WASHINGTON DC (Kurdistan 24) – The Islamic State successfully produced the chemical agent, sulfur mustard, and used it in fighting the Peshmerga and others, The Washington Post reported on Monday.
The Post obtained details of the program in Erbil from officials of the Kurdistan Region’s Counterterrorism Department, as well as from an Iraqi prisoner there, Suleiman al-Afari, who participated in the terrorist group’s chemical weapons program.
A geologist in Mosul with the Ministry of Industry and Minerals, Afari was recruited by the Islamic State soon after the terrorist group seized the city in the summer of 2014. He was then teamed with other scientists, including “at least one technician” who worked on Saddam Hussein’s weapons programs.
Afari headed the acquisitions unit of the Ministry of Industry’s metallurgical division, and the Islamic State tasked him with organizing “a supply chain for mustard gas,” the Post explained. Eventually, he outfitted “a small cluster of labs and workshops that stretched from Mosul University to the suburbs.”
Afari said he had “no choice,” and the chemical weapons he helped produce aimed more at “creating horror” than inflicting casualties. The attacks, he claimed, were meant to create fear, based on memories of Saddam’s chemical assaults on the Kurds, most notoriously at Halabja.
Afari’s claims, however, may well have been meant to downplay the seriousness of his own work.
The Islamic State’s first use of sulfur mustard occurred on August 11, 2015, when it fired about 50 mortar rounds at a village south of Erbil under Peshmerga control. Almost immediately, some 40 Kurdish fighters became sick, with burning eyes and lungs, and painful blisters on their bodies.
At the time, the Peshmerga were poorly equipped to confront chemical agents. One element of the support given by the US-led coalition to Peshmerga at Erbil’s Kurdistan Training Coordination Center involves providing the equipment and training to face a chemical attack, as Col. Christian von Blumroder, Commander of German Forces Capacity Building in Iraq and the Kurdistan Region, recently explained to Kurdistan 24.
The Islamic State’s initial mustard attack was followed by many others: “within months, chlorine and sulfur mustard were being hurtled at peshmerga troops on canisters, grenades, mortar shells and even artillery rockets,” the Post reported.
The attacks included a chemical assault on Taza, a Turkmen Shia town, south of Kirkuk, in March 2016. Last month, Jamal al-Mashadani, a Saddam-era intelligence officer, who became the Islamic State’s governor of that part of Kirkuk Province over which it gained control, was arrested in Baghdad after returning to Iraq from Turkey, where he had fled, following the terrorist organization’s collapse.
Among the crimes to which Mashadani confessed was the chemical attack in Taza. At the time, Najat Hussein Hassan, a Turkmen member of Kirkuk’s Provincial Council, said that members of the former Iraqi regime were involved—and Mashadani’s confession proved him right, at least in part.
The Islamic State’s intensified use of mustard gas in the latter part of 2015 prompted the US and the Kurdish Security Forces, along with the Iraqis, to focus intensely on eliminating its chemical program. Key scientists were killed and production facilities in Mosul and Hit, in Anbar Province, were targeted.
Afari was captured in early 2016. Citing officials with the Kurdistan Region’s Counterterrorism Department, the Post explained that Afari was “extraordinarily helpful,” as he knew all the chemical sites, as well as many of the people who worked at them.
Soon after Afari’s arrest, “bombs were dropped on a lot of places,” a senior Kurdish official stated.
Although the greater part of the Islamic State’s chemical program has been destroyed, and it no longer controls significant territory, the danger has not entirely passed.
The terrorist organization has “gained knowledge and practical skills,” the Post cautioned. Some of its chemical personnel “have disappeared, and they remain hidden,” a Kurdish official explained. “We think they are in Syria, but we just don’t know.”
Indeed, only last month UK authorities picked up “chatter” between senior Islamic State figures, suggesting they might be plotting a chemical attack on British soil.
The same concerns exist—or should exist—about the scientists involved in Saddam’s WMD (Weapons of Mass Destruction) programs: chemical, biological, and nuclear.
A former US intelligence official involved in Operation Iraqi Freedom explained to Kurdistan 24 that during OIF, the US managed to arrest and detain many of Saddam’s scientists. However, in 2007 and 2008, they were all released, and in the years since, little effort has been made to keep track of their whereabouts.
That contrasts markedly with the US attitude toward the Soviet Union’s WMD scientists, after that country’s collapse. Washington then made a serious effort to secure the continued employment of those experts in benign capacities to ensure that their knowledge was not acquired by regimes bent on obtaining proscribed weapons.
Many of Saddam’s WMD scientists have moved to countries that do not cooperate with the US. An Arab source suggests that a number have gone to Syria, while others are in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and other Gulf states.
“One must come to the realization that these individuals have become free agents in the big leagues of WMD research, development, and production,” this former US official warned.
Editing by Nadia Riva