IRBIL, Iraq — In the weeks after his city fell to the Islamic State, Iraqi scientist Suleiman al-Afari sat in his deserted government office and waited for the day when the terrorists would show up.
Help us make chemical weapons, the Islamic State’s emissaries said.
Afari knew little about the subject, but he accepted the assignment. And so began his 15-month stint supervising the manufacture of lethal toxins for the world’s deadliest terrorist group.
“Do I regret it? I don’t know if I’d use that word,” said Afari, who was captured by U.S. and Kurdish soldiers in 2016 and is now a prisoner in Irbil, the capital of Iraq’s semiautonomous Kurdish region. He frowned, his fingers flicking a gray-stubbled cheek.
“They had become the government and we now worked for them,” he said. “We wanted to work so we could get paid.”
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.
The stories shed new light on a chemical weapons project that was unique in the history of modern terrorist groups, with university laboratories and manufacturing facilities and a cadre of scientists and technicians. Weapons created by the Islamic State were used in scores of attacks on soldiers and civilians in Iraq and Syria, collectively inflicting hundreds of casualties, U.S. and Iraqi officials say.
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.
Moreover, the knowledge and skills acquired from Afari and other veterans of the program undoubtedly still exist, tucked away in computer files, flash drives and in the memories of the surviving participants who scattered as the group’s self-proclaimed caliphate collapsed, Western officials and terrorism experts said.
“There are jihadists all over the world who will have access on the dark Web to all this stuff,” said Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, a chemical weapons expert who led rapid-response teams for the British army and NATO.
“The world’s ultimate terrorist organization,” de Bretton-Gordon said, “remains very interested in the ultimate terrorist weapon.”
Job offer from ISIS
The terrorist army blasted into Mosul in June 2014 with the suddenness of a sandstorm. In six days, a force of 1,500 Islamic State fighters defeated an Iraqi troop garrison that was at least 15 times larger, seizing the airport and surrounding military bases and sending half a million civilians fleeing. Thousands of Iraqi troops shed their uniforms and tried to escape, only to be rounded up and slaughtered by the assailants.
Afari rode out the invasion in his home, listening to news reports and the sounds of fighting. Finally, it was quiet again, and citizens of Iraq’s second-largest city ventured outside to find black flags fluttering in the main square and terrorists running the police stations and government ministries.
At first, most Iraqi government employees stayed home, their salaries continuing to show up automatically in their bank accounts. But when the payments stopped, many were left with a choice of either working for the Islamic State’s newly proclaimed caliphate, or doing without. For his part, Afari decided to go back to his office and claim his desk and job title before someone else took them.
“They didn’t force anyone,” Afari said, recounting his decision during a 45-minute interview in a reception room at Irbil’s Counterterrorism Department, as two Kurdish officials looked on. “I was afraid that I would lose my job. Government jobs are hard to get, and it was important to hang on to it.”
Mosul’s new rulers were inevitably drawn to Afari’s Ministry of Industries and Minerals as a gateway to northern Iraq’s factories, mines and oil infrastructure — assets of immense value to an organization that was less interested in governing than in enriching itself and expanding its military capability. Soon, the city’s machine shops were put to work building sophisticated roadside bombs strong enough to destroy tanks, and armor-plated suicide vehicles designed to crash through enemy fortifications before detonating.
Afari was in charge of acquisitions in the ministry’s metallurgical division, a unit that held special appeal for the terrorists. In the interview, he described how Islamic State officials visited his office a few weeks into the occupation and presented him with a new assignment and a procurement list of specialized metal equipment that he was to find and assemble. Included on the list were stainless-steel tanks, pipes, valves and tubes, all designed to withstand corrosive chemicals and high temperatures.
How the tanks were to be used was implicitly clear, Afari said. Any lingering doubt was removed when the geologist was partnered with other scientists and experts — chemists, a biologist and at least one technician who had worked inside the weapons program of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. Together, he said, the team was tasked with making sulfur mustard, a powerful chemical-warfare agent commonly known as mustard gas. A blister agent that killed or maimed tens of thousands of soldiers during World War I, sulfur mustard attacks the bronchial tubes of the lungs when inhaled, often causing a slow and agonizing death.
Afari’s role, he acknowledged in the interview, was to organize a supply chain for mustard gas, outfitting a small cluster of labs and workshops that stretched from Mosul University to the suburbs. From his conversations with Islamic State overseers, he became convinced that the toxins were intended more to evoke fear and deter Iraqis from trying to retake territory that had been seized by the caliphate. Many Iraqis can still remember the suffering caused by Iraqi chemical attacks on Kurds in the 1980s.
“It was important [for the Islamic State] to make something strong so that they could terrify,” Afari said. “It was more about creating horror, and affecting the psychology and the morale of troops fighting them. I don’t believe the quality of the weapons was ever at such a dangerous level.”
The job itself was similar in many ways to his work as a manager for the Iraqi government, Afari said.
“They came to me for help with the equipment: the containers, the things they needed for chemical weapons,” he said. “I have experience with stainless steel, and they were looking for stainless steel. You have no choice but to become one of them.”
Startling new weapons
On Aug. 11, 2015 — exactly 14 months after the black flags were raised over Mosul — Islamic State militants lobbed 50 mortar rounds at a village held by Kurdish peshmerga fighters south of Irbil. The projectiles exploded with a soft thud and released white smoke and an oily liquid. Within minutes, about three dozen peshmerga soldiers fell ill, complaining of nausea and burning eyes and lungs. Two officers who were splattered by the liquid developed painful blisters on their legs and torsos.
An initial laboratory test confirmed that the mortar shells contained sulfur mustard. A second test ruled out what had by then become conventional wisdom: that the Islamic State had stolen the toxins from Syria, or found them in discarded remnants of Iraq’s 1980s-era chemical weapons program.
