Blog Post - Nuclear Security Matters

How much of a nuclear, chemical, or biological threat might ISIS pose? (Part II)

  • Nate Sans
| Sep. 18, 2014

Good sense demands that policy makers not discount the possibility that ISIS might pursue unconventional weapons, given the vast resources of money and weapons ISIS has amassed during its rampage across Syria and Iraq.

Monetary Resources

In June 2014 TheGuardian quoted “a senior intelligence official” who claimed that before ISIS took over the key city of Mosul, the group’s assets were about $875 million. After Mosul, with the assets they gained from robbing banks and looting military supplies, “they could add another $1.5bn to that.”

This ~$2 billion figure, which values the combined military assets and cash of the organization, is likely a high estimate. A more commonly-reported narrative claims that, after the seizure of Mosul, ISIS looted $430 million from the central bank, putting the organizations monetary assets in the neighborhood of $600 million. NBC News, however, disputed that figure, claiming that their “senior intelligence official” confirmed that the group had likely seized funds amounting to millions of dollars, but not hundreds of millions. The official in the NBC report did agree that ISIS relies on criminal activity, such as kidnapping for ransom and smuggling, for much of its funding, which, the official estimated, provides the group with “…several million dollars a month.”

Multiplesources have also reported that ISIS is gaining considerable wealth from oil sales. These sources of funding, which are more commonly considered sources of revenue for a state than for a terrorist organization, will make it difficult for opponents of ISIS to attack its funding. Western countries used to be able to target the individuals or groups funding terrorist organizations, but it is much more difficult, if not impossible, to crack down on this kind of localized funding, be it functional “taxes” paid by the populace to ISIS, or sale of oil from seized oil facilities.

These funds could be applied to the purchase of CBRN weapons, precursor technologies, or the services of unscrupulous scientists who could build same for ISIS. If, for some reason, ISIS was uninterested in buying CBRN technology, it could use these funds to mount an operation aimed at seizing CBRN, or attacking a sensitive site such as a nuclear plant. Such an approach would leverage ISIS’s operational and tactical sophistication, and possibly its advanced equipment seized from the Iraqi security forces.

Sophisticated weaponry         

ISIS now possesses sophisticated weaponry which could be used to assault a nuclear facility  outside of Iraq or Syria (though there are no facilities in either Iraq or Syria with more than a kilogram of HEU or plutonium).  Pictures posted by ISIS members to Twitter show ISIS militants riding in and using U.S.-origin military equipment that ISIS militants seized after its abandonment by Iraqi security forces. A parade of captured equipment in Mosul showed ISIS militants with Iraqi military Humvees, an armored vehicle, and artillery pieces.

As early as April 2014, ISIS militants were using titanium-coated, armor-piercing ammunition to immobilize Iraqi Humvees (which were provided by the United States) and using wire-guided anti-tank missiles to repel Iraqi T-62 tanks. The explosively-formed projectile (EFP), a devastating anti-armor improvised explosive device, also came into its own through its extensive use in Iraq, occasionally by al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) fighters.

It is unclear that improved capability gained through seized equipment will remain resilient; ISIS may or may not possess the loyal militants with the technical ability to keep sophisticated equipment running for an extended period of time in austere desert campaigning conditions. It is possible that ISIS relies on Ba’athist allies with extensive military experience to provide such support; a division between ISIS and such allies could result in an erosion of ISIS military capability as Ba’athists might refrain from servicing ISIS equipment. However, given its vast monetary resources, ISIS could likely purchase expertise or equipment that it required to the extent that the black market could provide the desired services or equipment.

ISIS may have the monetary means and the necessary equipment to organize and carry out a sophisticated attack in another country; therefore there is a real danger that they might be able to seize CBRN materials or tech, or inflict catastrophic damage to a facility such as a nuclear power plant.  It is worth noting that ISIS includes hundreds of fighters from Europe and North America, who can travel in Europe and the United States without needing a visa.

Moreover, with 2010 and 2011 seizures of stolen HEU suggesting that there is still weapons-usable nuclear material in the hands of smugglers, outside the control of any government, and the amount of money ISIS has available, there is a real chance ISIS might be able to purchase stolen nuclear material.

Planning ability, tactical sophistication

Even more troubling than ISIS’s impressive equipment is its demonstrated ability to use this gear in pursuit of its objectives; ISIS has demonstrated unique operational and tactical sophistication that could be useful in attacking an unconventional target in pursuit of CBRN weapons.

Jessica Lewis of the Institute for the Study of War cites ISIS thrusts from the north and west as evidence that “…ISIS can attack across multiple commands and multiple fronts simultaneously, while holding further positions in Fallujah and Ramadi.” This operational sophistication, i.e. the ability to conduct operations along multiple fronts in Iraq (in addition to maintaining ground or even advancing in Syria) suggests that ISIS is capable of planning well and making sophisticated plans at the operational level.

 On the tactical level, Lewis writes that ISIS possesses indirect fire capability from captured artillery pieces, in addition to the ability to threaten aircraft from the ground. One official has even claimed that ISIS is using tactics, techniques and procedures similar to those employed by Western special operations forces. The safe space of its conquered territory facilitates this operational sophistication; ISIS operational planners can concoct schemes in relative safety from territory over which ISIS enjoys control.

The safe haven problem

ISIS has created a safe space for itself by seizing territory straddling the Iraq-Syria border. History shows that a governed safe-haven is of immense value to terrorist groups; from the so-called Caliphate, ISIS operatives could plan operations and also exercise control over subordinates and allocate resources more efficiently and safely.

 During the late 1990s and in 2000, al Qaeda leveraged the safe space facilitated by the Taliban in Afghanistan to advance its nuclear ambitions. By accepting a partition of Iraq, or even tacitly allowing ISIS to maintain uncontested territorial control of space in Syria and Iraq, the international community risks providing the same opportunity to ISIS.

A de-facto ISIS state would be a perfect place to plan and practice an attack against a nuclear facility. The breathing room afforded by a safe space may even encourage ISIS leaders to broaden their aperture, and consider pursuit of CRBN weapons or a nuclear facility as a target. While their commanders plan these attacks, ISIS foot soldiers, battle hardened from fighting in Syria and Iraq, could train in relative safety before carrying out these attacks. ISIS fighters are clearly happy to flock to wherever there is conflict, and smuggling their sophisticated weaponry seized from Iraqi security forces to the site of an attack would not be very difficult.


ISIS is well-positioned to pursue a CBRN weapon or an attack against a nuclear facility. The clear capacity for ISIS to achieve such a goal is unambiguous; the group enjoys sophisticated equipment, a high degree of operational sophistication and skill at planning, and a safe haven from which it can plan an operation in pursuit of CBRN or against a nuclear facility. The only question remaining is whether or not they will decide to pursue these goals. This possibility underscores the need to secure vulnerable CBRN technology (especially nuclear material and facilities) without delay.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Sans, Nate.How much of a nuclear, chemical, or biological threat might ISIS pose? (Part II).” Nuclear Security Matters, September 18, 2014,

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