By Grant Barratt, CIB Middle East Desk*
United States Special Operations forces captured the Islamic State’s (IS) chemical engineer in Iraq last month. It is stated with moderate confidence that the detainment of this individual will delay and heavily impact IS’s ability to pursue the deployment of a large-scale chemical attack.
According to both Iraqi and US officials, IS has been pursuing the development of chemical weapons over the past two years. IS has set up a specialized unit dedicated solely to the research and development of chemical weapons. Members of this unit are said to be Iraqi researchers and scientists. Chemical attacks by IS have been reported in Iraq and Northern Syria, but on a small scale, using agents similar to mustard gas. However, in the past two months, US airstrikes and raids have been targeting IS chemical weapons infrastructure to destroy laboratories and equipment. It is believed that IS’s inability to develop and deploy a large-scale chemical weapon attack is due to lack of equipment, materials, and expertise.
US and Iraqi officials stated this week that the new expeditionary force operating in Iraq (Army Delta) captured the head of IS’s chemical weapons unit last month. This individual was identified as Sleiman Daoud al-Afari. Al-Afari worked under former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein as a chemical and biological weapons expert. When the Hussein regime fell and eventually when US troops withdrew from Iraq, al-Afari began working for IS sometime between 2013 and 2015. In late February al-Afari was captured in a raid in the town of Tal Afar and is currently detained for questioning. US officials also state that two follow-up airstrikes were conducted shortly after al-Afari’s capture.
Al-Afari’s capture comes immediately after the deployment of the US Army Delta expeditionary force. This task force was deployed to Iraq to conduct kill or capture missions against IS leadership on the ground. The task force has set up intelligence networks and is working with an aviation wing along with a cyber wing to assist in their missions. Capturing al-Afari in a ground raid is a substantial success for this task force. In addition, this capture is likely to directly impact IS’s ability to develop and deploy a large-scale chemical weapon. It is stated that one of IS’s largest caveats in obtaining such a weapon is lack of expertise. Al-Afari was the head engineer of this specialized unit. The capture of al-Afari is a significant blow to IS leadership and his questioning may generate new intelligence on the capabilities of the IS chemical weapons unit. However, it is likely that IS will continue to execute small-scale chemical weapon attacks in Iraq and Syria with the relatively small amount of remaining materials they still have.
It can be stated with moderate confidence that the capture of Afari will delay and significantly impact IS’s ability to execute a large-scale chemical weapons attack. Any capture of IS leadership is a success to diminishing IS’s ability to operate efficiently. This development in the fight against IS further supports my forecast that IS will become extremely withered in 2016 through the loss of leadership, key territories, and international action. Since IS has not been able to develop a large chemical weapon thus far, al-Afari’s capture will further delay this goal.
* Analytical Question: Will the Islamic State be defeated or grow stronger in 2016?
Qassim Abdul-Zahra and Susannah George. Military Times. “Iraqi Officials: US Captured Top ISIS Chemical Arms Engineer”. March 9. 2016.
Smith, Chulov, and Ackerman. The Guardian. “ISIS Chemical Weapons Leader Captured by US in Iraq Last Month”. March 9, 2016.