In the security world today, there is not a day that goes by, that we don’t hear about chemical agents and biological threats towards us. There is always somebody, somewhere trying to cook up something. I started writing an article about a month ago on Japanese Aum Shinrikyo, whom you will hear more about below. In searching for info on Aum, I found this great article and follow up response from Scott Steward from Statford, that answered many of my questions.
On Aug. 28
Scott Stewart from Statford
Foreign Policy magazine exclusive story by Harald Doornbos and Jenan Moussa titled Found: The Islamic State’s Terror Laptop of Doom. The story noted that among a cache of documents found on a computer captured from the Islamic State in Syria was a 19-page document purported to be instructions for creating a biological weapon by weaponizing plague extracted from infected animals. According to the article, the document noted: “The advantage of biological weapons is that they do not cost a lot of money, while the human casualties can be huge.”
This document provides a good example of the terrorist tradecraft conundrum militant organizations often face, in which their intent outstrips their capability. While biological weapons do appear to be easy to manufacture and deploy in theory, history shows a successful biological weapons program is far harder to achieve than it may appear at first glance.
As we noted in 2009 in response to rumors that al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb was experimenting with the plague as well, the plague, sometimes referred to as the Black Death, is a naturally occurring disease that is caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis. This pathogen is found in rodents and fleas that infest them and exists in many parts of the world, including the western United States. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are some 1,000 to 2,000 cases of plague diagnosed in humans every year, with between one and 17 of those cases occurring in the United States. It is notable, however, that according to the World Health Organization, plague does not occur naturally in Syria or Iraq, although it does in Libya and Algeria.
Y. pestis can infect humans in three ways. The bacteria cause pneumonic plague when inhaled, though pneumonic plague can also occur when plague bacteria from another form of transmission infect the lungs. Bubonic plague results when the bacteria enter through a break in the skin (such as a fleabite) and septicemic plague occurs when the bacteria multiply in the victim’s blood, usually after being infected by one of the other types. In general, a fleabite is the primary form of infection, and if the infection is left untreated, it can evolve into a case of bubonic (the most common outcome) or septicemic plague.
Y. pestis is a fragile bacterium that does not last long in sunlight or after it is dried, and plague is treatable with antibiotics, which are especially effective if administered early. However,
pneumonic plague can be contagious if a person inhales respiratory droplets containing the bacteria from an infected person. Such a transmission usually requires close contact with the infected individual. Merely wearing a simple surgical mask can protect a person from pneumonic plague infection.
Before we assess the Islamic State’s capability and intent to create a weapon using plague, let’s first look briefly at the history of plague as a weapon.
Plague has long been of interest as a weapon in biological warfare, with reports from Tatars catapulting plague-infected bodies at Genoese sailors in the City of Caffa in the Crimea in the 14th century, to Japan’s efforts to drop clay pots of plague-infected fleas over Manchuria, to the Soviet weapons programs during the Cold War and perhaps beyond. While the Tatars and Japanese used the bubonic form of the plague, according to former Soviet scientist Ken Alibek, the Soviet program focused on and perfected an aerosolized form of the bacterium designed to cause pneumonic plague.
Without question, the best example of a modern non-state actor developing a biological weapons program was the Japanese Aum Shinrikyo, which in the late 1980s assembled a team of trained scientists and spent millions of dollars to develop a series of state-of-the-art biological weapons research and production laboratories.
Aum experimented with botulinum toxin, anthrax, cholera and Q fever and even tried to acquire the Ebola virus. However, despite multiple attempts to produce mass casualty attacks using botulinum toxin and anthrax from 1990 to 1993, Aum was not able to produce a virulent agent — indeed, nobody outside of the group was even aware that the attacks happened. It was only when the group switched to producing chemical weapons, such as the nerve agent sarin and sodium cyanide gas, that it was able to conduct fatal attacks in 1995. The investigation into the chemical attacks produced the evidence of the group’s extensive biological weapons program. Frankly, they could have killed far more people, with far less expense and effort, using firearms or bombs, but such conventional weapons could never produce the global apocalypse the group’s leadership aspired to.
