Engineering Command. September 2006.

Image Credit

[1] (Creative Commons): PEO Assembled Chemical Weapons Assessment. 8 September 2011. Pueblo Chemical Agent-Destruction Pilot Plant Brine Reduction System. Flickr.


Alison McManus is a third-year student at the University of Chicago who plans to major in both chemistry and history. She is particularly interested in (and often puzzled by) the moral and political dimensions of technology. Follow The Triple Helix Online on Twitter and join us on Facebook.

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