ISIS planned chemical attacks in Europe, new details on weapons program reveal
The Washington Post July 12, 2022
In the summer of 2014, as his followers were ravaging the cities of northern Iraq, Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi convened a secret meeting with a weapons expert whose unusual skills the terrorist chief was anxious to acquire.
His guest was a small man, barely above 5 feet tall, and he had only recently been freed from a yearslong stint in U.S. and Iraqi prisons. But before that, Salih al-Sabawi had been an Iraqi official of some renown: a Russian-trained engineer who had once helped President Saddam Hussein build his extensive arsenal of chemical weapons.
Baghdadi had summoned Sabawi, 52, to offer him a job. If supplied with the right equipment and resources, could he produce the same weapons for the Islamic State? Sabawi’s reply, according to a later intelligence report about the meeting, was yes. He could do that and more.
Thus began what U.S. and Iraqi Kurdish officials describe as a crash effort aimed at building the biggest arsenal of chemical and, potentially, biological weapons ever assembled by a terrorist group. Within six months, under Sabawi’s direction, the Islamic State would manufacture mustard gas, a chemical weapon from the World War I era, as well as bombs and rockets filled with chlorine.
But Sabawi’s ambitions, and by extension Baghdadi’s, were much broader, according to newly disclosed details on the Islamic State weapons program. Iraqi Kurdish intelligence reports, seen by The Washington Post, shed new light on the role played by Sabawi, a mysterious figure known within the terrorist group as Abu Malik, and the ambitious plan by Islamic State leaders to develop and use weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and abroad.
New insights also are emerging from a U.N. investigation that is combing through millions of pages of Islamic State records as it seeks evidence of the group’s war crimes. In addition, several current and former U.S. officials in interviews with The Post spoke for the first time in detail about an urgently planned military operation, conducted in 2015 by U.S. Special Operations forces with assistance from Kurdish Peshmerga operatives, to kill Sabawi and crush the weapons program before it reached maturity.
U.S. officials learned through electronic surveillance in 2014 that Sabawi was working to produce powerful new weapons using highly lethal botulinum toxin and ricin, while also pursuing plans to make weaponized anthrax. Botulinum toxin, a neurotoxin derived from same bacteria that causes botulism, was explored as potential weapon by both the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Ricin, a toxin extracted from castor beans, was weaponized by the Soviets and used in political assassinations.
Sabawi’s intention, current and former U.S. officials said, was to create a large stockpile consisting of multiple types of chemical and biological agents to be used in military campaigns as well as in terrorist attacks against the major cities of Europe.
“They were specifically looking at Western Europe,” a senior U.S. official knowledgeable about Islamic State operations said. Like several other U.S. and Iraqi officials, he spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss details obtained from sensitive surveillance operations. “We know they were also interested in U.S. military bases, on the continent, or really anywhere,” the official said. “They were ultimately going to go with the easiest target.”
That the Islamic State had manufactured small quantities of chemical weapons has been previously reported. The terrorist group used chlorine and mustard gas against Kurdish and Iraqi forces nearly two dozen times, from early 2015 until the liberation of the Iraqi city of Mosul two years later.
Other terrorist groups, including al-Qaeda, have explored the feasibility of making chemical and biological weapons. But by recruiting Sabawi, the Islamic State had acquired the services of a rare expert with years of practical experience in making chemical weapons in industrial-sized quantities.
The U.S. government’s only public reference to Sabawi came in a brief 2015 Pentagon statement announcing the recent death of a “chemical weapons engineer” named Abu Malik in an airstrike. Few knew at the time about the extent of Sabawi’s experience or his vision for providing Islamic State leaders with frightening weapons to augment the group’s terror campaign in Europe.
“If Abu Malik had survived, his experience working for Saddam’s program would have made the threat of the Islamic State’s chemical weapons much higher,” said Gregory Koblentz, an expert on chemical and biological weapons and director of the Biodefense Graduate Program at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. “It is pretty horrifying to think of what could have happened if the Islamic State had used a chemical weapon, instead of guns and bombs, to conduct one of their attacks in a major European city.”
Saddam’s reign as the strongman
During the 1980s, at the height of Saddam’s reign as the strongman leader of Iraq, the manufacturing center for Iraqi chemical weapons was a massive industrial complex called the Muthanna State Establishment, some 85 miles northwest of Baghdad. Iraqi scientists oversaw the production of at least four kinds of chemical weapons, which the army put to immediate use in the brutal trench warfare of the Iran-Iraq War. Iraqi chemical bombs and shells were used to kill or wound more than 50,000 Iranians, from front-line soldiers to civilians living in villages and towns along the border.
