BAGHDAD—“ISIS was looking for scientists,” said Ahmed, a 36-year-old follower of the so-called Islamic State who holds a Ph.D. in medicinal chemistry and drug design. And Ahmed was looking for a chance to put his scientific knowledge to use.
This would not be theoretical research. ISIS and al Qaeda before it have been working since at least the 1990s to obtain biological and chemical weapons. But as with many gruesome enterprises, ISIS has been more methodical than its predecessors and competitors.
We do not yet know for sure the extent to which ISIS was successful and cannot confirm some of the claims made by Ahmed, but they fit with those made by an Iraqi geologist, Suleiman al-Afari, who told The Washington Post recently that he supervised a mustard gas production line for the Islamic State.
We also know that ISIS, through its global social media and internet recruiting, managed to create a corps of scientists interacting in person and on dark web forums to support the creation of a WMD arsenal, and Ahmed, whose name has been changed here, was part of the team. We interviewed him last month along with other ISIS prisoners being held in the Iraqi capital.
At the height of its power four years ago, ISIS’ worldwide recruiting effort offered top dollar to equip labs and support scientists to an extent much greater than anything Ahmed had been offered in Iraq, which basically was nothing.
“I knew I could synthesize the biological and chemical weapons I researched on the web,” he told us. “I just needed the supplies and a well-equipped lab.”
U.S. coalition and Iraqi forces have recently announced the discovery of an installation in Mosul where ISIS was indeed working on such weapons, and Ahmed says he was involved in that same lab’s operations.
We should be careful not to confuse the attempts by ISIS to develop and use chemical weapons with the infamous attacks launched by the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad. Of an estimated 300 such attacks in Syria in the course of the conflict there, a new study from the Global Public Policy Institute (PDF) estimates 98 percent are attributable to the regime, and only about 2 percent to ISIS.
But the group’s aspirations in this regard, and some usage, is well documented. For instance, the group successfully deployed mustard and chlorine gas against the Kurdish Peshmerga. ISIS also set up a secret chemical weapons production facility in northern Iraq and has been quite innovative in using drones as dispersal devices for biological and chemical materials.
Surprisingly, research on the extent to which the group used or desired to expand on the use of chemical and biological weapons remains rare and largely under-researched, as noted in a report published last year by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point.
Ahmed, imprisoned inside the compounds of the Iraqi Special Operations Forces of the Iraqi Counter Terrorism Services, recounted in detail his rise from a promising but frustrated young scientist, to one who saw himself as a galvanized agent of social change at the time he joined ISIS, to his eventual capture.
Ahmed, like so many who joined and served ISIS, had come into contact with the group via social media while a Ph.D. student in India after a scientist friend, who was already working for them, encouraged him to join up.
While initially attracted to the idea of an “Islamic State,” he claimed it was not so much the ideology as what he thought would be the ability to show off his scientific and technical skills that actually drew him to ISIS: “At first I was looking into their ideology because of their interest in science and technology. I was convinced I would join an authentic scientific community. Many scientists joined from many countries,” he claimed in our interview. “Lots of nuclear physicists and engineers, especially from Russia joined them.”
Ahmed said he did not ever join the group physically, but supported them virtually and substantially. Searching the worldwide web and pursuing scientific journals, some of which he hacked into, allowed him to pass on knowledge about manufacturing chemical and biological weapons to those scientists already working in the Mosul lab.
While Ahmed started his work for ISIS by spreading this research and interacting on web forums on behalf of the group in 2015 and 2016, he fully intended to join the lab in Mosul upon his graduation and was confident of his ability to create the desired chemical and biological weapons. At the time, he believed ISIS was already an established state and would continue to expand.
“I would upload and [my research] would get read by the high command of the Caliphate,” he told us. “They were interested in my posts and asked how we can acquire these chemicals. I also summarized books from a Russian website. There are loads of [scientific] journals I could access on the web and it’s not classified. I told them everything was in my summary, but also told them, you must have a real lab.”
The operation in Mosul succeeded in producing mustard gas, which it dispersed in various operations using drones. In Baghdad, we viewed pictures of victims allegedly burned in ISIS mustard gas attacks.
Ahmed and his research colleagues working in the Mosul lab were not the only ISIS members striving for biological weapons. A chilling arrest occurred as recently as June 2018, in Germany, when Sief Allah H, a Tunisian man living in Cologne, was arrested after preparing the deadly biological poison ricin, made from castor beans. Security sources told ICSVE—the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism—that the police knew of his activities and that he was following instructions provided over the internet by ISIS, and that police surveillance of the operation was terminated and arrests made after he succeeded, but before he was actually able to deploy the infamous compound.
Ahmed proudly boasted about his knowledge of computer science and the ability to modify, synthesize, and manufacture lethal weapons from raw substances, at times appearing highly ecstatic and fervent in his answers during the interview.
“There are loads of scientific journals and it’s not classified. You just have to access them through a scientific institution,” said Ahmed, explaining how he managed to access the latest in science by going to the dark web and using a Russian website that cracked these journals’ codes.
“I used Russian search engines that no one can penetrate and a Tor browser to hide and search,” Ahmed said. “For instance, the first item I put up for them was from the journal of Organic Phosphorus Chemistry about VX gas in Israel. It’s a new generation nerve agent. The authors told how they made particle Isomers and structural modifications to enhance the activity of the gas in use,” Ahmed said. “I can tell a scientist about how to carry out the organic synthesis for this in micro quantities.”
