Foreign Policy (FP) published an exclusive report on August 28th regarding the contents of a laptop captured in Syria from a Tunisian ISIS jihadi, “Mohammed S”, “Found: The Islamic State’s Terror Laptop of Doom.” Among the files on the laptop’s hard drive was a 19 page document allegedly providing details on plans to weaponize bubonic plague and use it as a mass casualty weapon.
We contacted noted Bio-Warfare (BW) expert, Dr. Jill Bellamy to address the issues raised by the FP account. Our concerns were whether the Islamic State (IS), formerly ISIS, might have overrun Syrian BW research and dual-use pathogenic production facilities. Further, has IS, like Hezbollah and Al Qaeda, established a WMD directorate, and do they have the means of producing one or more of the so-called ‘Black Six’ pathogens? See our 2007 and 2013 New English Review (NER) interviews with Dr. Bellamy on the Syrian BW Threat and Dr. Bellamy’s, The Biological Warfare Blog: Black Six
Bellamy conveyed the following observations: While IS’ alleged BW threat is provocative, given its financial resources, the reality is that both Al Qaeda (AQ) and Hezbollah have established credible BW programs, while IS’ capability is still unknown. Hezbollah’s programs are coordinated with both Syrian and Iranian BW programs, whose BW laboratories have successfully developed advanced synthetic pathogens that Western threat reduction agencies may not have the means of detecting. The likely priority targets in the latter cases might be the Jewish communities, particularly in Europe, according to Bellamy. She views as formidable Israel’s highly credible BW threat reduction capabilities, which she says are superior to anywhere else in the world.
The greatest threat, according to Bellamy, is in the manufacture of synthetic BWs, for which there are few developed antidotes. In recent years, large strides have been made in biotechnology and genetic engineering that can facilitate the modification of BW agents to increase their toxicity, transmission, and lethality.
The FP Laptop of Doom Revelations
The FP report noted:
The information on the laptop makes clear that its owner is a Tunisian national named Muhammed S. who joined ISIS in Syria and who studied chemistry and physics at two universities in Tunisia’s northeast. Even more disturbing is how he planned to use that education:
The ISIS laptop contains a 19-page document in Arabic on how to develop biological weapons and how to weaponize the bubonic plague from infected animals.
“The advantage of biological weapons is that they do not cost a lot of money, while the human casualties can be huge,” the document states.
The document includes instructions for how to test the weaponized disease safely, before it is used in a terrorist attack. “When the microbe is injected in small mice, the symptoms of the disease should start to appear within 24 hours,” the document says.
The laptop also includes a 26-page fatwa, or Islamic ruling, on the usage of weapons of mass destruction. “If Muslims cannot defeat the kafir [unbelievers] in a different way, it is permissible to use weapons of mass destruction,” states the fatwa by Saudi jihadi cleric Nasir al-Fahd, who is currently imprisoned in Saudi Arabia. “Even if it kills all of them and wipes them and their descendants off the face of the Earth.”
“Use small grenades with the virus, and throw them in closed areas like metros, soccer stadiums, or entertainment centers,” the 19-page document on biological weapons advises. “Best to do it next to the air-conditioning. It also can be used during suicide operations.”
However, the FP suggested weaponization of both bubonic plague and anthrax via grenades is implausible. The heat generated by the explosion would kill the pathogens, not deliver them. Bellamy was not certain whether this clearly incorrect information in the directions was the result of ignorance or a misdirection. In any case, the West has stockpiles of antidotes to address outbreaks of both pathogens mentioned in the files.
While it is known that AQ and Hezbollah, as non-state actors, have the means to conduct mass casualty attacks against targets in the Middle East and the West, especially the EU, it is not known whether IS has this capability.
