Imint and Iraqi Weapons of Mass Destruction Programs

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IMINT and Iraqi Weapons of Mass Destruction Programs

Iraq’s history with weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) and the struggle of UN inspectors to compile accurate data on Iraqi programs for constructing weapons of mass destruction make it a difficult task to analyze the data we have received. Considering Iraq’s past use of WMDs during the Iran-Iraq war, the idea that Iraq desires to resume their WMD programs and put them to use may seem more likely.1 In addition, the discrepancies found by UN inspectors between what was found during their inspections and what was declared by the Iraqi government do not instill faith in Iraqi disarmament.2 This causes suspicions to arise that Iraq is trying to cover-up its restored weapons programs.

IMINT has been a very useful tool in the past for assessing an enemy’s capabilities. Images can give us a very good idea of the manufacturing resources being devoted by the Iraqi government to certain key industries involved in the production of WMDs. The inherent objectivity and reliability of images (assuming they are not doctored) is the discipline’s biggest asset. The burden then falls to those analyzing the photos to make the correct interpretation of the items photographed. While images can give us a good picture of increased Iraqi activity in certain sectors, they cannot tell us the intentions of the Iraqis.

The dual-purpose of many of the items and sites photographed in Iraq make the results of IMINT ambiguous at best. Of course, IMINT is not the sole intelligence gathering discipline, and when used with the other disciplines it can paint a much more accurate picture. However, in the case of Iraq, the information gathered by IMINT only hints at the possibility of a renewed Iraqi weapons program and does not give a definitive answer.

Aerial photography from U-2s and satellite imagery have allowed us to easily survey the Iraqi landscape and monitor their construction projects. This has been an important way for us to determine whether or not the production of WMDs has continued since the UN sanctions and supposed Iraqi disarmament that followed the end of the Gulf War in 1991. By monitoring the development of infrastructure necessary to construct the components for chemical weapons (CW), biological weapons (BW), nuclear weapons, and missiles, we are able to deduce the rate of development of Iraqi capability in each field.

In the case of CW, the best example is the Fallujah II facility that predates the Gulf War. Before the Gulf War, this facility was one of Iraq’s principal facilities for the production of CW components. Located here are chlorine and phenol production plants which are key ingredients in the synthesis of chemicals used for blister and nerve agents such as mustard gas. Since 2000, this site has been upgraded to increase production of chlorine. New chemical reactor vessels and shipping containers with large amounts of production equipment have been delivered to the facility (see figures 1, 2, & 3).3

Increased production of chlorine does not tell us for certain that Iraq is seeking to reinvigorate their CW program. Chlorine is a dual-purpose chemical: it can be used for water purification for civilians as well as its more sinister use as an ingredient in mustard gas.4 It is impossible to tell from images alone whether or not the chlorine being produced in this plant and others like it is intended for use in CW. Prior history and Iraqi reluctance to cooperate with UN inspectors would suggest that at least some of the produced chlorine is intended for a CW program. The important information to take from these images, though, is that Iraq possesses the capability needed to restart its CW program, even if it has not already done so.

Aerial surveillance has also shown an increase in BW capabilities. In a similar manner to the expansion seen in the chemical infrastructure, Iraq has recently begun to expand its potential BW infrastructure. Recent expansion of both the al-Dawrah Foot-and-Mouth Disease Vaccine Facility and the Amiriyah Serum and Vaccine Institute raises concerns about increased BW capabilities since both facilities possess the means for BW production. Iraq has also rebuilt the Fallujah III facility, responsible for castor oil extraction, after many of its major building were destroyed after Operation Desert Fox (see figures 4, 5, & 6).5

All of these facilities have legitimate uses and were operated under the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM) scrutiny until the weapons inspectors left in 1998. Both vaccine facilities are meant to improve civilian health and the Fallujah III plant produces the castor oil needed for brake fluid. But just like with the chemical infrastructure, it is impossible to determine intentions from these images. These buildings can just as easily be used to produce the bacteria used in anthrax or the ricin toxin that resides in castor bean pulp. Again, it is the potential capability that these images show.6

The imagery information on Iraq’s nuclear capabilities is even more ambiguous. On the one hand, photographs show that Iraq did not attempt to rebuild destroyed yellowcake uranium production facilities. The Al-Qaim uranium extraction facility was destroyed during the Gulf War and was never rebuilt (see figure 7).7 This severely diminished Iraq’s capabilities to produce weapons grade uranium on its own and means that Iraq would most likely have to look to an outside source for its fissile material. On the other hand, the Iraqi nuclear program saw some revitalization during this time.