Despite the difficulties inherent in developing a biological weapons program, radical groups have not given up. It has long been known that jihadist groups such as al Qaeda have sought to develop chemical and biological weapons, believing that using such weapons is not only permissible but even an obligation. In an interview aired on ABC News in December 1998, Osama bin Laden said, “If I have indeed acquired these weapons, then this is an obligation I carried out, and I thank God for enabling me to do so.” While terrorist groups have experimented with crude biological toxins such as ricin and crude chemical compounds such as sodium cyanide gas, they have not been able to parlay those experiments into viable weapons capable of creating mass casualties.
To properly understand the threat posed by the Islamic State’s employing biological weapons, we must examine both the group’s intent and capability. First, as noted above, the group has ample ideological justifications. Second, by design, terrorist attacks are intended to have a psychological impact far outweighing the physical damage they cause. As their name suggests, they are meant to cause terror that amplifies the actual attack. The Islamic State has a long history of conducting brutal actions intended to cause panic, and a successful biological terrorist attack would certainly create such a panic.
Clearly, if the Islamic State were able to develop effective biological weapons, it would employ them, if not against targets in the West, then against regime targets in Iraq and Syria. Indeed, in 2006 and 2007 the group’s predecessor, al Qaeda in Iraq, included large quantities of chlorine in vehicle bombs in an effort to cause mass casualties against U.S. and Iraqi troops in Iraq. These weapons proved quite ineffective, and the explosives in the bombs killed more people than the chlorine. This caused the group to discontinue their use when they did not achieve the desired results.
The Islamic State would love to discover a cheap and easy way to create mass casualties, but in pursuing plague as a weapon, the group appears to have bought into some of the many common misconceptions involving biological weapons, namely, that they are easy to obtain, easy to deploy effectively, and, when used, always cause massive casualties. But as illustrated by the above-mentioned Aum Shinrikyo example, in the real world, creating an effective biological weapons program requires extensive investment, scientific know-how, and time and effort — and they still don’t always work as advertised.
Like many biological agents, there are great challenges associated with producing and employing large quantities of a virulent biological agent. Certainly, plague can be obtained from the environment in a place where it occurs naturally, such as Algeria or Libya, but taking that bacteria and producing a large quantity of it in a virulent form and then disbursing it in an efficient manner is another matter entirely. While the huge Soviet biological weapons program was able to overcome these obstacles and successfully produce an effective aerosolized plague weapon, it would be difficult for a smaller organization like the Islamic State to do so, especially since it lacks access to a large and advanced biological weapons program and the associated and necessary facilities.
In addition to the difficulty of establishing a viable biological weapons program in the Islamic State-controlled areas of Iraq and Syria, there are also some additional problems with the plot as reportedly outlined in the purported Islamic State biological warfare document. According to Foreign Policy, the document advised the attackers to “use small grenades with the virus, and throw them in closed areas like metros, soccer stadiums, or entertainment centers,” and said that it is “best to do it next to the air-conditioning. It also can be used during suicide operations.”
As noted above, Y. pestis is a fragile bacterium. The heat and shock of a grenade explosion would almost certainly kill most of the bacteria before it could be transmitted to a victim. Even if some of the bacteria were to survive the grenade’s explosion, bubonic and septicemic plagues are not easily spread from person to person, and an attack with a small grenade device would therefore be unlikely to cause an epidemic; it would likely cause more panic than deaths.
If Islamic State attack planners could isolate a virulent strain of Y. pestis, infecting a few suicide operatives with pneumonic plague and then dispatching them to cough and sneeze on people, or attempting to release some infected fleas in a targeted area, might better serve them. But
even if the group were somehow successful in infecting people, even these scenarios would not produce the type of mass casualties the Islamic State seeks since plague is readily treatable with antibiotics, making weaponized plague just another jihadist pipe dream.