Among the scores of scientists employed at Muthanna was Sabawi, who, according to his intelligence file, took a job in the facility in 1989, at age 28. An Army chemical engineer who had trained in Iraq and in the Soviet Union, he worked at the weapons plant until operations halted with the defeat of the Iraqi army in the first Gulf War in 1991.
At the end of the war, Muthanna was at its peak, its three main factories capable of churning out 500 tons of sulfur mustard, commonly called mustard gas, each year, along with smaller quantities of deadlier nerve agents, such as tabun, sarin and VX. Sabawi was specifically involved in mustard-gas production during the plant’s final three years, according to a dossier maintained by the Iraqi Kurdish Regional Government’s Counter Terrorism Department.
After the war, Sabawi found that his skills as a weaponeer were no longer needed. The chemical weapons factories at Muthanna were systematically dismantled in the 1990s under U.N. supervision, and hundreds of tons of the weapons he helped make were destroyed in incinerators or chemically neutralized.
Sabawi kept his army job and was eventually promoted to brigadier general, but his resentment over the destruction of the Iraqi chemical weapons program appears to have lingered. According to the dossier, he joined an insurgent group after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, allying himself with Islamist extremists who called themselves al-Qaeda in Iraq. He was captured in 2005 and spent the next seven years behind bars, first in a U.S. military detention center and then a civilian-run Iraqi prison.
As a former high-ranking military officer, Sabawi maintained important political ties, and intelligence officials said he eventually was able to use those connections to regain his freedom. He walked out of prison in 2012, precisely the moment when his old insurgent group was beginning to regain strength under a new name, the Islamic State of Iraq. Later it would become known simply as the Islamic State, or ISIS.
Iraqi Kurdish officials said Sabawi may have known Baghdadi from his years as an insurgent. In any case, the self-proclaimed caliph of the Islamic State became intensely interested in the former weaponeer after his fighters completed their stunning conquest of Mosul in 2014.
That was Baghdadi’s moment of triumph, and he was looking to capitalize on it. Having seized huge swaths of Iraq and Syria, he now controlled resources that no terrorist leader had ever possessed: military bases, factories, universities, television stations, internet servers and banks filled with millions of dollars in hard currency.
With tens of thousands of fighters at his command, and more arriving each day, Baghdadi proclaimed to his followers that the Islamic State would eventually conquer all the Middle East, while using the threat of mass-casualty terrorist attacks to keep Western countries from intervening. To accomplish his vision, U.S. officials said, Baghdadi needed special weapons. And Sabawi knew how to make them.
Human test subjects
Sabawi’s Kurdish dossier is a thick sheaf of documents and reports that span 10 years, including the brief but intensely busy period when he held the title of emir of Manufacturing of Chemical and Biological Weaponry for the Islamic State. A mug shot accompanying the file depicts a middle-aged man with close-cropped hair, a gray-flecked beard and brown eyes.
Some of the Iraqi experts who went to work for the Islamic State would later claim that they were forced to take jobs or accepted positions because they had no other way to make a living. By contrast, a summary document profiling Sabawi’s role in the terrorist group suggests he was an enthusiastic participant who was personally loyal to Baghdadi, and well-rewarded for his service.
“He was a high-ranking official in ISIS, close to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and responsible for advancing chemical and biological weaponry,” the document states.
Shortly after his meeting with Baghdadi, the records show, Sabawi was given his own laboratory, in a technical school on the grounds of Mosul University, and allowed to recruit and hire a professional staff that included foreign-trained engineers. For production of the weapons themselves, the Islamic State commandeered a factory in Wadi Ikab, a bleak industrial neighborhood in the far western outskirts of Mosul.
In the summer of 2014, to help Sabawi acquire the needed materials, the caliphate organized an extensive canvass of the region’s hundreds of laboratories and warehouses for equipment and supplies that could be used to make weapons of all kinds, from conventional explosives to toxic compounds, said Jeff Brodeur, a retired U.S. Army chemical and biological weapons expert who investigated Islamic State activities after the group was driven from Mosul. Terrorist operatives went into schools, factories and medical clinics and stripped them of every item deemed useful.
“They just went in and harvested whatever they needed,” Brodeur said.
As U.N. investigators would later confirm, the Islamic State offered up the use of Iraqi prisoners as possible human test subjects for the new weapons Sabawi would make. Records and interviews suggest the group did use inmates in human trials on several occasions, according to a report last year by the U.N. Investigative Team to Promote Accountability for Crimes Committed by Daesh. Daesh is one of several common names for the Islamic State.
Because of Sabawi’s background in making mustard gas, his first attempts at weapons production started with that relatively simple compound. A blister agent, it penetrates clothing and causes excruciating burns to the skin and eyes or, if inhaled, potentially fatal damage to lung tissues. Yet, despite his expertise, Sabawi appears to have struggled at first to replicate the formula used for making mustard gas at Muthanna.
