Wednesday, March 9, 2016

ISIS chemical weapons chief captured in commando raid.

An ISIS 120mm shell modified to carry Chlorine gas.  New York Times/Conflict Armament Research/Sahan Research.

Iraqi government sources claim that ISIS's top chemical weapons engineer was captured in a commando raid led by the United States. AP. The man is named Sleiman Daoud al-Afari, and he had worked in Saddam Hussein's chemical weapons program. Al-Afari was captured last month in a raid near Tal Afar, with little other information available. It is believed that Afari was the head of ISIS's nascent chemical weapons program. If the report is accurate, the loss of Afari will be a huge blow to ISIS's efforts to develop and deploy chemical weapons in both Iraq and Syria. ISIS has created some limited chemical weapons and have used them in attacks against the Kurds in both countries. These weapons have mostly been improvised chlorine bombs, but ISIS has also developed mustard gas. The Obama administration has started to deploy more commando raids in both Iraq and Syria in response to ISIS activities in both countries and now seems to be targeting ISIS's chemical weapons program directly. 

My Comment:
If this turns out to be accurate, this is a major victory against ISIS. The chemical weapons that ISIS is developing are extremely dangerous and a huge threat both on the battlefield and off. Though many of these weapons are rudimentary, even a simple chlorine bomb can have a disproportionate effect on the battlefield. And now that ISIS is moving on to mustard gas and are aspiring to create nerve agents, the threat is bigger then ever. 

The last couple of times ISIS's chemical weapons came up, I called for this very action. I said that the people with knowledge to create chemical weapons needed to be captured or killed. The labs they are working with needed to be destroyed. It seems as if someone had the same idea because capturing Al-Afari will be a major setback for ISIS's chemical weapons program. 

Chemical weapons aren't all that hard to make. The precursor chemicals aren't hard to find, and neither is the lab equipment and the delivery systems, such as mortars or artillery shells, are readily available in both Iraq and Syria for obvious reasons. The real problem with chemical weapons is having the experts available that can produce these weapons and have the knowledge to deploy them without killing themselves. 

Al-Afari was one of these experts. It isn't clear at all how many more ISIS has. I am guessing that they were able too sweep up some of the men involved with Saddam Hussein's chemical and biological weapons programs. How many of those people is an open question. Given the fact that Iraq hasn't had an active chemical weapons program in quite some time, many of these people could be dead, either due to old age or due to the conflict in Iraq. Others may have fled the country or might not even want anything to do with ISIS.  

Either way, chemical weapons experts are probably a scarce commodity in Iraq and Syria. Al-Afari might have been irreplaceable. The knowledge that he had may have been lost forever to ISIS as he was captured. The fear is that he was able to teach everything he knew to others before he was captured. I also doubt that ISIS would be so foolish to not have their chemical weapons experts spread out a bit. There may be other commanders or experts out there that need to be captured and killed as well. They might not have the stature and expertise of al-Afari, but they could still be a threat.

If these men are still around, they need to be found and found fast. The last time I talked about this subject I mentioned that it was strange that after a couple attacks last summer, ISIS had seemed to have abandoned further chemical weapons strikes. I speculated that they had either ran out of the chemicals needed to make the weapons, lost their labs and experts in raids/airstrikes, or that they were saving their weapons for something big. I never thought the first explanation made much sense, given how common these precursor chemicals are. And I think we can rule out the destruction of their weapons program, since it appears that is only beginning now. 

So that leaves the third option. ISIS is stockpiling their chemical weapons for some reason. I think that they have three possible uses for these chemical weapons. First they could be saving it for the defense of their capital in Iraq. Mosul is being threatened by Iraqi forces and if the major battle does happen anytime soon, these chemical weapons could break the offensive before it begins. Chemical weapons make poor defensive weapons though, and I don't know if ISIS has the protective gear to make using chemical weapons this way worth it. 

Second, they could be saving it up for offensive operations. Right now ISIS has been hitting the Baghdad area hard in a distraction operation. They want to derail the Mosul offensive and what better way to do that then to use chemical weapons to attack the capital? The problem with this theory is that ISIS holds little territory in the area and do not have secure supply lines to the places in central Iraq that they do hold. It would be very hard for them to deploy these weapons there. If they did, it would be a massive victory for ISIS due to the panic and chaos it would cause. 

Finally, they may be saving up these chemical weapons for a terrorist strike outside of Iraq and Syria. Where I don't know, but it seems that somewhere in the Middle East makes more sense then outside of the region. Though Europe would be the most tempting target, it would be very hard to smuggle in either the weapons themselves or the experts needed to produce the weapons locally. It would still be difficult to hit other nearby countries, but it would be an order of magnitude less difficult then trying to hit Europe.

What would a chemical weapons terrorist attack look like? I don't think it would be any worse then any conventional attack in terms of casualties. But as a propaganda victory it would be huge. The psychological impact of a major terrorist attack using chemical weapons would be massive. People would panic, even if the actual threat isn't that high. People have a visceral fear of dying to something they can't see. That fear would spread far outside the country that would be attacked, and would have a global effect. It would bring a lot of prestige and notoriety to ISIS, and could lead to more recruits.  

With the threat so great, it is good to note that something is being done. A commando raid against ISIS is always a dangerous thing, and taking this man prisoner is a major accomplishment. In my opinion, ISIS's core of chemical weapons experts are probably the most dangerous group of terrorists in the fight, with the exception of ISIS's actual upper leadership itself. It seems as though the Obama administration finally agrees and is going after these men hard. If it is not already too late, we may be able to destroy ISIS's capabilities to use and develop chemical weapons before they pull off any major attacks... 

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