Fatima Samir, aged 3, died by ISIS chemical attack on March. AFP Photo.
The recent capture of one of the main ISIS operatives on its chemical weapons program has not only provided the Americans with details about ISIS’ production and storage of chemicals for warfare, but also once and for all confirmed that the radical group actually has such a program.
Up till now, some twenty chemical attacks by ISIS have been reported in Iraq and Syria, but only a few have been independently confirmed as such.
The Islamic group is suspected to have deployed two kinds of chemical weapons up till now: crude chlorine and mustard agent, and mostly the latter.
According to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, it used mustard gas on three fronts in August 2015: in an attack on the city of Marea in the Syrian Aleppo province and in two attacks in Iraq, on the Makhmour front near the Kurdish capital of Erbil.
Recently, an attack has been reported on the village of Taza, near Kirkuk, hitting mainly civilians who sustained skin burns and breathing problems.
The question is: where did ISIS get these chemicals from?
They could very easily have been stolen, as in Syria the regime stocked hundreds of tons of mustard gas, before been forced to dispose of it two years ago. Chlorine, which the Syrian government stocked and used (in 2012), can also be obtained from any water treatment facility in the territories ISIS has seized.
At the same time, it is clear that the group has put together a team of scientists to make its own chemical weapons program. The Associated Press quoted an Iraqi politician, saying that ISIS has recruited chemical experts from Chechnya, Southeast Asia and Iraq, including some who once worked for Saddam Hussein.
Before the recent capture of ISIS operative Sleiman Daoud al-Afari, who is said to have worked for Saddam’s Military Industrialization Authority as an industrial engineer, another one of Saddam’s men had been the target of American airstrikes.
In January, U.S. Central Command announced that an airstrike had killed Abu Malik, a chemical expert who had also worked under the former Iraqi dictator.
Saddam Hussein produced chemical weapons and used them liberally in the Iran-Iraq war of the eighties, as well as against its own Kurdish minority at around the same time.
But it is not very probable that the operatives of those days are now involved in ISIS’ program, for the simple reason that thirty years have passed since. Al-Afari is for instance said to be around fifty years old, which would make him too young to be able to play an important role in the eighties.
In the nineties, Saddam was forced by UN inspection teams to dispose of his chemical weapons, and after the American invasion in Iraq in 2003 nothing much was found. Apart from a former plant in Muthanna where some overaged remnants of rockets filled with nerve agents were left behind.
When ISIS captured the plant in June 2014, both the United Nations and U.S. said the munitions were degraded, and could not be used to make usable chemical arms from.
Even though an American claim that Saddam just before the invasion of 2003 had moved his leftover chemical weapons to Syria, has never been substantiated, it is not unlikely that ISIS could have got hold of some stock Saddam had hid somewhere. Yet it seems more probable its scientists have been able to produce the chemical cocktails for its warfare themselves.
Mosul University and its laboratories, which fell into ISIS hands in June 2014, would provide them with the needed facilities, while knowledge to make the mustard agent is widely available, and it is not a complex chemical to produce.
As retired Lt. Gen Richard Zahner, a former top military intelligence officer in Iraq, told AP: “Even a few competent scientists and engineers, given the right motivation and a few material resources, can produce hazardous industrial and weapons-specific chemicals in limited quantities.”
Sleiman Daoud al-Afari is said to have told his captors ISIS has weaponized sulphur mustard, and loaded it into artillery shells.
Experts think the mustard agent was being used in powder form. When these weapons explode, the mustard-dust blisters those who are exposed to it, but the powder is less potent than the gas first used in the First World War, and later by Saddam Hussein.
And now the question of did ISIS get its raw material. The group is believed to have acquired crude chlorine when it was still known as Al Qaeda in Iraq, and ISIS could later have found it in water treatment facilities it captured.
Even though embargoes against him were supposed to prevent this, Saddam Hussein simply had materials bought to him from western companies by middlemen. It seems ISIS might have followed his example for chemicals needed to produce the mustard powder.
Many products – from energy drinks and candy bars to weapons and munition - have reached the group over the Turkish border with Syria, so it probably also received (some) chemicals this way.
That is at least what Turkish parliamentarian Eren Erdem, of the Republican People's Party (CHP), told RT last December: chemical components were delivered to ISIS from the West, via Turkey.
So again, as with Saddam Hussein gassing his own citizens, the West might be an accomplice to the very crimes it abhors. The main question left here is: was this done knowingly, or were companies not aware whom they were (indirectly) supplying.
After Saddam’s demise it took some research, but a middleman like Frans van Anraat was eventually prosecuted and punished for supplying him with the chemicals that killed over 5,000 Kurds in Halabja, almost 30 years ago.
Research into the origins of ISIS’ chemical weapons has only just started.