A damaging legacy has been left by the crude chemical weapons ISIS deployed against their own civilians
The Iraqi scientist, Suleiman al-Afari, has revealed how ISIS developed chemical weapons that were used against Iraqi and Kurdish forces, as well as civilians, during battles against the extremist group.
When ISIS invaded Mosul in 2014, militants killed thousands of Iraqi soldiers, displaced half a million civilians and decimated much of the city’s infrastructure.
In the weeks that followed, ISIS seized control of police stations and other government ministries. But far from using these facilities to establish governance and a so-called Caliphate, ISIS exploited them to develop a crude chemical weapons program.
It is a well-known fact that ISIS has used chemical weapons in the past, often targeting civilians in these attacks. On 11 August 2015, ISIS militants launched 50 mortar rounds at a village south of Erbil held by Kurdish Peshmerga soldiers. Within minutes, soldiers complained of nausea while others experienced painful blisters. Prior to the summer 2015 attack, ISIS had twice used chlorine during battles with the Kurds.
In the wake of these events, there was concern that ISIS had stolen toxic materials from Syria or found remnants of Iraq’s 1980s chemical weapons program. This proved to be untrue, a detail that can be traced back to the terror group’s seizure of government ministries during the 2014 capture of Mosul.
When ISIS took over the city in 2014, many government employees simply stayed at home. There was little reason to risk going to work, particularly as some were still receiving their salaries as direct deposits into their bank accounts.
One of these government employees was Suleiman al-Afari, a then 49-year-old geologist with Iraq’s Ministry of Industry and Minerals.
When the payments eventually stopped, Afari decided to see if the Ministry’s new captors would give him back his job.
Instead, ISIS leaders asked him to help them make chemical weapons, despite Afari having minimal understanding of the field
Afari was tasked with leading a team in the production of sulfur mustard, a non-complex chemical weapon primarily known for its use in the trenches and on the battlefields of World War I.
Under the former geologist’s watch, the chemical was manufactured by unskilled people in a variety of unsuitable and often makeshift conditions, including in a former automobile repair shop.
The homemade nature of the sulfur mustard was later confirmed in laboratory tests of the mortar rounds used in the 2015 attack on Kurdish Peshmerga soldiers. The findings revealed that the molecular makeup of the mustard gas lacked essential ingredients that would prevent the toxins from degrading following their exposure to the environment.
Even so, the primitive chemical would ultimately be used in 76 ISIS attacks on soldiers and civilians over the course of three years.
Afari, who is now 52 and on death row, recently revealed this information during an interview conducted within the headquarters of the Kurdistan Regional Government’s Counterterrorism Department.
Afari was captured and arrested by US Special Forces in February 2016. In the course of interrogations with officials from the Kurdish Counter-terrorism Department at an Iraqi detention centre, he imparted information that would allow the allied forces to destroy ISIS’ more sophisticated chemical weapons operations.
Despite the success of coalition forces in destroying ISIS’ progress in the development of even more toxic chemical materials, the group still had the capacity to deploy harmful chemical attacks.
In April 2017, ISIS targeted Iraqi government troops in western Mosul with an unidentified gas. The day before, an Iraqi military officer claimed ISIS militants launched a similar gas attack in the al-Abar neighborhood in the same area of the city.
A month later, counter-terrorism forces discovered RPG-7 missiles containing chlorine after forcing ISIS militants out of Islah Ze’ral. The repeating patterns of use, while incredibly dangerous, prepared Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) for future exposure to chemical substances. When an increasingly desperate group of ISIS militants resorted to using chlorine gas as they clung to their final Mosul stronghold, the advancing ISF was only temporarily repelled.
“Our military units were exposed to chlorine attacks. All the soldiers have protective masks so we completed our mission without being hurt by the poisonous gas”, an Iraqi military official explained following the incident in June 2017.
While the extremist group’s amateur tactics and incompetence—not to mention the Iraqi people’s refusal to accept their hateful ideology—has seen their hold on the region crumble, their destructive approach has left a legacy of ruin.
Even as ISIS militants were being driven out of northern Iraq, they set fire to oil wells and weapons-making facilities, releasing sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide and other harmful chemicals into the air.
The desperate move proved one thing: the defeated group’s primary victims will always be innocent civilians. Having lost 98% of their territory, ISIS’ ability to launch chemical attacks against civilians is much diminished, but not yet entirely eradicated.