“There was one article on pyrophoric [flammable] materials from a hazardous materials journal,” Ahmed went on. “These pyrophoric materials become flammable with water and moisture creating gas, fire and choking smoke to cause asphyxiation. The article was speaking about the flammability [of the materials] and what kind of gas was being generated, about the hazardous materials you could throw to troops, and on streets, on floating bridges, etc. All the necessary materials are available on the market... There was also a book from a Russian website about the experimental synthesis of all explosives. For me, I can synthesize any of these.
“My friend [in ISIS] told me about WMD, that they were interested in making mustard gas, nitrogen, and sulfur. Nerve agents are easy to synthesize,” Ahmed said, noting that he was disappointed that ISIS wasn’t going further into the subjects he felt proficient in.
“It’s like writing a paper. I can search and modify the structure. I passed this to them. If I gain access to a lab, then I can do it. In our lab in India [where he was studying] I learned how to synthesize theoretically. We take the structure into a software and see how it works on this nerve, then we try it on animals. I synthesized for anti-diabetic and anti-epileptic activity and it worked, so I know I can do it for these substances as well.”
Ahmed, who does not appear particularly connected to his own emotions, insisted that his work for ISIS was to help them as a state to be able to defend against and repel attackers. When reminded that ISIS had been at war with the Iraqis, Syrians and Western powers at that point, he kept insisting that the weapons he hoped to build for them were only for defense.
He also seemed oblivious to ISIS’s already deployed use of mustard gas against civilian populations. “My idea was to use weapons as a deterrent, not to be used against humankind.” He also seemed oblivious to the extraordinary brutality of ISIS during the time he was working for them and much more interested in and excited by the recognition he could achieve.
He hoped to branch out from poisons and plagues to explore new technologies for delivering them. “I learned in the engineering world they [ISIS] were interested in anti-aircraft missiles and drones. They complain about coalition jet fighters destroying their troops on the ground. The admin on the website, there was a guy on the website who provided links from a British university to make drones from organic synthesis to make the whole body of the drone. It was some kind of solution, liquid phase synthesis, polymer science. We have already developed anti-aircraft missiles. We were going to use them.”
It appears that Ahmed was not particularly religious prior to joining ISIS. He articulated only a very rudimentary grasp of the Islamic faith, which he said he rarely practiced. “I was not very religious. I was not looking for an Islamic State. They [ISIS] were more interested in science and technology. They were thinking forward. My family is interested in science and technology. I find religion suspicious.”
Although incongruous on its face, it has been common for many ISIS recruits to believe that somehow the Caliphate could fulfill their dreams, even if those had little to do with the way ISIS twisted the teachings of the Quran and the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad.
Ahmed said he was deeply dissatisfied with widespread corruption and sectarian discrimination in the Iraqi job market following the 2003 toppling of the Saddam regime. As a Sunni, and despite being qualified, he felt he was kept out of jobs in areas of national defense and in any government-sector related to science.
“Political things, the quality of the regime after 2003, it pushed me to interact and work against the regime,” he said. “I worked as a student in a lab in Iraq for four years. It was not possible to gain employment there. After, I worked in a pharmaceutical lab. It was totally corrupt. The whole facility was corrupt and it lacked in everything. I was completely frustrated. I considered it a primary school,” he said.
Ahmed claimed he was compelled to look for jobs elsewhere, first in Qatar and then Bahrain and Abu Dhabi, but to no avail. His disconnected personality probably contributed to his failure in that regard, but all the same he was a gifted individual frustrated by his inability to pursue his chosen field—until ISIS came along.
Ahmed was arrested in 2018 by the Kurdish security forces during an undercover counterterrorism operation in Erbil, the capital of the Iraq’s Kurdish regional government. He was then handed over to the U.S. Army in Erbil for further interrogation and later transferred to Iraqi authorities in Baghdad.
While Ahmed claimed he had stopped working for ISIS after he looked more closely into their violent Islamic ideology, he continued to see himself, as many jihadists are encouraged to do, as a sort of chivalric hero and, in his case, a chemical whiz kid.
During our interview, he expressed regret over his decision to join ISIS.
“My advice to everyone in the world is not to believe [ISIS] propaganda and media. Real jihad is to support your country and families and provide them with the best knowledge. Don’t believe ISIS or join any upcoming group.”
At the same time, he seemed to still be angling for a job in his chosen field. Appearing to think we could bounce him out of prison, he offered to help the Americans now to fight ISIS. He had made a similar egotistic offer to the Peshmerga and also to others who had handled him following his capture.
Ahmed’s story serves to demonstrate ISIS’ horrifying ambitions and tryst with chemical and biological weapons in Iraq and Syria, nearly actualized through their power to attract scientists like him from around the globe.
These experts are capable of researching methods for and carrying out the manufacture of weapons of mass destruction from raw substances and materials that ISIS also appears adept at procuring.
The notion that ISIS and its operatives can deploy weapons of mass destruction outside of Syria and Iraq still remains far-fetched, but even if Ahmed is overstating his abilities by a considerable margin, there is no question that the Caliphate had a substantial group of capable scientists, engineers and technicians.
ISIS’ capacity for innovation and the ability to replicate itself elsewhere—that is, engage in transfer of tools and techniques learned abroad for use in Europe, Asia or the Americas—must be taken seriously.
The Islamic State may have lost every last acre of the Caliphate in Iraq and Syria, but it lives on in the the minds of many who would inflict terrible attacks on its enemies, and may yet acquire the means to do so.