As Suleiman al-Afari drove through the Iraqi desert in 2016 to visit his sick mother, military helicopters swooped down from the sky above him and shot out his tires. Troops then sicced a dog on him, slipped a bag over his head, and hauled him off to an interrogation site. Their prize? A key figure in the Islamic State’s budding chemical weapons program. The Washington Post talked with the scientist, once an Iraqi government employee, in a gripping report that suggests that despite the terror group’s declining fortunes, the lethal know-how Afari helped develop could still exist on computer disks or in the minds of his former terrorist colleagues.
Even in retreat, the Islamic State, with the help of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, will leave a troubling legacy: the diminution of a global consensus against using chemical weapons. The Syrian government and the Islamic State, have lobbed chemicals at one another and at civilians throughout the Syrian civil war, causing thousands of casualties. At times it appeared the world was taking a tough stance on Assad’s use of the weapons. After a sarin gas attack near Damascus, former US President Barack Obama weighed an attack on Assad’s forces. That plan was averted only after Russia proposed taking control of Assad’s stockpile. Despite that seeming progress, the Syrian president’s forces were accused as recently as last summer of using chlorine to attack opponents.
According to the Post, Afari didn’t join up with the Islamic State out of any sense of zeal for the group’s mission; He told the newspaper that he simply started showing up at his office once his direct deposit from the Iraqi government stopped appearing. Government jobs, after all, “are hard to get,” he said. Eventually, Islamic State administrators made it to his office and gave him a new assignment.
“It was important [for the Islamic State] to make something strong so that they could terrify,” Afari told the Post. “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.”
Afari was responsible for building a supply chain for chemical weapons development in Mosul, the second-largest city in Iraq. He helped organize labs at Mosul University and at workshops in the city and its suburbs for the purpose of manufacturing sulfur mustard, also known as mustard gas. The group used the gas at least twice in Syria, according to a timeline prepared by the Arms Control Association, a Washington, DC-based nonprofit that researchers proliferation issues. The terror group has also used chlorine, a common chemical, according to the Post.
US attacks on Islamic State scientists and chemical weapons facilities have decimated the terrorist group’s chemical weapons program. Afari told the Post that in early 2016 he visited an auto mechanic’s shop where poorly trained, ill-equipped staff were manufacturing chemical weapons. By that point, the program represented a shadow of its former ambitions. Afari was captured by US forces shortly after that visit and is now on death row in a Kurdistan Regional Government facility.
While the Islamic State has lost much of the territory it gained in its rapid run through Iraq and Syria, a recent attack that killed four US soldiers in Syria shows it’s still a dangerous presence. On top of whatever chemical weapons know-how remains on Islamic State disks or in the minds of its scientists, the terror group, along with the Syrian government, has exposed an international community less able to prevent the proliferation and use of chemical weapons than once imagined.