The Nassr Engineering Establishment Manufacturing Facility was used to produce centrifuges and components for electromagnetic isotope separation before the Gulf War. The facility was destroyed during Operation Desert Fox, but satellite imagery shows that the facility has since been rebuilt (see figure 9).8 Construction that was suspended in 1991 at the Al Furat Manufacturing Facility was completed in 2002 (see figure 8). This facility was originally intended to support the Iraqi nuclear program by housing a uranium enrichment operation.9

These images show us that while Iraq may have abandoned their immediate desire for nuclear weapons they have not given up their overall nuclear ambitions. By not rebuilding their former yellowcake production capabilities, they place their dreams of nuclear weapons at the mercy of foreign nations with access to weapons grade uranium. However, they do not cease the expansion of their nuclear infrastructure. The major barrier to Iraq’s procurement of a nuclear warhead then becomes its access to fissile materials since it possesses the capability to construct the bomb itself.

Unlike with the chemical, biological, and nuclear programs, Iraq was not forced to discontinue its missile program. It could only, however, build missiles with a maximum range of 150km.10 During the course of the Gulf War, much of the Iraqi missile infrastructure was destroyed. These old facilities have only recently been restored (since the end of UNSCOM in 1998) and this reconstruction raises concerns about the Iraqi missile program. Structures at the Al-Mamoun facility, for example, have been reconstructed along with new production buildings (see figure 10). The size of these restored and new structures lends itself very well to the production and storage of the solid propellant for the large Badr-2000 missile (which exceeds the UN’s limit for missile range). A similar story can be told at the Al-Mutasim Test Facility. 11

The images of these facilities suggest that Iraq intends on violating the missile restriction placed on it by the UN but do not confirm it. It is reasonable to conclude that the expansion of Iraqi missile capability is a sign of renewed interest in missile technology and perhaps even an indication of production. In any case it shows that Iraq possesses the capability to produce a long range missile, which could be combined with a warhead from the chemical, biological, or nuclear programs for devastating effects.

IMINT, while not providing all of the answers, has given us a very strong idea of Iraqi capabilities: Iraq produces enough chlorine and other chemicals to easily begin CW production; its biological infrastructure could be co-opted into the creation of BW agents and cultures; the expansion of Iraqi missile facilities has enabled them to construct missiles with range greater than that allowed by UN restrictions; and the Iraqi nuclear infrastructure is such that if they were to receive fissile material from an outside source it would not be difficult for them to construct a working bomb.

The problem with IMINT is that it does not tell us anything tangible about the intentions of Iraq. This discipline has told us that it is possible for Iraq to construct a WMD, but it has not told us the likelihood. One could argue that the expansion found in every field points to an interest in producing a weapon, but the dual purpose of the technologies makes it impossible to defend this argument with pictures alone. It requires the information gathered from the other disciplines (especially HUMINT and SIGINT) along with a strong understanding of historical Iraqi behavior to determine how likely it is that Iraq possesses WMDs.

Given Iraq’s suspicious lack of cooperation and accurate record keeping with UNSCOM it is very tempting to say that this build up of capability points to WMD production. However, it is still too ambiguous to say definitely one way or the other. Does Iraq really want to risk another war? Are they really lying about the civilian applications? American policy is moving very quickly towards military engagement, but it would be wise to allow more time for intelligence collection and analysis. It would also give more time to the UN inspectors who may be able to illuminate the situation and resolve it without armed conflict.


  • “DCI Special Advisor Report on Iraq's WMD: Iraq’s Chemical Warfare Program”; 30 September 2004;

  • “Blix: Iraq can’t account for deadly gas, germs”; January 27, 2003;

  • “Iraq’s Weapons of Mass Destruction Programs”; National Intelligence Estimate; DCI; October 2002;

  • “High-Threat Chemical Agents: Characteristics, Effects, and Policy Implications”; CRS report for Congress; Dana A. Shea; 2003;

  • “Weapons of Mass Destruction: Fallujah II / Habbaniyah II”;

  • “Weapons of Mass Destruction: Fallujah III/ Habbaniyah I”;

  • “Iraq – Newly Declassified Intelligence Photos”;

  • “Report on the US Intelligence Community’s Prewar Intelligence Assessments on Iraq”; The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence; July 7, 2004; 108th Congress;

1 “DCI Special Advisor Report on Iraq's WMD: Iraq’s Chemical Warfare Program”; 30 September 2004;

2 “Blix: Iraq can’t account for deadly gas, germs”; January 27, 2003;

3 “Iraq’s Weapons of Mass Destruction Programs”; National Intelligence Estimate; DCI; October 2002;

4 “High-Threat Chemical Agents: Characteristics, Effects, and Policy Implications”; CRS report for Congress; Dana A. Shea; 2003;

5 “Iraq’s Weapons of Mass Destruction Programs”; National Intelligence Estimate; DCI; October 2002;

6 Ibid

7 “DCI Special Advisor Report on Iraq's WMD: Nuclear”; 30 September 2004; figure 2;

8 “Iraq – Newly Declassified Intelligence Photos”;

9 Ibid

10 “Iraq’s Weapons of Mass Destruction Programs”; National Intelligence Estimate; DCI; October 2002;

11 Ibid

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