Saturday, July 25, 2015

Europe at Risk: Assessing ISIS' Current Chemical and Biological Weapon Capabilities

Following the announced destruction of Syria's chemical weapon stockpiles, Syria declared it retained four clandestine instillation. To date, Assad has maintained command and control over Syria's chemical and biological weapon programs (the BW located primarily at the SSRC in Damascus with a couple branches in the North), but should Assad's position become more tentative there is no assurance this will continue to be the case. The fall of Palmyra to IS should be a wake up call to those who believe a change of regime in Syria would represent a positive outcome.

IS thus far has not hesitated with the small CW stockpile they currently control, to use this against the Kurds and Syrian civilians. With significant numbers of European nationals (particularly from the Netherlands, France and the UK), fighting for IS in Syria,  returning fighters will likely have acquired novel CW deployment and explosive skills. Such skills could well be turned on the capitals of Europe. While CW could be deployed in limited operations by IS in Europe, it's unlikely they would be able to produce mass casualties, although should they acquire VX this could well change the playing field substantially. Beyond chlorine barrel bombs, the primary objective to terrorize and threaten is definitely an achievable goal for IS. In Europe, outside very small circles with access to classified intelligence, not much is known nor disclosed about IS CW and BW capability. The US, Russia and Israel are a different story but for European governments, even the UK, access is limited at best. The threat to Assad and to Syria is not a minor one and we should not forget that ISIS has none of the ethical or moral issues Western governments have with the use of CBW. Before discussing CBW capabilities, we should note that its been reported that ISIS has nuclear medical isotopes. This too is not yet a direct threat to Europe, but it could be over time, keeping in mind that ISIS has moved incredibly swiftly, not only with their use of various tactics and media prowess, from burning people alive in cages to beheadings, the list of atrocities is a long one, but how close is IS to acquiring a real WMD capability?

On June 20th, 2015, The Independent ran an article entitled: ISIS Dirty Bomb: Jihadists have Seized Enough Radioactive Material to build their First WMD." Adam Withnall reports: "The ISIS militant group has seized enough radioactive material from government facilities to suggest it has the capability to build a large and devastating "dirty" bomb, according to Australian intelligence reports. ISIS declared its ambition to develop weapons of mass destruction in the most recent edition of its propaganda magazine Dabiq, and Indian defence officials have previously warned of the possibility the militants could acquire a nuclear weapon from Pakistan. According to the Australian foreign minister Julie Bishop, NATO has expressed deep concerns about the material seized by ISIS from research centers and hospitals that would normally only be available to governments." Withnall goes on to report in his article that: "The threat of ISIS's radioactive and biological weapon stockpile was so severe that the Australia Group, a 40 nation bloc dedicated to ending the use of chemical weapons, held a session on the subject at its summit in Perth last week." See full article here: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/isiss-dirty-bomb-jihadists-have-seized-enough-radioactive-material-to-build-their-first-wmd-10309220.html

According to a post on Nuclear Security Matters, a Harvard University site, Nate Sans posits in his article entitled: How much of a Nuclear, Chemical or Biological Threat Might ISIS Pose (Part II)? "ISIS may have the monetary means and the necessary equipment to organize and carry out a sophisticated attack in another count; therefore there is a real danger that they might be able to seize CBRN materials or tech, or inflict catastrophic damage to a facility such as a nuclear power plant. It is worth noting that ISIS includes hundreds of fighters from Europe and North America, who can travel in Europe and the United States without needing a visa." See: http://nuclearsecuritymatters.belfercenter.org/blog/how-much-nuclear-chemical-or-biological-threat-might-isis-pose-part-ii

BW is an entirely different kettle of fish. If IS should overrun the SSRC in Damascus, which is not entirely out of the realm of reality, Europe would face epidemics and pandemics they are not prepared in any way to counter or control. What are the current CW and BW capabilities of IS? It is the position of this author that discussions on whether or not IS would use such weapons is a mute point so I will not take time to discuss the 'what ifs.'

National Defence published an article recently which, if true, provides a bit of insight on IS biological weapon aspirations and capabilities. In "ISIL Determined to Acquire Biological Weapons," Sara Sicard writes: "Intelligence has recently discovered that ISIS intends to pursue biological agents and also is trying to figure out how to weaponize bubonic plague through the use of infected animals," quoting Brig. Gen. Maria Gervais, Gervais is head of the Army's Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear School." See: http://www.nationaldefensemagazine.org/blog/lists/posts/post.aspx?ID=1632 Although this concept that IS is working on plague appears to be pulled from a supposed laptop which ISIS apparently had allowed to fall into enemy hands, I find this particularly difficult to believe and the rudimentary data on the laptop would also suggest they do not have a grasp of BW in any stretch of the imagination, IS has shown interest in CBW. Apparently one of the statements in the laptop was "“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.” http://hotair.com/archives/2014/08/29/isis-terror-computer/

If this were the case we have nothing to fear from IS. Any biological weapons experts knows that using explosives to deploy BW kills it. It is the least suitable way to deploy and plague, like anthrax is treatable. We should ignore the laptop information altogether. It would appear given ISIS, like Al Qaeda's quest for BW is underway. The difference with ISIS is they have the financial means to attract and acquire higher level scientists and control areas where they could test it possibly on human subjects, thereby forgoing the need to waste money on developing animal models and could effectively deploy it in a mass casualty scenario.

The capability issue is a concern should they overtake the SSRC in Damascus and install a scientific team with knowledge of synbio. Much of the research undertaken at the SSRC is research into novel pathogens and deployment techniques. This would give ISIS a state warfare capability. I believe they are currently interested but not capable.  With chemical warfare agents they are already using it and should they acquire VX or sarin both in Assad's former declared stockpiles they could easily transport this over land to Europe and deploy it around a city center.  Governments generally downplay the ease of use but in fact CW in smaller quantities transported by several couriers with EU passports would be doable. BW is even easier as the quantity doesn't matter as much as the quality of pathogenic agent and some agents don't need to be weaponized.  The first deployment of a biological warfare agent in Europe will be a wake up call to all states who continue to believe they are for some reason exempt from such attacks. The real risk any ISIS WMD program posses to Europe is the dismissal by European governments that such an attack would ever occur. It is the denial and disbelief that ISIS could possess such a capability and their intent to use it which is the biggest threat to European populations. 

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