ISIS chemical weapons expert captured, providing information on location of weapons
BAGHDAD–The U.S. recently captured a senior ISIS operative connected to–and possibly leads–the group’s chemical weapons division, and information obtained through interrogating him has led the U.S. military to conduct successful airstrikes against targets it believes are crucial to ISIS’ chemical weapons program.
Officials told CNN that his name is Sleiman Daoud Al-Bakkar. One official called him “the key leader,” but others could not say if he runs the entire chemical weapons program for ISIS. Al-Bakkar once worked for Saddam Hussein’s now-dissolved Military Industrialization Authority specializing in chemical and biological weapons.
The information he provided to interrogators has given the U.S. enough information to begin striking ISIS areas in Iraq associated with the group’s chemical weapons program. One U.S. official said the goal is to locate, target and carry out strikes to destroy ISIS’s entire chemical weapons enterprise — mainly mustard agent ISIS produces itself.
It was not immediately clear if the U.S. was able to strike all of the necessary targets.
Investigators will also want to know whether ISIS has any plans to use chemical agents in attacks against the West. It’s unclear whether the captured operative has that knowledge.
The U.S. intelligence community has been tracking a number of confirmed chemical attacks by ISIS where powdered mustard agent was used in artillery shells, an official said. The most recent attack was a month ago. There have been confirmed 12 cases of the use of mustard agent, and three others are suspected. The majority of the cases have been in Syria, but other attacks have occurred across Iraq.
The ISIS chemical weapons program is one the U.S. military has been tracking, with Defense Secretary Ash Carter saying last month the Pentagon was prepared to strike against it.
“It’s something we watch very closely and it’s something we take action against,” Carter said in an interview that aired on PBS.
At the request of the Pentagon, CNN initially withheld publishing the detainee’s connection to ISIS’ chemical weapons program because defense officials said it would risk alerting ISIS to potential airstrike targets. Officials would not explain why they believed the detention itself hadn’t jeopardized the airstrikes, or why the U.S. military believes ISIS had not noticed the captured operative had gone missing from its ranks, though one possible explanation provided was that the operative regularly moved around in Iraq.
While there are other ISIS operatives involved in the chemical weapons program, the U.S. believes the captured man is crucial to understanding this dangerous wing of the organization. The U.S. went after this particular individual due to concerns about the “skills and intent” he has, one of the officials said.
U.S. Special Operations forces captured the operative more than three weeks ago. He has been held and interrogated in Iraq.
The operative was captured in one of the first missions of the Expeditionary Targeting Forces. It is a group of some 200 Special Operations troops assembled in northern Iraq to gather intelligence and pursue ISIS operatives on the ground by either capturing or killing them. The hope is to eventually expand the mission into Syria.