An ex-Iraqi geologist and office manager says he was tapped by ISIS to help make chemical weapons — including sulfur mustard, a blistering agent known as mustard gas that was used in scores of attacks on soldiers and civilians in Iraq and Syria, The New York Times reported.
Suleiman al-Afari, 52, who worked in Mosul in Iraq's Ministry of Industry and Minerals, was offered the job in 2014 when ISIS militants made their way through the city's bureaucracies, rounding up workers and managers who had not yet fled, the Times reported.
"Help us make chemical weapons," the Islamic State's emissaries said, the Times reported.
Though he said he knew little about the subject, he accepted and began his 15-month stint supervising the manufacture of lethal toxins for the world's deadliest terrorist group.
"Do I regret it? I don't know if I'd use that word," Afari, who was captured by U.S. and Kurdish soldiers in 2016 and sits on death row in Irbil, the capital of Iraq's semiautonomous Kurdish region, told the Times.
"They had become the government, and we now worked for them," he said. "We wanted to work so we could get paid."
"They didn't force anyone," Afari told the Times, recounting his decision during a 45-minute interview in a reception room at Irbil's Counterterrorism Department. "I was afraid that I would lose my job. Government jobs are hard to get, and it was important to hang on to it."
He is among the few known participants in the ISIS's chemical weapons program to be captured alive, the Times reported.
In the Times interview, he described how ISIS officials visited his office a few weeks into the occupation and presented him with a new assignment and a procurement list of specialized metal equipment he was supposed to find and assemble.
Included on the list were stainless-steel tanks, pipes, valves and tubes, all designed to withstand corrosive chemicals and high temperatures, the Times reported.
He told the Times his role was to organize a supply chain for mustard gas, outfitting a small cluster of labs and workshops that stretched from Mosul University to the suburbs.
He said he became convinced the toxins were intended more to evoke fear and deter Iraqis from trying to retake territory that had been seized by the caliphate.
"It was important [for ISIS] to make something strong so that they could terrify," Afari told the Times. "It was more about creating horror, and affecting the psychology and the morale of troops fighting them. I don't believe the quality of the weapons was ever at such a dangerous level."
The job itself was similar in many ways to his work as a manager for the Iraqi government, Afari told the Times.
"They came to me for help with the equipment: the containers, the things they needed for chemical weapons," he said. "I have experience with stainless steel, and they were looking for stainless steel. You have no choice but to become one of them."
"It was very primitive and simple," Afari said of the facility, located in what he described as a former auto repair shop. "There were uneducated people there who had none of the needed skills. I don't think anything was being done properly."
Weapons created by the Islamic State were used in scores of attacks on soldiers and civilians in Iraq and Syria, collectively inflicting hundreds of casualties, U.S. and Iraqi officials say.
And though ISIS moved equipment and perhaps chemicals from Iraq to Syria in 2016, Iraqi officials say, some might have been buried or hidden.
"There are jihadists all over the world who will have access on the dark Web to all this stuff," Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, a chemical weapons expert who led rapid-response teams for the British army and NATO, told the Times.
"The world's ultimate terrorist organization, remains very interested in the ultimate terrorist weapon."