WASHINGTON – The U.S. military is questioning an Islamic State militant who allegedly has helped lead the extremist group’s nascent effort to acquire and use illicit chemical weapons in Iraq and Syria, U.S. officials said.
Officials said the operative is believed to have worked for Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s unconventional weapons program, which produced vast stockpiles of chemical and biological warfare agents prior to the 1991 Gulf War.
The operative, whose name was not released, was captured during a U.S. special operations raid about a month ago, officials said, and is in U.S. custody in Irbil in northern Iraq.
He is expected to be transferred to Iraqi custody when the interrogations are finished. The Pentagon says it doesn’t plan to operate a prison in Iraq, and the Obama administration has ruled out transferring any new detainees to Guantanamo Bay.
During questioning, the Iraqi operative has provided details about Islamic State’s chemical weapons program, including locations of two storage sites that were later targeted in U.S. airstrikes, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the operation.
Little is publicly known about Islamic State’s access to unconventional weapons, and whether the group is producing poison gases at chemical plants or laboratories, or simply is recycling toxic materials recovered from the pre-1991 period.
Iraq’s defense minister, Khaled Obeidi, played down fears of Islamic State’s chemical weapons capabilities, telling reporters Wednesday in Tikrit that the group lacks “chemical capabilities.” He said the group’s use of poison gas so far was intended to “hurt the morale of our fighters,” and did not cause any casualties.
In August, Kurdish authorities in northern Iraq claimed that Islamic State militants had used a mustard agent in artillery shells in at least two incidents. The Kurdish fighters suffered breathing problems and skin injuries, the officials said.
Mustard gas, a blister agent that burns skin, eyes and other soft tissue, was first used to devastating effect in World War I. Its use in war has been banned under international law since 1925.
Islamic State fighters also have been accused of using commercially produced chlorine in gas attacks in Syria.
After the 1991 Gulf War, United Nations inspectors recovered large stockpiles of powerful blister and nerve gases at multiple sites in Iraq.
Some were destroyed, but large supplies of mustard-gas-filled shells were considered too unstable to move, and were locked into sealed bunkers for safety. Some of the bunkers were left intact after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
The militants may have opened the bunkers after they captured large parts of western and northern Iraq in 2014, and may now be trying to repurpose the materials.
It’s also possible the poison was obtained in Syria, where embattled President Bashar Assad’s government had produced mustard, sarin and other chemical warfare agents.
Under threat of a U.S. air attack, Assad agreed to dismantle the program in 2013 and supplies were shipped out of the country and destroyed at sea. However, his forces were accused of dropping chlorine-filled barrel bombs on insurgent strongholds last year.
U.S. special operations forces grabbed the Iraqi chemical weapons specialist as they began a series of late-night raids that seek to gather intelligence and kill or capture militants, officials said.
It wasn’t immediately clear if he was specifically targeted, or if U.S. authorities discovered his role after his capture.
The raids are carried about by a so-called “expeditionary targeting force,” which has about 200 commandos and is the first major U.S. combat force on the ground in Iraq since the U.S. military withdrawal in 2011.
Following a strategy developed in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. teams target homes and compounds, set up safehouses, and work with Iraqi and Kurdish forces to build informant networks. They typically haul away laptops, cellphones and other electronic devices that could supply useful intelligence.
“Sometimes they’ll carry out these missions multiple times a night,” one official said. “There’s a domino effect. One raid might glean information that leads to another.”
The decision to deploy the commando force in Iraq came after a Delta Force raid in eastern Syria last May provided a significant trove of intelligence.
The U.S. team killed its target, Abu Sayyaf, who ran Islamic State black market oil and gas operations. But the team took his wife, Nisreen Assad Ibrahim Bahar, and a cache of notebooks, laptops and cellphones back to a base in Iraq.
The material revealed details about Islamic State leaders and its clandestine financial system, including how it raised and stored cash.
The Justice Department filed an arrest warrant last month charging Bahar with conspiracy to provide material support to Islamic State. She remains in Iraqi custody.
In the latest capture, the Pentagon notified the International Committee of the Red Cross, which monitors detainment of prisoners of war, that it was holding an Islamic State fighter, as military law requires.
Anna Nelson, an ICRC spokesperson in Washington, said Red Cross delegates had visited the detainee.
“The ICRC visits people held in detention facilities run by various authorities in Iraq, including those who are detained in relation to the current non-international armed conflict against the so-called Islamic State group,” she said in a statement.
“As part of its neutral and humanitarian role, the ICRC endeavors to visit all individuals detained in relation to an armed conflict, in order to monitor their treatment and conditions of detention.”
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