Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Al Qaeda's track record with chemical weapons

By Peter Bergen, CNN National Security Analyst
May 7, 2013 -- Updated 0941 GMT (1741 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Official on U.N. commission says Syrian rebel group may have used nerve agent
  • Peter Bergen: It would not be first time al Qaeda-affiliated group used chemical weapons
  • Obama administration raises doubts that rebels used chemical weapons
  • Bergen: Issue of who may have used them in Syria is key to U.S. response

Editor's note: Peter Bergen is CNN's national security analyst, a director at the New America Foundation and the author of "Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for bin Laden -- From 9/11 to Abbottabad," the basis for the HBO documentary "Manhunt" that will be shown on CNN on May 10.

(CNN) -- On Monday, a U.N. official said that Syrian rebels had likely used the nerve agent sarin.

Carla Del Ponte, the veteran war crimes prosecutor and a commissioner of the U.N. Independent International Commission of Inquiry for Syria, made this claim on a Swiss-Italian TV station.

Del Ponte explained, "Our investigators have been in neighboring countries interviewing victims, doctors and field hospitals and, according to their report of last week which I have seen, there are strong, concrete suspicions but not yet incontrovertible proof of the use of sarin gas, from the way the victims were treated."

Peter Bergen
Peter Bergen

Del Ponte added, "This was used on the part of the opposition, the rebels, not by the government authorities."

The U.N. commission later pedaled back from Del Ponte's statement, saying that it "has not reached conclusive findings as to the use of chemical weapons in Syria by any parties to the conflict."

The context here, of course, is that President Barack Obama is under pressure to act in Syria because of his tough statement in August that the use of chemical or biological weapons in the Syrian conflict would cross a "red line."

In the past few weeks, there have been multiple reports that Bashar al-Assad's regime has deployed chemical weapons. (And after Del Ponte's remarks were reported, a U.S. State Department official told CNN that the United States does not have information suggesting that rebels have "either the capability or the intent to deploy or use such weapons." But, the source said, the "facts are not complete" and efforts to obtain more information are ongoing.)

Explosions rock Damascus
Israel won't confirm, deny Syria attack
Is U.S. in a quandary about Syria?
Israel bolsters defense near Syria

But Del Ponte's statement that the opposition is likely using chemical weapons raises an important issue: How plausible is the use of such weapons by any of the many armed factions that are fighting al-Assad's regime?

The most effective Syrian opposition group is widely considered to be al-Nusra Front. The U.S. State Department says that al-Nusra Front is simply a cover name for al Qaeda in Iraq, which has long operated in Iraq and neighboring Syria.

It is a worrisome fact that al Qaeda in Iraq is the only al Qaeda franchise ever to have actually used chemical weapons.

Al Qaeda in Iraq detonated a series of crude chlorine bombs in Iraq from late 2006 through mid-2007.

A study by the New America Foundation found a total of 16 chlorine gas bombings in Iraq, the last of which was in June 2007.

On October 21, 2006, al Qaeda in Iraq launched this campaign of chlorine bomb attacks by detonating a car loaded with mortars and chlorine tanks in Ramadi, wounding three Iraqi police officers and a civilian.

Such attacks sickened many hundreds of Iraqis, but the victims who died in these assaults did so from the blast of the bombs rather than from inhaling chlorine.

U.S. and Iraqi troops successfully killed or captured many of the people in al Qaeda in Iraq who were building the chlorine-laced bombs and captured much of the group's stockpiled chlorine.

Charles Faddis, who headed the CIA's operations against al Qaeda in Iraq's chlorine bomb network, told me in 2010: "There was a lot of effort to secure the chlorine, to get a hold of the tanks, to track these guys down (who were responsible for building the chlorine bombs), to kill them or capture them. Meanwhile, the attacks are not being particularly successful. The people are dying in the blast, but fortunately nobody is dying from chlorine."

There is no evidence that al Qaeda in Iraq stopped its campaign of chlorine bombing because of any qualms about the use of such weapons.

Chlorine gas was used by both sides during World War I but was banned by the Geneva Protocol, along with the use of other poison gases, after the end of the war.

The use of such weapons has been a matter of some debate within the leadership of al Qaeda.

In documents found by the U.S. Navy SEALs who raided Osama bin Laden's compound two years ago in Abbottabad, Pakistan, there was a letter written by bin Laden five days before he was killed in which he urged his followers in Yemen who were considering using "poison" to be "careful of doing it without enough study of all aspects, including political and media reaction."

As we consider the conflicting reports of the use of chemical weapons that have emerged from Syria over the past weeks, it is worth recalling that the al Qaeda affiliate in Syria has in the past used crude chemical weapons on multiple occasions in neighboring Iraq.

Also al Qaeda's leaders such as bin Laden have pushed back on the use of such weapons only insofar as their use might damage the image of al Qaeda in the eyes of the Muslim public, not because of international norms that the use of these weapons is beyond the pale.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1626 GMT (0026 HKT)
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2335 GMT (0735 HKT)
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1126 GMT (1926 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2053 GMT (0453 HKT)
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1919 GMT (0319 HKT)
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1558 GMT (2358 HKT)
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1950 GMT (0350 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2052 GMT (0452 HKT)
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1629 GMT (0029 HKT)
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2104 GMT (0504 HKT)
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2145 GMT (0545 HKT)
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1231 GMT (2031 HKT)
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
August 24, 2014 -- Updated 0105 GMT (0905 HKT)
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2247 GMT (0647 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1450 GMT (2250 HKT)
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1103 GMT (1903 HKT)
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1200 GMT (2000 HKT)
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT