How the Pentagon Got Inside ISIS’ Chemical Weapons Operation—and Ended It
How shady reports of ISIS-made poison gas led the U.S. to a valuable ISIS weapon-maker, who helped bring the whole operation down.
The Kurdish fighters dug in along Highway 47 in Kesik Kupri, Iraq, on January 23, 2015, could hear the truck from far off and knew the attack was coming. The defenders crouched behind their vehicles or squatted along a low ridge, rifles trained on the narrow road. From the ridge to the earthen barrier across the highway were perhaps 500 men, skilled veterans of Iraq’s Kurdish Peshmerga brigades as well as teenagers and elderly volunteers from neighboring villages who had come in their civilian coats, sneakers and checkered scarves to reclaim their homes from the men of ISIS. In two hard days of combat, they had seized a strategic crossroads and now effectively controlled the main route between the Iraqi city of Mosul and the Syrian frontier. The Islamists would do whatever they could to take it back.
The afternoon was nearly spent when the suicide vehicle appeared. The Kurds positioned along the ridge could see it clearly: a red farm truck with steel plates welded to the front for ramming and a trailer bed stacked high with metal tanks. The truck picked up speed as it approached the Kurdish line, and from the ridge the defenders unleashed a volley of rifle fire aimed at the passenger cabin. The fusillade kicked up rows of dust spouts in the nearby field, but some bullets found their mark, pinging against the cab and punching holes in some of the metal tanks. From the back of the truck came a ribbon of greenish smoke, like the contrail of a distant jet.
The dirt berm in the middle of the highway forced the driver to slow for a moment, and that was all the defenders needed. Two Kurdish fighters were waiting with a 35-pound antitank rocket, and they fired the projectile directly into the truck’s side. The vehicle disintegrated in an instant. When the smoke cleared, the truck’s twisted undercarriage lay on the asphalt 50 yards from the impact crater, and metal fragments and bits of the driver’s remains were scattered across the nearby fields.
The commanding officer, a Peshmerga colonel named Sabri, cautiously inspected the debris with a few of his aides. The men discovered that the metal tanks in the truck’s rear had blown clear of the vehicle when it exploded and landed haphazardly in the dirt. Some of the containers were leaking the same pale-green smoke the men had seen earlier. All around the leaking tanks the soil and grass bore a yellow coating, as though someone had spilled a jar of watery paint. A few men who ventured close to the damaged tanks detected a pungent odor and immediately fell ill.
Sabri could offer his men no protection other than surgical masks, which were useless, so he moved everyone back and radioed for help. Soon afterward, other Kurds arrived carrying respirators and sampling kits, the latter being used to scoop up a few grams of contaminated soil from around the leaking tanks. Weeks passed before the colonel learned precisely what had happened on that late January afternoon. ISIS had tried to break his line by means of a chemical bomb: a suicide truck loaded with 20 canisters of deadly chlorine gas.
The attack near the crossroads village of Kesik Kupri represented the first known attempt by the newly resurgent ISIS to use a chemical weapon in combat. It was a modest effort, causing no serious casualties and barely drawing notice outside northern Iraq. But its leaders had signaled their intentions to the Kurds, and to the world.
ISIS was officially in the business of using chemical weapons. And the United States, watching from afar, was just starting to think about how it should, or even could, respond.
From outside Iraq, it was hard to know what to make of reports of these apparently isolated incidents of chemical weapons. Was it really possible that the Islamic State was using poison gas on the battlefield? No army had used chemicals against troop formations since the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s. No militia or terrorist group had done so, ever. Even if the accounts were true, where had the chemicals come from, and how did ISIS manage to get them?
The Kurds could not say. Obtaining chlorine was no problem, as the industrial chemical could be found in Iraqi factories the terrorists now controlled. But what about sulfur mustard? Had the terrorists stumbled upon abandoned munitions from Saddam Hussein’s time? Had they managed to steal something from Syria’s stockpile of poisons?
