Senior officials with the UN Investigative Team promoting accountability for ISIL crimes, UNITAD, presented some of their findings to Member States meeting at UN Headquarters in New York.
For the past five years, UNITAD has been gathering evidence of crimes committed during ISIL’s self-proclaimed caliphate from June 2014 to December 2017, which could be used to prosecute the extremists in national or foreign courts.
Prosecution is rare
Christian Ritscher, Special Adviser and Head of UNITAD, recalled that chemical weapons use is outlawed internationally and could constitute a crime against humanity, war crime or even contribute to genocide, if a specific group is targeted.
“To the best of my knowledge, the use of chemical weapons by non-State actors has rarely been adjudicated, if at all, in any court – whether national or international – around the world. As UNITAD, we would like to play our part and aim to change this,” he said.
The investigations into ISIL’s development and use of chemical and biological weapons began two years ago, looking into the March 2016 attack on the town of Taza Khurmatu and whether other incidents had taken place elsewhere.
Team Leader Paula Silfverstolpe said ISIL’s operations represent the culmination of nearly two decades of experimentation by Sunni jihadi groups, marking “the most sophisticated programme developed by non-State actors so far”.
The overall manufacturing of weapons and ammunition fell under ISIL’s self-styled Department of Defence, specifically the Committee of Military Development and Manufacturing (CMDM), which had a monthly budget of over a $1 million as well as extrabudgetary funds to purchase raw materials.
More than 1,000 combatants were involved in production, according to ISIL payroll records.
Hundreds were deployed to the chemical weapons programme, and specific job advertisements were placed to recruit scientists and technical experts, including from abroad, drawing people from countries such as the United States, France, the United Kingdom and Belgium.
A terrible ‘first’
Specialist research and development teams were located at the then extremist-run University of Mosul in northern Iraq, rural parts of Anbar province, and the city of Hawija, home to ISIL headquarters.
Ms. Silfverstolpe said the militants developed at least eight chemical agents – aluminium phosphide, botulinum toxin, chlorine, cyanide ion, nicotine, ricin, thallium sulfate and sulfur mustard, which is also known as mustard gas.
ISIL was also the first non-State group to develop a banned chemical warfare agent and combine it with a projectile delivery system.
The toxins sulfur mustard, chlorine and aluminium phosphide are banned under the Biological Weapons Convention, and evidence demonstrates that ISIL weaponized their use in mortars, rockets and improvised explosive devices (IEDs).
The terror group also explored the possibility of acquiring anthrax but there has been no evidence so far that combatants used it, or other biological agents, in any attacks, although investigations continue.
Human testing and bonus payments
UNITAD has also collected evidence which indicates that ISIL tested chemical agents on humans – including ricin, nicotine and thallium sulfate – as well as animals such as rabbits.
ISIL records demonstrate that top leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who died in 2019, authorized the use of chemical weapons by troops and even approved bonus payments for those soldiers deploying them. “Martyrdom payments” were made if they died.
Al-Baghdadi also personally ordered the attack against Taza Khurmatu “with the purpose of causing as many casualties as possible”. Of the 42 projectiles launched against the town, at least 27 contained sulfur mustard, which causes blisters and painful burns. Two children died and thousands of people, including first responders, were injured.
‘Widespread and systematic’ attacks
Judge Ali Noaman Jabbar of the Taza Investigation Court said the re-opening of the case and UNITAD’s interest has motivated numerous victims and their families to provide their testimonies.
“The impact caused by the chemical attack includes various diseases such as cancer, skin diseases, miscarriages, deformities in embryos, chronic diseases, and psychological impact and trauma,” he said in a video message.
The attack on on Taza Khurmatu “was definitely not an isolated case”, according to Ms. Silfverstolpe. Information shows at least 12 other attacks were carried out in other locations, with unconfirmed reports of 35 more.
“It was quite a widespread and systematic phenomenon, as far as the information that we have collected so far,” she said.
Honour the victims
UNITAD will continue to work with Iraq and other countries towards building cases in connection with 21 “persons of interest” suspected of involvement in the ISIL chemical weapons programme, who include foreign nationals.
While some are believed to be dead, others have been detained or are living in third countries.
Although the caliphate has been destroyed, Mr. Ritscher warned that the terrorism threat has not disappeared.
“We need to advance criminal accountability in relation to the use of chemical weapons in the name of victims and survivors of ISIL to promote peace and reconciliation in Iraq, but also because it is a responsibility of the entire international community, given that such threats and crimes may present themselves in other countries,” he said.