Graphic images and witness accounts have led to claims that the ISIS terror group has gained access to chemical weapons and is using them against Kurdish fighters in Syria and government forces in Iraq.
But where the militants might have obtained the weapons and, given the recent beheading of Western captives, how use of the weapons might change the calculus of the fight remains unknown.
Secretary of State John Kerry said the reports were under investigation and that that "the use of any chemical weapon is an abhorrent act," adding: "It will not change our strategy ... it can obviously affect tactical decisions within that strategy."
Allegations surfaced last week, when Kurdish fighters engaged in a long-running battle to save the Syrian town of Kobani, along the Turkish border, reportedly came under chemical attack, activists and witnesses said. About 20 people suffered "breathing problems, bleeding from the eyes, skin burns and vomiting," following an explosion in the town on the evening of Tuesday Oct. 21, local Kurdish official Idris Nassan told NBC News. "It appears that there was possibly a poisonous attack of some sort, maybe phosphorus or something."
He said samples from patients treated at the first aid station would be sent to Turkey for analysis. "We are conducting an investigation and we will announce the results when we find out what happened,” he said.
His account was echoed by a doctor in Kobani, Walat Omar, who told The Guardian that patients with “abnormal symptoms” had turned up at a clinic following the blast. “Some had red patches and blisters on their skins, others had difficulties breathing and others were vomiting, with painful throats, and others with burning eyes and noses,” he told the newspaper.
Activists shared pictures of the wounds on social media, but none of the images could be verified by NBC News.
It followed earlier claims that a chemical agent was used on July 12 in the village of Avdiko, in eastern Kobani – an area now in the hands of ISIS. Nisan Ahmed, health minister of the local Kurdish authority, told the Middle East Review of International Affairs that bodies of three Kurdish fighters showed “burns and white spots” but no signs of damage from bullets. It published graphic photographs of the dead fighters and their injuries, concluding that “the evidence appears to support the contention that on at least one occasion, Islamic State forces did employ some form of chemical agent.”
ISIS has used chlorine cylinders against Iraqi soldiers at least twice, according to a senior brigadier-general in Baghdad. One attack on Sept. 29 in Duluaya affected only a small number of soldiers but another, in Saqlawyah on Sept. 21, was more severe and caused breathing difficulties. "They were not able to defend themselves, and that was one of the reasons behind the loss of Saqlawyah [to ISIS]," the brigadier-general said.
In another incident on Sept. 15, eleven Iraqi police were taken to a government hospital 50 miles north of Baghdad suffering from symptoms consistent with poisoning by chlorine gas, The Washington Post reported.
Neither the United States nor any other official independent agency has been able to verify the use of chemicals by ISIS in combat.
And the Netherlands-based Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which oversaw the handover of poison gas by President Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria last year, is not formally investigating the Iraq attacks because the government in Baghdad has not made a formal complaint. "We can't act," said spokesman Michael Luhan, adding that the OPCW was nonetheless monitoring the allegations and publicly-shared evidence as a matter of interest.
Germany has raised the issue with the United Nations, saying the reports alone are enough to warrant action. "We have no own findings if poison gas was used but there are credible indications that at least remnants of chemical weapons could have fallen into the hands of ISIS," a German government spokeswoman told reporters on Friday, adding that Frank-Walter Steinmeier had telephoned U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon to seek a role for the Security Council in the issue.
In June, ISIS seized control of the redundant Muthanna chemical weapons production complex, about 50 miles northwest of Baghdad. It was once used to make the sort of weapons that Saddam Hussein used against the Kurds in the 1980s. However, the site was sealed off by international weapons inspectors two decades ago. "We remain concerned about the seizure of any military site by [ISIS]," State Department spokeswoman Jen Pskai said in June, adding: "We do not believe that the complex contains [chemical weapons] materials of military value and it would be very difficult, if not impossible, to safely move the materials."
Experts say there is little evidence that ISIS is using anything stronger than chlorine — a chemical only prohibited when used as a weapon. Chlorine was not among the chemical stockpiles handed over to U.N. inspectors by the Assad regime last year.
"There’s no ban on chlorine," said Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, a former commander of the British military’s specialist chemical weapons unit. "In fact, I think of the juxtaposition of the way chlorine is being used to harm people in Iraq and Syria with the way it is being used to save lives from the spread of Ebola in Africa. It is not particularly effective at all as a weapon and would not have the same effect as, for example, the sarin used in Ghouta in Syria in 2013."
That view was echoed by Marcus Weisgerber, a reporter for global military magazine Defense One, who said the use of crude explosive devices featuring chlorine "should be taken seriously and is concerning" but added: "They don’t seem to be using military-grade nerve agent like ricin for these recent attacks, based on what evidence is available."
The use of chemical weapons was declared by President Barack Obama to be "red line" in the question of whether the world should act against the Assad regime — a stance that ended ignominiously when the White House backed away from air strikes on Syria despite U.N. confirmation of the use of sarin at Ghouta. The subsequent rise of ISIS, a new enemy of the West operating as a terrorist organization outside the conventional codes of warfare, puts the threat posed by chemical weapons into a new perspective. "Chlorine is just another tool in their toolkit," said Weisgerber. "We know they have picked up military hardware from retreating Iraqi forces."
While reports of chemical attacks are rare in Iraq, their use continues in Syria's civil war. Last month the OPCW concluded that chlorine gas was being used "systematically and repeatedly" as a weapon in villages in northern Syria earlier this year. It did not say who had used the weapons.
De Bretton-Gordon said the threat of chemical attack was being used to generate fear in Syria. "I was in Syria recently and doctors there are very concerned about the potential effects of chlorine gas even though they live with barrel bombs and explosions every day," he said. "They say 'we can hide from bombs and bullets but we cannot hide from gas.' In many ways that is irrational when you consider the low likelihood of dying from chlorine gas. You can avoid it by getting onto higher ground. Chemical weapons create terror and panic. We've already seen with recent beheadings that ISIS is an organization with no boundaries, so we should not be shocked or surprised."
He added that chlorine attacks might become more common if U.S.-led air strikes force ISIS into retreat. "We’ll see a lot more of this from ISIS if they start to get defeated," he said. "It’s a last-ditch tactic. Assad’s attack on Ghouta was a last-ditch move by the regime which had been unsuccessful against rebels for many months."
Ben Plesser and Carlo Angerer of NBC News contributed to this report.