The Islamic State and Chemical Weapons

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on September 30, 2016


This year, the American-led anti-Islamic State (IS) Coalition has targeted members of the organization’s program to develop chemical weapons of mass destruction (CWMD). One reason for this is likely that the Coalition has been building toward—and now appears to be on the eve of—the operation to attempt to expel IS from its Iraqi capital, Mosul, and it is considered probable that IS will use CWMD on its way down. Whether that can now be prevented, and how far IS ever got with its attempt to develop CWMD, might only be known once it is too late.

In February 2016, Sulayman Dawud al-Bakkar (a.k.a. Sulayman Dawud al-Afri a.k.a. Abu Dawud), was arrested by U.S. Special Forces in the Badoosh area west of Mosul, near Tal Afar, a long-time citadel of IS. Al-Bakkar was an industrial engineer for the Military Industrialization Authority under the fallen Saddam Hussein regime, specializing in chemical and biological WMD, and joined IS in its earliest incarnation.

Numerous press reports in the spring had al-Bakkar as the head of IS’s then-recently-established research-and-development unit for CWMD, but according to Hisham al-Hashimi, al-Bakkar “is the technical expert on the chemical weapons project, but Taha Rahim al-Dulaymi”—an engineer, not the Iraqi cleric—”is the ideological driver of this. He is an important figure within the organization.”

When the Pentagon announced al-Bakkar’s capture on 10 March, it described him as IS’s “’emir’ of chemical and traditional weapons manufacturing”. This portfolio of military development, including CWMD, goes back to IS’s first incarnation. The post was established in late 2003 and its first occupant was Mustafa Ramadan Darwish (Abu Muhammad al-Lubnani), a Lebanese Kurd who had, after Saddam’s fall, come to Iraq from Denmark. Darwish also became the deputy to IS’s founder, Ahmad al-Khalayleh (Abu Musab al-Zarqawi), when Umar Yusef al-Juma (Abu Anas al-Shami) was killed in September 2004. Darwish died sometime in early 2005.

The military development job passed to Abu Abdullah al-Ani, who is probably the engineer, Ammar al-Ani, that al-Hashimi says was Darwish’s effective deputy. As best as can be told al-Ani was the succeeded by Saad al-Hiyali (Abu Ghazwan al-Hiyali), likewise an engineer and apparently a former official in the defence ministry of Saddam’s cousin Ali Hassan al-Majid (“Chemical Ali”). Al-Hiyali was killed on 6 November 2008 and was in turn succeeded by Abu Muhammad al-Muhajir, though with al-Hiyali dead and the materials in his possession confiscated, the program seems to have gone somewhat dormant.

The IS movement’s initial chemical weapons program between 2004 and 2008 had a number of notable incidents. IS planned a massive chemical attack in Jordan in 2004, which was narrowly thwarted. That same year, during its first effort at governance in Fallujah, IS set up a chemical lab that was found when it was expelled. Also in 2004, IS was detected in possession of mustard blistering agent and constructed a bomb that U.S. troops intercepted made from Saddam’s stocks of sarin. Another chemical lab with binary agents was uncovered in Mosul in 2005. IS accepted into its ranks foreign chemical engineers entering Iraq from Syria in January 2006. In 2007, IS began a spate of chlorine attacks. And in the summer of 2008, IS was found with more chemical agents “likely left over from the Saddam-era regime”.

Both Iraqi and American officials concluded that IS had succeeded by early this year in mastering the capacity to create mustard blistering agent, and was furthering its CWMD program by drawing on the expertise of foreign volunteers and the intellectual property leftover from the Saddam regime.

IS’s chemical weapons program is also more directly part of the afterlife of Saddam’s regime. IS has allegedly captured some CWMD from Assad’s stockpile, but the re-activation of the program appears to have come in the summer of 2014 when IS overran Muthanna and took possession of the stockpiles of CWMD most people believe Saddam never had. Since then IS has launched around a dozen CWMD attacks*—not counting the use of chlorine—some with these Saddamist chemical munitions.

At restart, the program was allegedly headed by Abu Saad al-Masri but was quickly given Salih al-Sabawi (Abu Malik al-Iraqi), whose expertise, acquired working as an operative in Saddam’s WMD programs, recommended him. Al-Sabawi had worked at Muthanna, and joined IS in 2005; he was killed near Mosul by the U.S. on 24 January 2015.

What happened after al-Sabawi is unclear. By one account, the role passed from al-Sabawi to Taha al-Dulaymi, with al-Bakkar as al-Dulaymi’s powerful deputy. By another account the role passed from al-Sabawi to al-Bakkar and has since passed to Abu Shaima, an Iraqi doctor at Baghdad University during Saddam’s time. It is possible that al-Dulaymi and Abu Shaima are one and the same.

