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American commandos capture key ISIS asset

Last Updated Mar 9, 2016 11:01 AM EST

U.S. commandos have captured a chemical weapons expert for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), CBS News national security correspondent David Martin reports.

The capture has led to at least one strike in Iraq's second largest city, Mosul, which was designed to destroy a building where mustard gas munitions were believed to be manufactured. There are 12 reported instances of ISIS using mustard gas on the battlefield.

It's the first known major success of Washington's more aggressive policy of pursuing the jihadis on the ground.

The Obama administration launched the new strategy in December, deploying a commando force to Iraq that it said would be dedicated to capturing and killing ISIS leaders in clandestine operations, as well as generating intelligence leading to more raids.

U.S. officials said last week that the expeditionary team had captured an ISIS leader but had refused to identify him, saying only that he had been held for two or three weeks and was being questioned.

The two Iraqi officials identified the man to The Associated Press as Sleiman Daoud al-Afari, who worked for Saddam Hussein's now-dissolved Military Industrialization Authority where he specialized in chemical and biological weapons. They said al-Afari, who is about 50 years old, heads ISIS' recently established branch for the research and development of chemical weapons.

He was captured in a raid near the northern Iraqi town of Tal Afar, the officials said. They would not give further details.

The officials, who both have first-hand knowledge of the individual and of the ISIS chemical program, spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity as they are not authorized to brief the media.

The U.S.-led coalition began targeting ISIS' chemical weapons infrastructure with airstrikes and special operations raids over the past two months, the Iraqi intelligence officials and a Western security official in Baghdad told the AP.

Airstrikes are targeting laboratories and equipment, and further special forces raids targeting chemical weapons experts are planned, the intelligence officials said. They and the Western official spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief the press.

ISIS has been making a determined effort to develop chemical weapons, Iraqi and American officials have said. It is believed to have set up a special unit for chemical weapons research, made up of Iraqi scientists from the Saddam-era weapons program as well as foreign experts. Iraqi officials expressed particular worry over the effort because ISIS gained so much room to operate and hide chemical laboratories after overrunning around a third of the country in the summer of 2014, joined with territory they controlled in neighboring Syria.

Still, its progress has been limited. It is believed to have created limited amounts of mustard gas. Tests confirmed mustard gas was used in a town in Syria when ISIS was launching attacks there in August 2015. Other unverified reports in both Iraq and Syria accuse ISIS of using chemical agents on the battlefield.

But so far, experts say, the extremist group appears incapable of launching a large-scale chemical weapons attack, which requires not only expertise, but also the proper equipment, materials and a supply-chain to produce enough of the chemical agent to pose a significant threat.

"More than a symbolic attack seems to me to be beyond the grasp of ISIS," said Dan Kaszeta, a former U.S. Army chemical officer and Department of Homeland Security expert who is now a private consultant. "Furthermore, the chemicals we are talking about are principally chlorine and sulfur mustard, both of which are actually quite poor weapons by modern standards."

The United States has been leading a coalition waging airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq and Syria for more than a year. The campaign has been key to backing Iraqi and Kurdish forces that have slowly retaken significant parts of the territory the militants had seized.

But after coming under pressure at home for greater action against the militants, the Obama administration moved to the tactic of stepped up commando operations on the ground.

Last year, U.S. special forces killed a key ISIS leader and captured his wife in a raid in Syria, but the new force in Iraq was intended as a more dedicated deployment. American officials have been deeply secretive about the operation. Its size is unknown, though it may be fewer than 100 troops.

"This is a no-kidding force that will be doing important things," was about all Defense Secretary Ash Carter would say about the force in testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee in December.