ISIS and nukes. Could it be serious?

It is first of all propaganda, but ISIS is rhetorically flirting with nuclear weapons. Does it mean anything?

Questions:

1. Even ISIS called the scenario in which they will obtain the nukes far fetched, but on the other hand ISIS looks like pretty megalomaniac organization. Do you think they may consider ways how to require WMDs?

2. Another aspect of this propaganda article is an attack on America. Could this be one of the ISIS aims for the future, means to prepare a bigger attack against the West, or ISIS is probably more interested in defending and consolidating of what it has now?

Answers:

Gilbert Ramsay, Lecturer in International Relations, Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence (CSTPV), University of St Andrews

1. Though far fetched, neither of these scenarios should be ruled out. Al Qaeda commissioned a religious ruling permitting the use of weapons of mass destruction from the Saudi cleric Nasir al-Fahd in 2003. This was reportedly in response to a genuine WMD plot of some kind that they were working on at the time. So if IS were to try to acquire a nuclear weapon and use it, that would not be unprecedented. As an aspiring state in a very hostile environment, it would also arguably be logical for them to try to acquire a nuclear weapon just as it would be for any other state in a similar situation.

2. My hunch is that IS is not very interested in attacking the West at the moment. Why? IS seems at the moment to have a consistent strategy of what might be called ‘globalising insurgency on the cheap’. It is issuing calls for small scale attacks by followers worldwide, making spurious threats, claiming responsibility for attacks it probably had nothing to do with, making videos of hostages from foreign powers, and talking up the threat it presents. This is a family of methods which serve to keep the group on the security agenda and make it look threatening without actually tipping into full scale confrontation with foreign powers.

There are two obviously possible reasons for this. One is that IS would like to carry out a major attack in a Western country, but simply can’t because all these countries are now too well prepared and too experienced at thwarting such threats that it has not so far succeeded. This is not as implausible as it might sound. Quite a lot of the low hanging fruit for mass casualty terrorist attacks in Western countries simply don’t exist any more. But I would still suggest that if a group as sophisticated and well resourced as IS really wanted to carry out a major attack it would have managed to do one by now. The second possibility is that it isn’t trying very hard, because it doesn’t actually want to escalate beyond a certain level. At the moment, IS has two logics it needs to satisfy. Ideologically, it knows that the fight against the West is much more popular amongst the global Muslim constituency than that against local antagonists. So its propaganda has to emphasise that dimension of the struggle. But it is doing so well locally that it has little strategic reason to desire a full-scale confrontation with the US, because that would almost certainly entail its destruction as a state (even though it would surely survive as an insurgent movement), and being a state rather than just an insurgent movement is what IS is all about.

The very fact that it is openly publishing articles about its nuclear intentions is evidence that it is pursuing a strategy of limited provocation. If it was really trying to obtain nuclear weapons and use them, it would likely keep quiet about the fact.

Edwin BakkerProfessor, Director Centre for Terrorism & Counter Terrorism, Leiden University

I am not sure flirting is the right term. I think ISIS realizes the impact its threat have on the rest of the world: they are taken pretty serious after their well orchestrated atrocities that they managed to show to the rest of the world using new social media technologies. They also realize that part of their strength is not only linked to foreign fighters and the weapons they managed to obtain, but also the fear they managed to spread. Against this background and in an attempt to make themselves look even bigger, more threatening and more powerful than they are, any suggestion of the possession of WMD helps to achieve this goal. There is a chance they might get their hands on chemical weapons, but nuclear weapons is a different thing. The worst case scenario is that they get their hands on radiological material to make a dirty bomb (radiological device). This is already troublesome enough though.

2. This could be one of the aims in the future, especially if the US steps up the efforts to fight them in Iraq and Syria and if the US military efforts will have a serious effect on them. I guess the leadership of ISIS is more pragmatic than they want the world to believe and that they realize an attack on US soil will mean the end of their dream of a Caliphate as it might bring in US ground troupes that will defeat them on the battlefield. However, persons inspired by ISIS might want to stage an attack on the US (possibly themselves citizens or residents of the US). This is a scenario that is most probable. This also might force the US government to take a more aggressive and pro-active stand in dealing with ISIS.

Sam Mullins, Professor of Counterterrorism, George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies

1. We must look at 3 elements to understand the risk of terrorist use of WMD: intent, opportunity and capability. Although individual ISIS members have indicated that they are interested in acquiring chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear (CBRN) weapons, the recent article in Dabiq is more likely part of their strategy of provocation aimed at goading a military intervention that might fulfill their prophecy of the End of Times. Historically, the group has experimented (and continues to do so) with chlorine in conventional improvised explosive devices and of course seized control over an old chemical weapons compound and also stole some (relatively harmless) uranium from Mosul university but that’s about the extent of their actual, known efforts to acquire these weapons. In terms of opportunity, probably the biggest threat is possible acquisition of chemical weapons in Syria. As for capability, that remains to be seen, but it takes highly technical skills to be able to store, transport and use WMD. While they might be able to operate some of these weapons with the right assistance, it is unlikely they could manufacture real WMD themselves- certainly not nuclear weapons (to put this in context, most states do not have the capability to do this).

2. A point which follows on from the first is that ISIS has not historicaly pursued mass casualty attacks outside of its territory. That’s the good news. The bad news is that they now have added motivation to do so – namely as retaliation for air strikes, to compete with al-Qaeda for dominance among jihadist groups, and again to try and provoke a military response and usher in the final battle that they believe is coming. For now, they still seem mostly preoccupied with maintaining and gaining territory in Syria and Iraq, whilst simultaneously encouraging sympathisers to conduct attacks elsewhere on their behalf. Most genuinely autonomous terrorist plots (i.e. without overseas training and ongoing organizational support) are relatively amateur though and would be unlikely to result in true mass casualties.

With all this said, the bottom line is that’s it’s impossible to predict what a group like this will do with absolute certainty and we cannot afford to take anything for granted.

Ahmed Salah Hashim, Associate Professor of Strategic Studies, Deputy Coordinator in the Military Studies Programme, The S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University

1. The WMD issue is nonsense, but they may acquire chemicals and use those and we need to be prepared for that eventuality.

2. Attacking America is not on their current agenda as they want to build a solid local structure. A major stack will lead to hell raining down on them like after 9/11 with Al Qaida and they want to survive.

Their motto is baqiya wa tatamaddad – remaining and expanding.

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