Iraq/Islamic State/Syria

ISIS forced Iraqi scientist to make chemical weapons for terrorist group

Leaders from the radical Islamic State forced a captured Iraqi scientist to churn out chemical weapons for the organization, the Washington Post reported Tuesday.

In 2014 after the city of Mosul fell to ISIS, geologist Suleiman al-Afari with Iraq’s Ministry of Industry and Minerals, then 49, said he was hoping merely to just keep his job and, no doubt, his life, as IS fighters went from one government bureaucracy to the next rounding up Iraqi officials.

But as it turned out, ISIS leaders actually offered him a new job: Making chemical weapons for the Islamic State.

Though he knew little about such compounds, Afari nevertheless spent the next 15 months supervising the manufacture of lethal toxins for the world’s most dangerous terrorist organization at the time.

“Do I regret it? I don’t know if I’d use that word,” Afari told the Post.

Captured by U.S. and Kurdish soldiers in 2016, he now sites in a prison in Irbil, the capital of Iraq’s semiautonomous Kurdish region.

“They had become the government and we now worked for them,” he said. “We wanted to work so we could get paid.”

The Post noted further:

Afari, who is 52 now and on death row, recounted his recruitment and life under the Islamic State in a rare interview inside the fortresslike headquarters of the Kurdistan Regional Government’s Counterterrorism Department. An affable, neatly groomed man, Afari is among the few known participants in the Islamic State’s chemical weapons program to be captured alive.

He described in matter-of-fact detail the terrorist group’s successful attempts to make sulfur mustard — a first-generation chemical weapon that inflicted tens of thousands of casualties during World War I — as part of an ambitious, little-understood effort to create novel weapons and delivery systems to defend the Islamic State’s territory and terrorize its opponents. His account was confirmed and augmented by U.S. and Kurdish officials who participated in missions to destroy the Islamic State’s weapons plants and to kill or capture its senior leaders.

Afari’s activities seem to verify earlier reports that ISIS was in fact involved in the making of internationally banned chemical weapons as a means of increasing the organization’s strength against enemies with greater firepower.

The program Afari supervised appears to have stalled out early in 2015, the Post noted, after Iraqi and U.S. leaders launched “aggressive” operations to locate and destroy facilities used to produce lethal chemicals and kill or capture leaders.

But the threat hasn’t disappeared entirely. ISIS leaders are believed to have moved equipment and, perhaps, lethal chemicals from Iraq to Syria in 2016, according to Iraqi officials. Some of it is either been buried or hidden, they add.

Progress on the program appears to have stalled in early 2016, after U.S. and Iraqi leaders launched an aggressive campaign to destroy production facilities and kill or capture its leaders. Yet, the threat has not been entirely erased. Islamic State leaders moved equipment and perhaps chemicals from Iraq to Syria in 2016, Iraqi officials say, and some of it may have been buried or hidden.

In 2017 the Combatting Terrorism Center at West Point published a report documenting the rise of the Islamic State’s chemical weapons program.

Titled, “The Evolution of the Islamic State’s Chemical Weapons Efforts,” the authors noted:

The Islamic State is the first non-state actor to have developed a banned chemical warfare agent and combined it with a projectile delivery system. However, it appears to have been forced to abandon its chemical weapons production after the loss of Mosul in June 2017. The absence of chemical attacks outside of Mosul after the city became cut-off from the rest of the ‘caliphate’ earlier this year indicates that the group has not established alternative production facilities. But U.S. intelligence believes that a new chemical weapons cell has been set up in the Euphrates River Valley.

In late July 2015, ISIS fighters fired a number of mortar shells at Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) positions near the city of Hasakah in northeastern Syria.

Following the attack, a statement released by the YPG described how the explosions released “a yellow gas with a strong smell of onions,” and that “the ground immediately around the impact sites was stained with an olive-green liquid that turned to a golden yellow after exposure to sunshine.”

Troops who were exposed to the substance then suffered symptoms of nausea and burning sensations. Later, U.S. officials confirmed through samples taken at the site of the attack that a small amount of mustard agent, in low concentration, was used.

“This was not the first time the Islamic State or one of its predecessors had used chemicals as a weapon, but never before had a non-state actor developed the capability to combine production of a banned chemical warfare agent with a projectile delivery system,” the West Point report noted.

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