ISIS has acquired an unconventional weapon of mass destruction. This newly gained power is not a radiological, bacterial or chemical device, but something else entirely: control over a wall holding back many billions of gallons of the River Tigris.
Over the past week, ISIS forces defeated Kurdish peshmerga defending the strategic Mosul hydroelectric dam. The location is not only important for its power generating capacity, but also the for the behemoth it contains.
While it continues to occupy the Mosul dam, ISIS has the means to kill hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and devastate a large swathe from Mosul to Baghdad. Never before has a violent non-state organization held at bay such a destructive potential.
There is precedent for considering dam busting as a WMD. Under orders by Chiang Kai-shek Nationalist Chinese breached the levees of the Yellow River
While ISIS holds the dam, two scenarios may occur. ISIS could intentionally destroy the dam via a liberal application of explosives, or, through ISIS’s own technological ignorance, the dam itself may falter while left unattended.
The first scenario is unlikely. The chief victim of a man made deluge would be the largely Sunni city of Mosul. While ISIS is cold as Baghdad is hot, they are not irrational. They may instead hold onto this possession and wait, and only destroy the dam if ISIS is threatened with destruction.
If ISIS holds the dam long often, they may slip into the second scenario. The Mosul dam requires substantial upkeep in order to keep from collapsing. If ISIS does not manage to keep up with critical maintenance, then the dam will give way. Presently, it remains unclear if the original routine will be restored.
Through sheer neglect and ignorance, ISIS will be the authors of the massive tragedy that follows. The great irony is that the stringently Sunni Islamic State may be culpable for more deaths of their co-religionists than the despised Shia majority.