Monday, April 21, 2014

South Africa's Project Coast: Building a Biological Weapon Program

Concerns about 'bio-terrorism' and bio-warfare (BW) arose for much of the public, out of the 2001 US anthrax attacks and several incidents in Europe, which brought the reality of the subject to the masses. While the US was ground zero for anthrax attacks, and for a time focus was squarely set on Afghanistan and Iraq, its easy to forget that nations other than the Soviet Union, ran sophisticated BW programs. Outside the very small world of bio-defence and non-proliferation treaty's, little however is known by the public about South Africa's 'Project Coast.' It has remained relatively obscure in the public mindset with regard to how biological weapon programs are developed by states. While it is obscure, far more obscure than Biopreparat and the Iraqi BW programs discovered by UNSCOM, Project Coast has a lot to offer in terms of insights into offensive, clandestine program development. Some years ago I delivered a presentation at the UN during a UN BTWC sidebar in Geneve with one of the primary researchers of Project Coast, Chandre Gould presenting in session (http://www.unidir.org/files/publications/pdfs/project-coast-apartheid-s-chemical-and-biological-warfare-programme-296.pdf). While I don't agree with every interpretation provided in the report, the facts are accurate and provide invaluable insights. 

Historical Context

"From the 1960's until the 1990's, apartheid South Africa was an isolated state that felt threatened by growing domestic unrest, as well as by a more powerful state actor, the Soviet Union, which was supporting hostile regimes and liberation movements in southern Africa, (although the extent of which this actually played a role is debatable). One response of the apartheid regime to changing threat perceptions outside and inside South Africa was to develop a new and more sophisticated chemical and biological warfare program, code-named "Project Coast." The CBW decision -making process was secretive and controlled by the military and enabled a very sophisticated program to be developed with little outside scrutiny. Military and police units used chemical and biological agents for counter-insurgency warfare, assassination, and execution of prisoners of war." See: http://www.usafa.edu/df/inss/OCP/ocp37.pdf

"The Rhodesian Civil War was not the first conflict in Africa in which poisons were used as weapons for war, since as early as 1960's the Portuguese Army reportedly deployed defoliants and napalm, poisoned wells and waterholes and drugged prisoners and threw them out of airplanes, in their actions to counter the actions of Angolan (and possibly Mozambican) guerrillas.(10) However the Rhodesian security forces used chemical and biological agents in some novel ways and exerted a much more direct influence on their South African counter-parts. Faced with a deteriorating security situation as the 1970's wore on Rhodesian authorities resorted to increasingly extreme counterinsurgency methods to resist nationalist guerrillas including "pseudo operations," psychological warfare, covert executions and the deployment of ingenious booby-traps and toxic substances. (11) On the basis of insider accounts there can be no doubt whatsoever that the Rhodesians employed:

  1. poisonous chemical to impregnate clothing, canned food, drinks and aspirin and
  2. lethal biological agents such as cholera bacteria and anthrax bacteria to contaminate water supplies and farmland (12)
Although one former member of the Special Branch of the Rhodesian national police--a force that was still designated, quaintly, a the British South African Police (BSAP)--claimed that he and his colleagues were aware of the use of poisons as early as 1973, the first clear evidence of this dates from 1975 or 1976, when the Rhodesian Central Intelligence Organization (CIO) apparently asked doctors and chemists from the University of Rhodesia to identify and test a range of  chemical and biological agents that could be used as a 'fear factor'  in the war against 'nationalist guerrillas.'(13) See:http://www.miis.edu/media/view/18941/original/balecoastarticle.pdf 

Building a Clandestine Biological Warfare Program

"In a top secret November 1989 military report prepared by Basson on the privatization of Project Coast, he explicitly acknowledged the many offensive dimensions of the program. Among other things he said it was designed "To conduct research with regard to basic aspects of chemical warfare (CW) offensive....to conduct research with regard to basic aspects of biological warfare (BW) offensive... to conduct research with regard to covert as well as conventional delivery systems....To establish an industrial capacity with regard to the production of offensive and defensive CBW equipment [and] To give operational and technical CBW support offensive and defensive." (33) See:http://www.miis.edu/media/view/18941/original/balecoastarticle.pdf Basson was essentially tasked with developing a proof of concept. After his return from trips abroad, where he established contacts, he informed "members of the Defence Command Council that foreign CBW programs utilized 'civilian' front companies to conduct all offensive R and D up to the point of actual weaponization. Although his claim was not entirely accurate the South Africa Defence Force (SADF) nonetheless decided to create new front companies rather than use its own components or the existing structures under its control."(38)

It should not come as a great surprise, given the clandestine nature of previous programs, such as Project Coast, that states like Syria and Iran run robust, sophisticated military programs supported by a civilian pharmaceutical infrastructure. As with Project Coast, Syria's BW programs are maintained in separate units at the SSRC but also in other locations related in some instances to CW and missile programs. Eventually, Syria's BW programs will come to light in much the same way Biopreparat, the Iraqi BW programs and South Africa's Project Coast and in much the same way the non-proliferation community who consistently deny such programs exist, will again have to acknowledge hard facts.
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