Air strike kills Isil 'chemical weapons expert'

Abu Malik, who learnt his deadly skills during Saddam's era, may have been preparing poison gas to keep Isil's grip on Mosul

A chemical weapons expert who may have been preparing to defend the biggest city in Isil hands with poison gas has been killed in northern Iraq, the US said on Saturday.

Salih Jasim al-Sabawi - also known as Abu Malik - died in an air strike near the city of Mosul on Jan 24.

A statement from US Central Command described him as a "chemical weapons engineer" who had joined the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil).

Malik is believed to have worked for Saddam Hussein's poison gas programme before it was dismantled in the 1990s. He was based at Al-Muthanna, formerly Iraq's main production centre for chemical weapons.

After Saddam's downfall, Malik was part of al-Qaeda's network in Iraq from 2005. "He later joined Isil and his past training and experience provided the terrorist group with expertise to pursue a chemical weapons capability," said US Central Command. His death would "diminish Isil's ability to potentially produce and use chemical weapons".

Experts stressed the significance of the location of Malik's death near Mosul.  With a population of about1.5 million, Mosul is the biggest city in northern Iraq and the largest population centre in Isil's hands.

Malik's main task may have been to prepare poison gas to hold Mosul, according to Hamish de Bretton Gordon, formerly the commander of the British Army's defences against chemical and biological weapons. "In my opinion, Isil will do anything to avoid losing Mosul," he said. "Malik will have had the technical knowledge to be able to make chemical weapons. This was obviously a targeted attack."

Abu Malik is believed to have worked for Saddam Hussein at the Al-Muthanna chemical weapon centre (pictured during a UNMOVIC visit in 2002) (Heathcliff O'Malley/The Telegraph)

Isil has used mortar bombs loaded with chlorine gas against the Iraqi security forces. This form of gas, made from a civilian cleaning agent, is usually ineffective.

In theory, Bashar al-Assad's regime sacrificed its entire arsenal of chemical weapons last year. In reality, he is believed to have omitted about 200 tonnes of mustard gas from Syria's official declaration to international inspectors. If any of that has fallen into Isil's hands, the group could develop the ability to gas its enemies.

"The real worry is if Isil has got hold of some of the mustard agent which may be missing," said Mr de Bretton Gordon, who now works as managing director of Avon-Protection, a security company.

America and its allies have been using drones and manned aircraft for targeted strikes on Isil commanders. John Kerry, the US secretary of state, said last week that half of the group's leaders had been killed.

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