Skip to main content Skip to navigation

Spreading Terror through Gassing: ISIL and Mustard Gas

Dr Marijn Nieuwenhuis, Post-doctoral Fellow in Political Geography at the Department of Politics and International Studies, writes about the 'terrorising' scenario of gas attacks from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

"American and European intelligence agencies have expressed fears that the Islamic State uses chemical weaponry in the form of mustard gas in both Syria and Iraq. Such speculation seems technically credible. The chemical composition of the gas, which at room temperature is actually a fluid and not a gas, is fairly cheap to make and easy to produce. Contact with mustard gas causes blisters to the mucous membranes, burns to the skin and selectively attacks parts of the nervous system. It is under ‘normal’ circumstances not a lethal weapon but primarily an instrument used to wage psychological and tactical warfare. The use of gas alters both the psychological experience of the target’s environment while simultaneously attacking his/ her somatic senses. It has however also broader psychosocial effects which are relevant for discussing why ISIL would use such weaponry.

"The history of sulphur mustard goes back to at least the First World War in which it was used by German troops as a vesicant against British soldiers. It is estimated that by the end of the ‘Great War’ as many as 400.000 soldiers had suffered from its effects. Despite the low mortality rate (2 to 3 percent), the gas would come to have a lasting psychological effect on public imaginations and the actual experience of war. Images and visions of toxic gaseous skies had a deteriorating effect on soldiers’ morale but also reshaped the way people imagined and perceived wars. It was not so much the lethal effects of gassing but rather popular fears over intoxication which led to the legal banning of chemical weapons in the aftermath of World War I. The 1925 Geneva Protocol and the more contemporary 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) both include clauses which explicitly forbid the use of chemical weaponry in warfare.

"Legal bans on the use of chemical weapons have however not prevented states and non-state actors from using such weaponry either against their own or other populations. Most of us will remember the horrors of the Halabja chemical attack (1988), the Moscow theatre hostage crisis (2002), the Tokyo subway sarin attack (1995), Israel’s use of white phosphorus (2008/ 2009) and the increasingly numerous events in which so-called ‘non-lethal’ chemical agents are used for law-enforcement purposes. The most recent example of the deployment is perhaps the 2013 Ghouta chemical attacks which cost the lives of hundreds of people.

"It is the image of gassing and the effect it has on both victims and onlookers which has a particularly shocking psychological effect. Traditionally speaking, chemical weapons are therefore not necessarily intended to kill or exclusively meant to strategically confuse the target’s sense of direction but serve rather as a broader means to psychologically frighten and demoralise him/ her. Any sign or rumour of chemical weapons strikes fear in popular imaginations.

"The alleged use of chemical weapons by ISIL should perhaps therefore come as no surprise. The organisation’s appetite for brutal theatrical violence has by experts been said to be a crucial component for its propaganda of spreading fear. The fact that the lingering gas trauma of WW I continues to haunt popular imaginations means that chemical weapons are a perfect means to induce such ‘terror’. It is precisely awareness over the fact that people historically fear gas more than other forms of violence which make chemical weapons an attractive option for ISIL. The definition of (state-led or non-state led) terrorism is, after all, not necessarily to kill but to terrorise, and what is more frightening than gas?"

For further details please contact Nicola Jones, Communications Manager, University of Warwick 07824 540863 or