Looting of Syrian BW Laboratories by AQ and ISIS
In April 2014, Bellamy wrote on her blog, The Black Six ,about the threats arising from looting of Syrian BW laboratories and production facilities by AQ and ISIS, “Looting the Labs: Syria’s Biological Weapon Program and Al Qaeda”. She noted:
Serious concerns remain however, with regard to the looting of some laboratories and one estimate, one source that has previously provided highly accurate, in country accounts on a number of facilities, estimates the looting to be at around 70% of Syria’s laboratories and veterinary vaccine facilities. The source has provided ample documentation and photographic evidence from inside the labs. The looting has occurred in sections where Al Qaeda has been fighting. In one incident, five members of Hezbollah were killed….. In my view, as a BW expert, there is a risk that Al Qaeda … given their lengthy track record and long term recruitment of experts trained in Western universities, could divert materials and pathogenic agents. It is possible AQ, well aware of Syrian laboratory infrastructures, could divert such materials in areas where it is fighting and has access to these facilities. A geospatial analysis of certain areas in Syria, where BW labs are now under ISIS controlled zones, paints an increasingly concerning picture.
The Al Qaida Bio Terror Directorate
In a March 2014 Black Six post, Inside Al Qaeda’s Biological Weapon Directorate, Bellamy discussed:
What remains, if anything, of the programs which the Taliban oversaw, remains with the scientist-terrorists who worked in those labs and trained in the camps. Who were they and more importantly where are they now? Not only did the Taliban oversee several state of the art, mainly veterinary and agricultural laboratories which worked on vaccines for anthrax and other highly pathogenic agents, it applied this expertise to training camps, mainly the Derunta camp. The “core” of AQ WMD Committee was associated with running training on CBW at the Derunta camp.
In 2004, an interior ministry official for France reported that evidence from Islamist militants arrested in the Lyon area made it clear an attack with botulinum or ricin toxin was being prepared. Of the eight suspects arrested, most were related to Menad Benchellali, the son of a radical imam in the Lyon suburb of Venisseux, jailed since 2002. The ministry official confirmed that Benchellali was a chemical weapon expert trained in poison-making in Al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan and was actively trying to produce botulim toxin and ricin which he had tested on animals.
Israel recently announced the detention of Samar Halmi Abdel Latif al Barq, a Kuwaiti citizen of ‘Palestinian’ descent. Prior to his detention, Al Barq studied microbiology in Pakistan and underwent military training in Afghanistan before his recruitment by AQ.. According to the Jerusalem Post, he spent three months in 2003, at Guantanamo Bay and five years in a Jordanian prison. Fortunately al Barq is in detention. However, other AQ BW experts continue to pose an unconventional weapons threat, if not a risk to global public health security.
One of the better known terrorist/scientist working with AQ is Yazid Sufaat. He too is currently in detention again, having previously served seven years in a Malay prison under ISA detention. Sufaat earned a degree in microbiology from California State University at Sacramento in 1987 and then serving as an army medical technician in the Malaysian Army. In 1993 Sufaat set up a pathology laboratory called Green Laboratory Medicine where he subsequently tried on behalf of al Qaeda to weaponize anthrax.
Lady Al Qaida and ISIS
Then there is Pakistani Dr. Aaifa Sidiqqi , “Lady Al Qaida”, an MIT and Brandeis University trained, neuroscientist. Following a New York Federal trial and conviction in 2010, Sidiqqi is currently serving an 86 year term in a Texas Federal prison facility for attempted murder during a 2008 attack in an Afghan detention facility. During that attack, she seized a weapon and fired on US personnel before being subdued. As noted in a recent CNN report, her trial record disclosed:
At the time of the 2008 shooting, Sidiqqi was in police custody after being arrested outside the Ghazni governor’s compound in Afghanistan. She was said to be acting suspiciously and found to be carrying “numerous documents describing the creation of explosives, chemical weapons, and other weapons involving biological material and radiological agents,” according to court documents.
The papers included descriptions of various U.S. landmarks and military assets, excerpts from the “Anarchist’s Arsenal,” and a number of chemical substances in bottles and glass jars, the documents said.