Some answers began to emerge in the following months, as delegations from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) arrived in Baghdad to investigate the reported attacks on Kurdish forces at the Iraqi government’s request. The investigators swabbed yellow residue from recovered mortar fragments and tested the greasy soil in the spots where the projectiles had landed. They interviewed Kurdish soldiers and examined the ugly scars left behind wherever the foul-smelling liquid had touched human skin. They examined one soldier whose legs were utterly covered with chemical burns, from his waist to the crisp line at mid-calf where his army boots had offered some protection.
The lab tests and interviews yielded a confirmation, and also a surprise. The oily liquid in the mortar shells was sulfur mustard, no doubt, but it differed from the kinds of military-grade blister agents the OPCW’s experts were familiar with. Its formula was relatively simple, even crude. It lacked enhancers and stabilizers that military weaponeers typically use, which meant that it tended to break down more quickly when exposed to the environment. It was neither Syrian nor Iraqi, judging from its chemical composition, yet it clearly had been made by someone with access to modern laboratory equipment, a working knowledge of toxic weapons, and a grasp of basic chemistry.
All the signs pointed in the same alarming direction. Somewhere in Iraq or Syria, ISIS was manufacturing its own chemical weapons. The terrorists had not yet mastered all the elements. But they were learning. And the U.S. government was on their tail.
Suleiman al-Afari woke up on the morning of February 8, 2016, with an unusually long to-do list, which put the 49-year-old ISIS weapons-maker in a peevish mood. As a scientist and lifelong bureaucrat, he liked keeping a routine, even in wartime, but on this morning there were errands and obligations that would keep him on the road and out of the office for half the day. His mother was ill, which meant an hour’s drive to her village to visit with her, and perhaps to try to negotiate medical care with the jihadists who now ran the local hospital. He also had to drop his wife off at work, pick up cakes and navigate a gantlet of checkpoints that clotted the highways all around Mosul, Iraq, forcing motorists to wait in lines while bearded militiamen peered suspiciously inside their vehicles. As a final chore, he had to stop at an industrial supply warehouse to load up his car with jugs of liquid soap.
For the peculiar kind of factory he ran, soap is considered essential safety equipment. His workers made sulfur mustard for the Islamic State’s artillery rockets and bombs, and in case of a spill, the lye in the soap could help neutralize the chemical toxins and lessen the number of severe burns and disfiguring scars.
In his former life, Afari never dreamed of having such a job, and he certainly never asked for it. In that fateful summer of 2014 when ISIS took over his city, he had worked as a geologist and midlevel functionary in the Mosul office of Iraq’s Ministry of Industry and Minerals.
He was a family man, gregarious and gray-haired, who had spent his entire life in Mosul and had chosen not to flee, as thousands of his neighbors did, when an Islamic State army swept through the city, defeating an Iraqi troop garrison that was at least 15 times larger.
When the men from Islamic State demanded that he help them make chemical weapons, Afari was reluctant to refuse. Thus Afari the geologist became Afari the chemical weaponeer.
On February 8, when he was out looking for soap, four helicopters descended on him.
He was still trying to make sense of it when he felt something hit the car. There was a loud bang, then a series of pops as bullets hit the side panels and hood. A searing pain shot through his left leg, and he felt the car veer sharply as one of its tires blew. Afari pulled off the road and cut the engine, and with uplifted hands he climbed out of the car and into a whirl of sand and rotor wash. A huge dog suddenly appeared from nowhere and seized him by the arm.
“I wasn’t afraid that they would kill me,” Afari said afterward of the lunging canine and its handler, an American commando in body armor who grabbed his other arm to cuff him as he lay on the ground. “I never saw myself as an important figure. Anyway, at the moment, I was busy with the dog.”
Another soldier shoved a picture—an ID photo—in Afari’s face and asked in English if he was the man in the photograph.
“Yes,” Afari replied.
Then a cloth bag was slipped over his head and the world went dark.
When the blindfold was removed about a half-hour later, he was surrounded by U.S. and Kurdish soldiers at an Iraqi detention camp, many miles away. It was day one in Afari’s yearslong ordeal in prison, and a breakthrough day for the U.S. and Kurdish forces that had just netted one of the most important ISIS weapons-makers ever to be captured alive. It took only a few hours for Afari to fully grasp his choices, and then the words started to flow. The Iraqis ultimately would seek the death penalty for the ISIS weaponeer, but with a stay of execution as long as he cooperated. So he cooperated.