It was not so. The molecular makeup of the Islamic State’s mustard gas strongly suggested that the toxins were homemade. They were also crude, lacking key ingredients that would prevent the toxins from degrading quickly upon exposure to the environment.
At the Pentagon and at the White House, the discovery stoked fears that the terrorist group was beginning to manufacture primitive chemical weapons, and might soon acquire more-sophisticated ones. Before the August 2015 attack, the militants had twice used chlorine — a common industrial chemical used in water purification — during battles with Iraqi Kurds. Now there was evidence that the Islamic State was experimenting with new poisons, and new delivery systems. Within months, chlorine and sulfur mustard were being hurtled at peshmerga troops in canisters, grenades, mortar shells and even artillery rockets.
Over the following months, the Obama administration and its Iraqi and Kurdish allies would launch a stealthy, yet aggressive, campaign to find and destroy the terrorists’ production centers and kill the program’s senior leaders. The task was complicated by the fact that the targets were mostly in urban centers near large civilian populations. Yet the White House viewed the elimination of the Islamic State’s chemical program as a top priority.
“It became a big deal,” said a now-retired U.S. participant in the campaign, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the operation, parts of which remain classified. “We were looking for any kind of tips or clues that could lead us toward the sources of these weapons.”
In 2015 and 2016, at least two suspected Islamic State chemists were killed by U.S. forces. Then, production centers in Mosul and Hit, Iraq, were destroyed in carefully planned, precision airstrikes using special munitions designed to incinerate any chemical toxins or precursors that existed at the sites, according to two former U.S. officials familiar with the operations.
The retired official said the airstrikes forced the Islamic State to relocate production facilities in early 2016 and put its remaining scientists in hiding, slowing the progress of the chemical program. By then, the terrorist group was retreating on multiple fronts under the pressure of relentless air bombardments and ground offensives across western and northern Iraq.
Chemical weapons continued to be used by the Islamic State, which carried out 76 chemical attacks over three years, according to an October 2017 tabulation by Columb Strack, a senior Middle East analyst for Jane’s by IHS Markit. But the quality of the group’s mustard gas remained poor, U.S. officials say, suggesting that the terrorists never regained their momentum after the airstrikes of 2016.
Afari’s account appears to support this view. In February 2016, when he last visited, he saw a program in disarray, still lacking basic equipment and forced to use ill-trained workers because of the shortage of scientists.
“It was very primitive and simple,” Afari said of the facility, located in what he described as a former automobile repair shop. “There were uneducated people there who had none of the needed skills. I don’t think anything was being done properly.”
On the day of the visit, Afari climbed into his car and began driving across the desert toward the Iraqi city of Tal Afar to visit his ailing mother. His every move was being watched.
U.S. intelligence operatives had managed to lock in on Afari’s cellphone signal, and they had monitored him for days, hoping for a chance to capture him alive. The Iraqi was driving along a desert highway, still deep inside Islamic State territory, when he noticed four approaching helicopters in his rearview mirror.
Two of the helicopters began trailing his car nearly at ground level, skimming along the dirt road and kicking up clouds of dust, while two others hovered just overhead. Then Afari heard the loud pop of bullets punching through his tires and smacking against the car’s engine block. The car stopped, and the scientist climbed out into a whirl of sand and rotor wash. A huge dog suddenly appeared from nowhere and seized him by the arm.
As he recounted the story, Afari rolled back a sleeve of his gray prison uniform to reveal a scar on his left arm — a legacy, he said, of his encounter with the military dog. He pointed to a smaller scar at a spot above his left ankle where he says a bullet fragment grazed his skin.
“I wasn’t afraid that they would kill me,” Afari said of the helmeted, heavily armored U.S. Special Operations forces who rushed him as he lay on the ground. “I never saw myself as an important figure. Anyway, at the moment, I was busy with the dog.”
One of the soldiers shoved a picture — an ID photo — in Afari’s face and asked in English if he was the man in the photograph. “Yes,” Afari replied. Then a bag was slipped over his head and he felt himself being dragged onto one of the helicopters. When the blinder was removed, he was surrounded by U.S. and Kurdish soldiers at an unknown Iraqi detention camp, many miles away.
Officials with the Kurdish Counterterrorism Department say Afari turned out to be an extraordinarily helpful captive, supplying names and locations of Islamic State chemical weapons facilities and the people who worked in them.
“We benefited quite a lot from his information, because he had access to all the sites,” said a senior officer with the Kurdish counterterrorism unit. The official, who participated in Afari’s debriefing, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence collection. In the days that followed, he said, “bombs were dropped on a lot of places.”
Today, those bombings are credited with preventing the Islamic State from developing more-sophisticated toxins, U.S. officials and weapons experts say. Despite the group’s vast resources, its progress was effectively blunted, experts say.
“They just never became very good at it,” said Herbert Tinsley, a University of Maryland weapons expert who, along with colleagues Markus Binder and Jillian Quigley, produced an extensive profile of the Islamic State’s chemical weapons program for the Department of Homeland Security. “On a tactical level we could say they were effective in using chemical weapons to stymie the progress of the enemy. But on the strategic level they very much looked like amateurs.”
But other officials and experts say the Islamic State gained knowledge and practical skills that almost certainly survived the loss of the group’s territorial holdings in Iraq and Syria.
The Kurdish counterterrorism official who participated in Afari’s interrogation said the scientist described a mobile production unit for chemical weapons that was built on the trailer bed of a large truck. At least one such mobile lab was destroyed during airstrikes in Mosul, the official said, and it is not clear how many others, if any, were built.
It was after these bombings that surviving participants in the program scattered, he said.
“To be candid, some of these people have disappeared, and they remain hidden,” the official said. “We think they are in Syria. But we just don’t know.”