Experts familiar with Sabawi’s program say he switched to a simpler formula that yields a less potent product. Investigators from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, a chemical-weapons watchdog group based in The Hague that would later collect samples, concluded that his brand of mustard gas was relatively crude, and tended to degrade quickly. Still, it was good enough to be used in battle.
Investigators have documented 20 chemical attacks by the Islamic State between January 2015 and April 2017. All involved mustard gas or chlorine, a common industrial compound widely available in Iraq and Syria, loaded into mortar shells or rockets or placed in barrels and detonated in suicide attacks.
The worst episode, near Taza Khurmatu, a Kurdish town south of Kirkuk, wounded between 600 and 1,000 people in March 2016. At least three victims later died, said retired Brig. Gen. Hajar Ismail, an adviser to the Iraqi Kurdish Regional Government who participated in the investigations, in an email.
In addition to the physical harm, Ismail said, the attacks struck fear across a band of Kurdish towns and villages that, years earlier, had been targets of Hussein’s chemical weapons. Bombs and rockets filled with lethal gases killed at least 3,200 people around the city of Halabja in March 1988, the deadliest chemical attack ever conducted against civilians. “Few people in the world,” Ismail said, “have experienced more chemical attacks than the Kurds.”
Ricin and botulinum
The Islamic State’s interest in mustard gas as a battlefield weapons triggered alarms in Washington. But those concerns deepened with the discovery of plans by the group’s leaders to make additional weapons and export them for use in terrorist attacks.
Over the fall and winter of 2014, Sabawi came under continuous surveillance by U.S. intelligence agencies and Special Operations units, with assistance from Iraqi Kurdish operatives, according to two U.S. officials with knowledge of the operation. From intercepted communications came the discovery of Sabawi’s efforts to obtain ingredients for botulinum toxin and ricin.
Islamic State records obtained by the U.N. investigators also describe the group’s pursuit of ricin and botulinum toxin weapons, and reveal an “interest in developing anthrax,” according to an interim report prepared for U.N. Security Council members in June.
U.S. analysts and experts note that Sabawi appears to have had no specific training in anthrax or biological toxins such as ricin, so he likely would have needed many months of trial and error to produce usable weapons. But in 2014, with the Islamic State in firm control of Mosul and all its resources, he may have believed he had plenty of time.
The fruits of Sabawi’s research were to be delegated to a special unit created by Baghdadi to carry out terrorist attacks overseas, U.S. officials said. That unit, led mainly by French and Belgian volunteers, would gain infamy in 2015 after spectacular attacks on cities in Western Europe. The deadliest was the coordinated terrorist assault on cafes and entertainment venues in Paris in November of that year. Using small arms and suicide bombs, the assault killed more than 130 people and wounded 400.
At the time of the intercepts, a U.S.-led coalition was beginning its fight to retake territory seized by the Islamic State, including Mosul, which was fully liberated in mid-2017. But the chemical threat could not wait. Pentagon officials decided to strike quickly, in an attempt to eliminate Sabawi’s operation before he had a chance to build bigger and better weapons.
U.S. officials were able to monitor Sabawi’s daily commute from his laboratory at Mosul University to his home in a residential district called al-Mithaq, about six miles away.
On the afternoon of Jan. 24, 2015, Sabawi was driving home from work, accompanied by one of his sons, apparently unaware that was vehicle was being tracked. A U.S. aircraft — most likely a drone — fired a missile that struck the car and killed both passengers.
Other strikes followed, targeting Sabawi’s small network of labs and production centers. The two U.S. officials knowledgeable about the operation said Sabawi’s Mosul University lab proved to be the most challenging target, because of its location on a heavily populated urban campus.
Military planners deliberately scheduled the airstrike for late at night, on an evening when weather and winds conditions were favorable for minimizing the chances that any chemical releases might drift into from residential districts, the officials said. As the missile was being launched, Kurdish operatives waited in nearby neighborhoods with special sensors that could detect a toxic plume. The devices picked up faint traces of chlorine and other telltale chemicals, but there were no reports of deaths of injuries resulting either from the explosion or the attack’s aftermath, the officials said.
By late 2016, all of the Islamic State’s known chemical weapons facilities had been destroyed, and most of its senior operators killed or captured.
The liberation of Mosul a few months later effectively ended the program’s active phase. Yet, it may it may not have eliminated the group’s ambitions for chemical and biological weapons, the U.S. officials said. Some of Sabawi’s former accomplices escaped the initial bombing campaign, and a few are believed to be still alive, the officials said.