The interest in Sidiqqi currently has to do with one of the demands for the release of the late American photo-journalist, James Foley, murdered by ISIS in Syria. The CNN report noted:
“We have also offered prisoner exchanges to free the Muslims currently rin your detention like our sister Dr Afia Sidiqqi (sic), however you proved very quickly to us that this is NOT what you are interested in,” the email said, which was published in full on the GlobalPost website.
This renewed interest may also be an indication of heightened objectives on the part of ISIS in a BW program, for which they would consider her a valuable asset. Sidiqqi has never been charged under US terrorism laws. Watch this CNN video about why ISIS wanted Siddiqui released:
Hezbollah, as a client of Iran and Assad’s Syria, has had access to BW as well as chemical and conventional weapons. In a June NER 2013 article, Dr. Bellamy noted, “Hezbollah has acquired almost every type of conventional weapon Iran has ever produced and works closely with Syria. As Hezbollah is considered by some to run their own laboratories in Lebanon, it is likely that Syria has already transferred weaponized biological agents to these labs.” She suggested that Hezbollah might use drones, provided by Iran, to deploy a BW payload.
In last year’s international confrontation over Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile, little attention was given to its biological weapons program. Our sources report that despite UN oversight, Assad transferred much of his chemical weapons to Hezbollah, which they transferred to caves in the Bekka Valley in Southern Lebanon. In fact, they reported, only 11% of Syria’s chemical weapons were actually destroyed. The rest were hidden or redistributed. Such deceptions give rise to further serious consideration of Hezbollah’s access to Syria’s BW program, as well as its CW stockpiles
Can ISIS Have a BW Capability?
Gas attacks in September 2013 in the vicinity of Damascus, were generally attributed to Assad. According to reliable sources in Syria, the gas attacks were also carried out by ISIS. In the gas attacks, ISIS acquired the weapons from a Syrian army base which they had overrun. Could they now do the same with bio-weapons?
On February 2, 2013, Israel carried out a bombing raid against several Syrian weapons facilities in an effort to destroy a shipment of Fateh-110 missiles being transported from Iran to Lebanon via Syria. Destroyed in this attack was a biological weapons research center at Jamarya, west of Damascus. Other buildings destroyed in the attack were warehouses stocked with equipment necessary for the deployment of chemical and biological weapons. However, Assad placed his CW and BW feacilities all around the country. Some 70% of Syria’s chemical and biological weapons facilities have been raided since the war began in 2011, and the location of stockpiles – and who possesses them – is now largely unknown.
Syria is long suspected of conducting work on botulinum, anthrax, smallpox, ricin, T2, among other agents and toxins. And while ISIS is now the best funded of all terrorist organizations, pulling in over $1 million daily in revenues from extorted fees and sale of oil , it is not clear that they have the skills or the training to safely handle and deploy the complex and dangerous biological weapons developed by Syria. As Dr. Bellamy explained, “Chemical weapons are relatively easy to understand and as a result, media attention has focused on Syrian chemical weapon stockpiles . . . biological weapons are less well understood. Syria’s biological weapons . . . are far more dangerous”. Moreover, the results of a BW attack may not be immediately known, since disease spreads silently and sometimes, slowly. In today’s world of global travel, a bio-attack could be transmitted world-wide before being detected or, if possible, contained.
Bellamy’s observations about the ISIS, AQ and Hezbollah BW threats suggest the need for appropriate actions by both Israel and Western intelligence and threat reduction agencies. Just think of one of her scenarios, a possible BW attack at vulnerable international air travel transit points like Schiphol in Amsterdam or Heathrow in London. Such an attack could cause a veritable pandemic through the release of exotic synthetic viruses devised in Iranian and Syrian laboratories that are virtually undetected. With IS’ enormous financial resources and recruitment of scientist terrorists from the Muslim Ummah, what may be simply provocative today, could readily become reality tomorrow if not stopped in time.
EDITORS NOTE: This column originally appeared in the New English Review.