Micaela Burrow, DCNF
The United States thwarted an ISIS attempt to deploy chemical weapons in terrorist attacks throughout the Middle East and Europe, according to a Washington Post investigation published Monday.
The report sheds new light on the shadowy figure behind an ISIS chemical weapons program, known as Abu Malik. ISIS’ ambitions to mount a chemical weapons campaign against the West collapsed when a U.S. airstrike killed the “chemical weapons engineer” on Jan. 24, 2015 near Mosul, according to the only public Pentagon reference to the individual before now.
“His death is expected to temporarily degrade and disrupt the terrorist network and diminish ISIL’s ability to potentially produce and use chemical weapons against innocent people,” the statement read.
Abu Malik, whose real name was Salih al-Sabawi, trained as an engineer in Russia before moving on to help Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein build out his chemical weapons program, the Post reported, based on a UN investigation and review of al-Sabawi’s intelligence files. He worked on mustard gas production at Saddam’s Muthana chemical weapons facility before joining al-Qaeda in 2005, according to the Pentagon.
However, al-Sabawi’s intelligence file says he joined an insurgent group in 2003 and was captured in 2005, held first in a U.S. detention facility and then a non-government Iraqi prison, which the Daily Caller News Foundation confirmed with the Post. The Pentagon did not immediately respond to the DCNF’s request for clarification.
When al-Sabawi was freed in 2012, his organization had rebranded as ISIS, according to the Post. Former ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi recruited him to develop an arsenal of chemical weapons in 2014.
By that time, al-Baghdadi, determined to establish an Islamic caliphate, had conquered key territory in Iraq and Syria. What followed was a “crash effort aimed at building the biggest arsenal of chemical and, potentially, biological weapons ever assembled by a terrorist group,” the Post reported, citing U.S. and Kurdish officials.
Al-Sabawi was known as the “emir of Manufacturing of Chemical and Biological Weaponry for the Islamic State,” according to the Post, and had access to a laboratory and professional staff.
He initially focused on developing mustard gas and chlorine but set his sights on more deadly and complex chemical and biological weapons, including a supercharged version of anthrax. Iraqi prisoners often served as test subjects for al-Sabawi’s concoctions.
ISIS carried out at least 20 mustard gas or chlorine attacks between January 2015 and April 2017, the Post reported. Ultimately, a special unit that later carried out the 2015 Paris attacks was to have deployed chemical weapons overseas against ISIS enemies.
The U.S. became aware of al-Sabawi’s activities in 2014, sparking an urgent U.S. Special Operations Forces campaign with allied Kurdish militias to shut down ISIS’ chemical weapons program, the Post reported.
The U.S. fired a missile at al-Sabawi’s vehicle, killing him and his son, and later targeted chemical weapons labs and factories al-Sabawi had operated.
“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,” Gregory Koblentz, chemical and biological weapons expert, told the Washington Post. “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.”
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