If you were to read only the headlines, it’d be easy to believe that the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) has managed to do what the United States failed to over a decade ago: find Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction materials. What you’d miss, however, is the reporting beneath those headlines which explains that the chemicals and uranium that ISIS has seized aren’t just less than weapons-quality, they’re for the most part completely unusable.
Reuters reported on Wednesday that the Iraqi government had informed the United Nations that the terrorist group had seized “nuclear materials” from a university in Mosul, the city that kicked-off its string of military successes in Northern Iraq. In all, the group managed to capture around 88 pounds worth of uranium compounds, according to a letter from Iraq’s U.N. ambassador to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon. A quick search of Twitter on the story finds comments from conservatives convinced that somehow the militants of ISIS had proved that Saddam Hussein was in fact carrying out the nuclear program that the Bush administration used as the first justification for the invasion of Iraq. But it turns out that while the headline reading “Iraq tells U.N. that ‘terrorist groups’ seized nuclear materials” is quite provocative and easily used to slam the Obama administration, the reality of the reporting is much more mundane.
The capture was confirmed on Thursday in a release from the International Atomic Energy Association, which said that the nuclear watchdog is “aware of the notification from Iraq and is in contact to seek further details.” But it turns out that the “uranium compounds” seized are of little to no threat to the general population. Spokesperson Gill Tudor continued on to say that the organization believes “the material involved is low-grade and would not present a significant safety, security or nuclear proliferation risk. Nevertheless, any loss of regulatory control over nuclear and other radioactive materials is a cause for concern.”
When the IAEA says that the uranium captured is “low-grade,” they mean that the radioactive material has not been further enriched to a point that it can be used in a nuclear weapon. While lower enriched uranium can possibly used in a “dirty bomb” — a weapon where conventional explosives are used to spread radioactive material across a wide area — that doesn’t appear to be a concern in this situation either. In a follow-up story, Reuters found the same thing in speaking with Olli Heinonen, a former IAEA chief inspector. “You cannot make a nuclear explosive from this amount, but all uranium compounds are poisonous,” Heinonen told Reuters. “This material is also not ‘good’ enough for a dirty bomb.”
This is the second time in a week that reports of ISIS absconding with materials necessary for large-scale attacks with weapons of mass-destruction only to see it dismissed as mostly harmless. The Associated Press on Tuesday reported that ISIS had managed to seize a former chemical weapons depot in Northern Iraq, “where 2,500 chemical rockets filled with the deadly nerve agent sarin or their remnants were stored along with other chemical warfare agents.” Like the uranium report, this was based on a letter from Iraq’s U.N. ambassador to the Secretary-General. This report too saw supporters of the initial invasion pointing to the seizure as evidence that they were right all along. “ISIS seizes Saddam’s formerly nonexistent chemical weapons,” the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg tweet out.
Later, however, the AP updated its story to add more context and details, including comment from the U.S. government, which showed there’s actually very little chance the chemicals leftover could be used for anything resembling a weapon. Back in 1991, as the updated article points out, the United Nations issued a report from the Muthanna facility, located northwest of Baghdad, that said the rockets housed there were damaged in a bombing during the Gulf War. What chemicals remained were “of poor quality” and “would largely be degraded after years of storage under the conditions existing there.”
A later report from the Iraq Study Group — which conducted the search for WMDs after the U.S. invasion — came to the same conclusion in 2004. “Two wars, sanctions and [United Nations monitoring] reduced Iraqi’s premier production facility to a stockpile of old, damaged, and contaminated chemical munitions (sealed in bunkers), a wasteland full of destroyed chemical munitions, razed structures, and unusable war-ravaged facilities,” the report reads.
The Wall Street Journal also reported the seizure of the Muthanna base three weeks ago. In that story, which AP later updated its own story to include, State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki in a written statement said that the materials seized doesn’t include intact chemical weapons “and would be very difficult, if not impossible, to safely use this for military purposes or, frankly, to move it.” The Pentagon’s spokesperson, Rear Adm. John Kirby, echoed that sentiment more recently, telling Reuters, “We aren’t viewing this particular site and their holding it as a major issue at this point. Should they even be able to access the materials, frankly, it would likely be more of a threat to them than anyone else.”
So while the reporting in the original Reuters and AP pieces on nuclear and chemical weapons materials remain solid, the headlines haven’t changed, leading readers who only skim the articles to believe the threat is much more severe than it actually is. Though Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has labeled ISIS as an “imminent threat” to the United States, that threat won’t be coming from anything that the militants have seized in Iraq.