The connections to the old order run deep in Tal Afar. A lot of the factors of the post-Saddam insurgency—essentially a revolt of the old elite, the security sector and tribes specifically, and the foreign Jihadi-Salafists they had imported before the end (some of them with Bashar al-Assad’s help)—came together in Tal Afar, where al-Bakkar’s pseudonym suggests he is from.

The Turkoman tribes in Tal Afar were, first, a crucial node in the criminal economy set up by Saddam to evade the sanctions in the 1990s, which worked in tandem with his Islamizing “Faith Campaign” to socially empower both tribal and clerical forces in Iraq, and later these networks were annexed by IS. Fadel al-Hiyali (Haji Mutazz), the caliph’s deputy when he was killed in August 2015, was a Tal Afar native and former member of Saddam’s Special Forces. Al-Hiyali gives every appearance of being part of the government’s religious movement, the Ba’athi-Salafists, while his successor, Abd al-Rahman al-Qaduli (Abu Ali al-Anbari)—who may or may not have been from Tal Afar, but who spent a lot of time there engaged in Islamic militancy, before and after the regime came down—was part of the independent Salafi-Trend that Saddam, by commission and especially omission, strengthened alongside his own movement.

Since al-Bakkar’s apprehension, there have been a number of attacks on IS’s CWMD infrastructure.

Coalition airstrikes on an IS “weapons production facility on 5 March and on a “tactical unit” on 7 March are believed to have been enabled by information provided by al-Bakkar.

It is unclear if the U.S. airstrike on Mosul University, where al-Bakkar had worked, on 19 March had anything to do with al-Bakkar. Chemicals commandeered by IS from Mosul University have been used to make explosive belts, perhaps even for attacks in Europe, since around March 2015. Whether research or development for the CWMD program took place at Mosul University us unknown.

On 13 May, during the offensive in Anbar Province that concluded with the fall of the key town of Rutba to pro-government forces, the Iraqis killed two important IS operatives. One was Abu Hamza, a member of IS from the time it was a branch of al-Qaeda and a “mid-level military commander,” who had orchestrated attacks on Americans and now “coordinated ISIL fighters, reinforcements and finances in the Euphrates River Valley”. The other was Abu Sufyan, an “associate” of Abu Hamza’s and “a senior chemical expert who staged chemical attacks in the Euphrates River Valley”.

Just in September 2016, the U.S. has destroyed a chemical weapons “storage facility” and “factory” in Iraq, and on 29 September the Pentagon reported, as part of a series of announcements that it had weakened IS around Mosul, the killing of Naji Abdullah al-Jibouri (Abu Jannat), IS’s “deputy military emir in Mosul,” who was also “responsible for … the manufacture of chemical weapons”.

Al-Jibouri is the latest in what has been a very successful U.S. campaign against IS’s leadership: in just the last month, IS’s number two and the head of the foreign terrorist operations, Taha Falaha (Abu Muhammad al-Adnani), was cut down, and most recently the head of IS’s Media Council, its propaganda wing, Wael al-Fayad (Dr. Wael al-Rawi), was eliminated. What effect this has into the future remains to be seen.

With the additional U.S. troop deployments, clearly the onset of the Mosul operation is near—for good or ill. Among the efforts to weaken IS in advance seems to be an effort to try to deprive it of its ability to unleash CWMD as it retreats from its Iraqi capital. Time will tell if this is successful.

[*] In early March the U.S. had confirmed twelve IS chemical attacks and suspected three more. The Assad regime claimed an attack against its forces in Deir Ezzor on 4 April 2016; the Peshmerga claimed another on 19 April; and the Iraqi government claimed a chemical attack on 8 May. The Peshmerga also claimed a chlorine attack by IS on 17 April. The claim that a mustard shell was fired at U.S. troops on 20 September was later disproven.

UPDATE (21 OCT 2016): IS blew up part of the Mishraq sulphur plant, located between Qayyarah, home to the key base for the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) who are attacking Mosul, and Mosul city itself. Igniting the sulphur stockpiles sent a plume of toxic smoke into Qayyarah, injuring 500 people and  allegedly killing two. Gas masks were taken out by U.S. troops—though not under orders, it should be noted—a precaution last adopted on the way into Iraq in 2003. In the aftermath of the attack, the U.S.-led Coalition provided 24,000 protective masks to the Kurdish Peshmerga and the ISF. Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, a chemical weapons adviser to the Peshmerga, told ARA News that IS had “set this fire deliberately as part of their use of chemical weapons to defend Mosul.”

UPDATE 2 (23 OCT 2016): A joint American-Iraqi raid recovered a stockpile of thirty-six rockets belonging to IS that were loaded with sulphur mustard in Qayyara.