This week, the Pentagon confirmed a previous account by defense officials indicating that Islamic State militants recently used chemical weapons against US troops based at the Qayyarah Airfield, a key location in the upcoming offensive to retake Mosul from ISIS. The weapon in question, a rocket shell that landed “within the security perimeter” of the airfield, was confirmed to contain a mustard agent after testing by US troops. Despite the attack’s proximity to US military personnel, no one was injured in the attack, nor was anyone exposed to the chemical agent afterwards.
While the Islamic State has used chemical weapons against combatants in Syria, specifically against the Kurdish Peshmerga, this is the first time chemical weapons have been used by ISIS against the United States, and the first time mustard gas has been used against the US since World War I. However, according to a recent statement by Colonel Hamish de Bretton Gordon, a former commanding officer of the UK Chemical Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Regiment who is assisting in the training of Kurdish Peshmerga forces, ISIS is gearing up for a potential widespread chemical attack near Mosul.
de Bretton Gordon said in statement Thursday that, according to recent intelligence, ISIS may intend to explode a chemical plant situated between the Qayyarah airbase and the city of Mosul, the fallout of which would affect US and Iraqi forces, in addition to civilian populations within a ”radius of 6-10 miles.” The chemical plant, thought to contain “thousands of tons of sulfur and hydrogen sulfide,” could contribute to an enormous environmental disaster; a fire at the plant in 2003 released enough sulfur dioxide into the air to hospitalize hundreds of Iraqis with breathing problems, in addition to destroying all surrounding vegetation for miles.
If the Islamic State seeks to implement chemical weapons indiscriminately against civilians, as it has in the past according to the United Nations, it constitutes another war crime perpetuated by the organization at the behest of the Iraqi people, and violates the Geneva Gas Protocol as well as the Statute of the International Criminal Court. While Iraq is not party to the ICC and by default outside of its jurisdiction, a resolution by the U.N. Security Council could prompt an investigation by the ICC and lead to prosecution for those accountable within the Islamic State leadership. Additionally, it is possible for the Security Council to establish an ad hoc criminal tribunal following the end of the Islamic State similar to the tribunal created following the Rwandan Genocide.
Additionally, in a more likely scenario, foreign fighters who have left their country of origin to fight for ISIS are subject to trial by the Court if their home country is presently a member of the ICC. Therefore, the majority of European-born ISIS fighters could be tried without a resolution of the P5, as most of these countries are ICC members.
These represent a few approaches through which some measure of justice can be attained on behalf of Iraqi citizens, whose lives have been uprooted and forever changed by the presence of the Islamic State.
By Connor McInerney