The picture he painted over the following weeks was of a weapons program that was at once ambitious and amateurish; one that was often mismanaged and disorganized, but malevolent in its intention. The group’s propaganda machine had never uttered a word about chemical weapons, but beginning in the fall of 2014, the United States learned, ISIS had been working diligently to make them.
The interrogations took place in Iraq, inside the fortresslike headquarters of the Kurdistan Regional Government’s Counterterrorism Department. Afari, sipping tea and wearing prison-issued sweat clothes and sandals, recounted in matter-of-fact detail the terrorist group’s attempts to make mustard gas, part of what he described as a broader effort to create novel weapons and delivery systems to defend the caliphate and terrorize its opponents.
Over several weeks the interrogation of Afari yielded a trove of precious details, including specific locations of chemical facilities and the names of the scientists and functionaries who ran them. Each day’s summaries were transmitted to analysts at the CIA and the Pentagon, and then back across the Atlantic to the Baghdad operations room from which Lieutenant General Sean MacFarland, leader of military forces in the anti-ISIS coalition, managed the war.
MacFarland read the reports carefully. The CIA and the Defense Department were now working to disrupt the Islamic State’s weapons program, and they already had achieved a crucial success: the killing of Abu Malik, Afari’s ISIS boss. Alarmed by the engineer’s talk about gassing Western cities, the Pentagon quietly dispatched special-forces teams into Iraq to find him, and then ordered an airstrike that obliterated his Mosul office. Abu Malik was dead, but as Afari’s confessions revealed, ISIS had not given up. Newcomers, including foreign scientists, had been tapped to fulfill Abu Malik’s terrible vision. MacFarland parsed the latest intelligence in daily conference calls with other Pentagon officials who separately arrived at the same grim conclusion: Given enough time, the ISIS weaponeers would eventually succeed.
“We began to recognize that ISIS was pulling in not just fighters but people with unique skills: technical skills, scientific skills, financial skills,” said General Joseph Votel, the Pentagon’s special-operations chief at the time and a regular participant in the discussions. “That gave us pause. We all witnessed the horrific things they were doing. You had to make the presumption that if they got their hands on a chemical weapon, they would use it.”
By early 2016, under pressure from the U.S.-led military campaign, the caliphate’s soldiers were retreating everywhere, but the chemical threat appeared ever more significant. The worry among both American and Iraqi commanders was that a collapsing ISIS would try to avenge its losses by unleashing its chemical weapons, either on the battlefield or in terrorist attacks in Western cities, delivered perhaps by one of the scores of small drones the militants had gone to great effort to acquire. “They were hoping for some kind of a wonder weapon,” MacFarland said later, “one that might save the caliphate.”
MacFarland faced enormous pressure to act. In Washington, President Barack Obama’s national security advisers now were well aware of how a poison-gas weapon could transform the terror campaign that ISIS had already unleashed in European cities. Even a relatively minor attack in New York or Los Angeles would generate such an outcry that the White House would be compelled to expand the war and send another generation of U.S. ground forces into battle in Iraq and perhaps Syria. In Baghdad, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s government was equally anxious. Iraq’s frontline troops already were jittery about the possibility of chemical attacks, so much so that senior commanders worried about the effect on morale. In MacFarland’s visits with Iraqi counterparts, the subject almost always came up. The older officers had seen the effects of sarin and mustard gas during the Iran- Iraq War, and the memory was seared into their brains.
“They would talk about it, and the Iraqi press would make a big deal about it,” MacFarland said. “They all knew how terrible it can be.”
Taking out the group’s capability would not be easy. The weapons facilities described by Afari were not hidden away on military bases or in underground bunkers, as they had been in Syria. The most important ones were in cities, inside lightly protected civilian facilities in the middle of residential neighborhoods. The Islamists had hidden a sizable production center inside a wing of a civilian hospital in Hit, a city of 60,000 people. Another was on the grounds of Mosul University, in the heart of Iraq’s second most populous city. Any airstrike against sites such as these carried a risk of releasing clouds of dangerous chemicals that could drift through homes, schools and playgrounds. If civilians were killed, the U.S. military and its partners would be blamed.
