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
July 29, 2014 -- Updated 1650 GMT (0050 HKT)
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1251 GMT (2051 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1852 GMT (0252 HKT)
Margaret Hoover says some GOP legislators support a state's right to allow same-sex marriage and the right of churches, synagogues and mosques not to perform the sacrament
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1850 GMT (0250 HKT)
Priya Satia says today's drones for bombardment and surveillance have their roots in the deadly history of Western aerial control of the Middle East that began in World War One
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1635 GMT (0035 HKT)
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1555 GMT (2355 HKT)
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
July 27, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 2225 GMT (0625 HKT)
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1510 GMT (2310 HKT)
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1533 GMT (2333 HKT)
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1245 GMT (2045 HKT)
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1850 GMT (0250 HKT)
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1349 GMT (2149 HKT)
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 2205 GMT (0605 HKT)
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1142 GMT (1942 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1637 GMT (0037 HKT)
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1408 GMT (2208 HKT)
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT