Baghdad — U.S. special forces captured the head of the Islamic State group’s unit trying to develop chemical weapons in a raid last month in northern Iraq, Iraqi and U.S. officials said, representing the first known major success of Washington’s more aggressive policy of pursuing Islamic State militants on the ground.
The Obama administration launched the new strategy in December, deploying a commando force to Iraq that it said would be dedicated to capturing and killing Islamic State leaders in clandestine operations, as well as generating intelligence leading to more raids.
U.S. officials said last week that the expeditionary team had captured an Islamic State leader but had refused to identify him, saying only that he had been held for two or three weeks and was being questioned.
Two Iraqi intelligence officials identified the man as Sleiman Daoud al-Afari, who worked for Saddam Hussein’s now-dissolved Military Industrialization Authority, where he specialized in chemical and biological weapons. They said al-Afari, who is about 50 years old, heads the Islamic State’s recently established branch for the research and development of chemical weapons.
He was captured in a raid near the northern Iraqi town of Tal Afar, said the officials, who have firsthand knowledge of the individual and of the Islamic State chemical program. They would not give further details. In Washington, U.S. officials confirmed al-Afari’s identity.
A U.S. official said one or more follow-up airstrikes were conducted against suspected Islamic State chemical facilities in northern Iraq in recent days. The official was unfamiliar with details of the airstrikes but indicated that they did not fully eliminate Islamic State’s suspected chemical threat.
The U.S.-led coalition began targeting the Islamic State’s chemical weapons infrastructure with airstrikes and special operations raids over the past two months, said the Iraqi intelligence officials and a Western security official in Baghdad.
Airstrikes are targeting laboratories and equipment, and further special forces raids targeting chemical weapons experts are planned, the intelligence officials said.
Special unit set up
The Islamic State has been making a determined effort to develop chemical weapons, Iraqi and American officials have said. The militant group, which emerged out of al-Qaida in Iraq, is believed to have set up a special unit for chemical weapons research, made up of Iraqi scientists from the Hussein-era weapons program as well as foreign experts.
Still, the Islamic State’s progress in developing chemical weapons has been limited. It is believed to have created limited amounts of mustard gas. Tests confirmed that mustard gas was used in a town in Syria when the Islamic State was launching attacks there in August. Other unverified reports in both Iraq and Syria accuse the Islamic State of using chemical agents on the battlefield.
Pentagon spokesman Navy Capt. Jeff Davis said the Islamic State has repeatedly used “sulfur mustard” as a weapon in Iraq and Syria. He said the sulfur mustard has been used in a powder form in projectiles such as artillery shells that when detonated create a dust cloud that “can primarily aggravate but in large doses can absolutely kill.”
But so far, experts said, the extremist group appears incapable of launching a large-scale chemical weapon attack, which requires not only expertise but also the proper equipment, materials and a supply chain to produce enough of the chemical agent to pose a significant threat.
“More than a symbolic attack seems to me to be beyond the grasp of ISIS,” said Dan Kaszeta, a former U.S. Army chemical officer and Department of Homeland Security expert who is now a private consultant, using an alternative acronym for the Islamic State. “Furthermore, the chemicals we are talking about are principally chlorine and sulfur mustard, both of which are actually quite poor weapons by modern standards.”
Speaking to reporters from a base outside the city of Tikrit, Iraq Defense Minister Khaled al-Obaidi played down fears of the Islamic State’s chemical weapons prowess, saying the group lacks “chemical capabilities.”
The attacks that the group has carried out were only intended to “hurt the morale of our fighters,” as they have so far not caused any casualties, al-Obaidi said.
Last year, U.S. special forces killed a key Islamic State leader and captured his wife in a raid in Syria, but the new force in Iraq was intended as a more dedicated deployment. American officials have been deeply secretive about the operation. Its size is unknown, although it may be fewer than 100 troops.
“This is a no-kidding force that will be doing important things” was about all Defense Secretary Ash Carter would say about the force in testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee in December.