But MacFarland was out of time. Waiting for Iraqi troops to recapture the sites would mean a delay of many weeks, perhaps months. ISIS would surely use the time to build more weapons, or better ones. Or it might simply move its factories somewhere else.
A strike package was carefully assembled, with special kinds of bombs selected for the unusual mission. Beginning in March, just over a month after Afari’s arrest, MacFarland’s team was ready to act.
The spring’s rolling airstrikes began without fanfare and gained little notice in U.S. newspapers. The first target was the Iraqi city of Hit, where hundreds of government troops and tribal militiamen already were waiting on the outskirts to liberate the town from its ISIS occupiers. U.S. warplanes swooped in on March 25, 2016, to attack strategic targets around the city ahead of the ground assault, and over the next five days, the Americans struck 17 sites, one of which was blandly listed by the Pentagon as an “improvised weapons facility.” On April 12, Iraqi forces fought their way into central Hit, capturing the hospital and its now-ruined chemical lab.
Next on the list was Mosul. The Islamic State’s Iraqi capital was, even in wartime, a densely populated city of more than a million people, and the terrorists had positioned their most important laboratories at Mosul University, on the east bank of the Tigris River and smack in the middle of town. Mindful of the high risk of civilian casualties, the mission’s planners selected special incendiary bombs designed to generate a small blast radius but intense heat, to vaporize weapons, supplies and any residual gases that might otherwise escape. Then they waited for conditions to be just right. The time of day, the wind’s speed and direction, the humidity level—any one of these could be the margin between a clean strike and a calamity for an innocent Iraqi family.
The strikes occurred sporadically as conditions allowed and new targets emerged, beginning in late spring and continuing through fall. The biggest strike, on September 13, involved a dozen U.S. aircraft and more than 50 bombs and missiles that tore apart a large manufacturing complex for pharmaceuticals on Mosul’s outskirts.
Then it was over. By late 2016, U.S. military commanders were confidently asserting that the Islamic State’s industrial capacity for making chemical weapons had been eliminated. On January 14, 2017, six days before the end of the Obama presidency, Iraqi troops captured Mosul University, the heart of eastern Mosul and the epicenter of the Islamic State’s chemical weapons program.
The impact of the Pentagon’s bombing campaign was direct and measurable. Researchers ultimately would attribute more than 70 poison-gas attacks to ISIS forces in Iraq and Syria. After the liberation of eastern Mosul, the number of incidents dropped to zero.
Yet in the assessment of MacFarland and the other generals behind the bombing campaign, there was little doubt about the threat that remained. Several key ISIS figures were known to have escaped to Syria, including a French national named Joe Asperman, one of the Europeans recruited by ISIS for his scientific expertise. The caliphate’s leaders were so protective of Asperman and his projects that they issued a statement falsely claiming that the Frenchman had been “martyred.” Now dispersed across the Middle East and perhaps beyond, Asperman and other operatives would simply be harder to find.
“They had all this capability and technical knowledge. Where did it go?” asked Votel, the former special operations commander who would soon become CENTCOM chief. “We know that some of their people were killed and others went home. But some may still be out there.”
Indeed, ISIS itself issued a rare warning that a chemical attack would be coming, at a time of its choosing. Months after Kurdish fighters overran the caliphate’s last enclaves in Syria in 2019, the group’s leaders issued an official pronouncement declaring a “new stage” in the group’s terror campaign against its enemies, especially Israelis. The message promised new tactics and weapons, and included, for the first time, an explicit call for the use of poison gas.
“O soldiers of the caliphate everywhere,” it said, “below you are the settlements and markets of the Jews. So make them a testing ground for your weapons: our chemical-bearing rockets.”
From the book RED LINE: The Unraveling of Syria and America’s Race to Destroy the Most Dangerous Arsenal in the World by Joby Warrick published by Doubleday, an imprint of The Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2021 Joby Warrick.