UN: Biological, Chemical Agents Tested on Iraqi Prisoners

June 2021

The Islamic State group tested biological and chemical agents on Iraqi prisoners, some of whom died, according to a May 2021 UN report.

Although the existence of the extremist group’s rudimentary chemical weapons program has been known for several years, the report by the UN Investigation Team to Promote Accountability for Crimes Committed by Da’esh/Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (UNITAD) revealed previously unknown experiments on human subjects.

Evidence collected by the investigation team showed that the Islamic State group “tested biological and chemical agents and conducted experiments on prisoners…causing death,” the report said. It added that “[w]eaponized vesicants, nerve agents and toxic industrial compounds are suspected to have been considered under the programme.”

A UN press release said thallium and nicotine were identified as two of the toxic lethal compounds that proved fatal when used on live prisoners in the tests, which took place after the Islamic State group seized control of Mosul in 2014. 

UNITAD obtained evidence from Islamic State electronic devices that led to the opening of the new investigation into the development, testing, and deployment of the group’s indigenous chemical and biological weapons program, said Karim Asad Ahmad Khan, who heads the team, at a UN Security Council briefing on May 10. 

Preliminary findings of that investigation, which is still ongoing, were published in the May report and “confirmed the repeated deployment of chemical weapons by [the Islamic State group] against civilian populations in Iraq between 2014 and 2016, as well as the testing of biological agents on prisoners.”

The investigation is centered on the 2014 Islamic State takeover of the University of Mosul, the 2016 attack against the Mishraq sulfur field and processing facility, and the 2016 attack on the town of Taza Khurmatu. After the university takeover, the Islamic State group repurposed the university’s laboratories for its chemical weapons program. According to Khan, domestic and international scientists and medical professionals initially worked to weaponize chlorine from water treatment plants seized by the militants. 

Islamic State laboratories also developed a “sulfur mustard production system that was deployed in March 2016 through the firing of 40 rockets at the Turkman Shia town of Taza Khurmatu,” Khan said. According to the report, these attacks “resulted in civilian deaths and injuries, including by asphyxiation and other chemical and biological weapons-related symptoms.” 

In 2017, Iraqi security forces regained control of the university, driving the Islamic State group from the campus. 

The investigation team is relying on a range of evidence from battlefield records, detainee and victim testimonies, satellite imagery, remote sensing techniques, and analysis of other related materials and videos. Since 2017, UNITAD has worked with Iraq on efforts to hold the Islamic State group accountable and deliver justice for the victims and survivors of its crimes. 

The report was published against the backdrop of the increasing use of chemical weapons worldwide. From assassination attempts in Malaysia, Russia, and the United Kingdom to repeated chemical weapons attacks in Syria, the global norm against chemical weapons use is eroding. Much has been done to eliminate declared national stockpiles, but experts say preventing the reemergence of chemical weapons as a tool of war by state and nonstate actors is becoming more challenging.—LEANNE QUINN