ISIS Fighter Captured by U.S. Reveals Group’s Plans for Chemical Warfare; Military Carries Out Airstrikes Based on Information

An American and Iraqi special operation team on a raid last fall. Raids like that led to the capture of Sleiman Daoud al-Afari, a chemical weapons expert for the Islamic State.
An American and Iraqi special operation team on a raid last fall. Raids like that led to the capture of Sleiman Daoud al-Afari, a chemical weapons expert for the Islamic State.

A top specialist in chemical weapons for the Islamic State who is in American custody in northern Iraq has given military interrogators detailed information that resulted in two allied airstrikes in the last week against the group’s illicit weapons sites, Defense Department officials said Wednesday.

The prisoner, an Iraqi identified by officials as Sleiman Daoud al-Afari, was captured a month ago by commandos with an elite American Special Operations force. He was described by three officials as a “significant operative” in the Islamic State’s chemical weapons program. Another official said he once worked for Saddam Hussein’s Military Industrialization Authority.

The Islamic State’s use of chemical weapons in Iraq and Syria has been known, but Mr. Afari’s capture has provided the United States with the opportunity to learn detailed information about the group’s secretive program, including where chemical agents were being stored and produced.

Under interrogation, Mr. Afari told his captors how the group had weaponized sulfur mustard and loaded it into artillery shells, the officials said. Based on information from Mr. Afari, the United States-led air campaign conducted one strike against a weapons production plant in Mosul, Iraq, and another against a “tactical unit” near Mosul that was believed to be related to the program, the officials said.

Pentagon officials refused to publicly acknowledge the capture and interrogation of Mr. Afari, saying that they did not want to reveal details of what the American Special Operations team is doing in Iraq. But, “We know they have used chemical weapons in both Iraq and Syria,” a Pentagon spokesman, Capt. Jeff Davis, said on Wednesday, referring to the Islamic State. “This is a group that does not observe international norms.”

Captain Davis said “in large doses” the sulfur mustard agent “can certainly kill,” citing a case last year of a Syrian baby who died after a chemical attack unleashed by the Islamic State on her home in northern Syria.

Dozens of people in the northern Iraqi town of Taza suffered from respiratory and skin irritation after a mortar and rocket barrage there by Islamic State militants, in what local officials said on Wednesday was a chemical attack.

“Forty cases have been transferred to Kirkuk General Hospital, with four critical cases among them,” said Muhammad al-Mussawi, the head of the Popular Mobilization Forces in the Kirkuk area, including Taza.

The Islamic State has kept up heavy bombardment of the area around Taza for at least three months. But a local security official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief the news media, said this was the first time a chemical attack on the village was suspected, given the number of people who were ill immediately after the bombardment. He said he believed the attack used chlorine gas, though there was no one to independently confirm that.

The United States has long suspected the Islamic State of using sulfur mustard, a chemical warfare agent, and last year officials said that they confirmed the presence of the mustard gas on fragments of ordnance used in Islamic State attacks in Syria and Iraq. Laboratory tests, which were also performed on scraps of clothing from victims, showed the presence of a partly degraded form of distilled sulfur mustard, an internationally banned substance that burns a victim’s skin, breathing passages and eyes.

Chemical warfare agents, broadly condemned and banned by most nations under international convention, are indiscriminate. They are also difficult to defend against without specialized equipment, which many of the Islamic State’s foes in Iraq and Syria lack. The agents are worrisome as potential terrorist weapons, even though chlorine and blister agents are typically less lethal than bullets, shrapnel or explosives.

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SOURCE: HELENE COOPER and ERIC SCHMITT 
The New York Times