Isaac Kfir, Advisory Board, International Institute for Justice and the Rule of Law and Adjunct Professor, Charles Sturt University
Bioterrorism refers to the intentional use of biological toxins or pathogenic organisms that could cause disease and death in plants, animals, and humans so as to coerce, influence or intimidate a government or civilian population for political, social, or economic gain. The use of bioagents (bioweapons) to inflict harm has been a feature of warfare for centuries. The earliest recorded attempt occurred in the sixth century when the Assyrians used fungus rye ergot against their enemies. In the fourteenth century, the Tartars catapulted dead bodies contaminated with the plague towards their enemies. During World War I, the Germans experimented with anthrax; and, in the 1930s, the Japanese established a bioweapon program through the infamous Unit 721, which also conducted experiments on humans. In more recent history, Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons against the Kurdish inhabitants of Halabja.
Terrorism scholars Wither, Pantucci and Bloom point out that despite the dissipation of terrorist attacks over the years, the threat remains, due to the evolving nature of terrorism. Special attention needs to be paid to the possibility of non-state actors deploying bioagents such as anthrax (bacteria), Covid-19 (virus) or botulinum (toxin) in terrorist attacks.
The growing prevalence of naturally-occurring outbreaks such as SARS, MERS, Avian Flu, and now of Covid-19, — which has claimed the lives of of nearly 4 million people globally — have led the Islamic State, al-Qaeda, and others to claim that such diseases punish the unworthy and are indicative of the ills of contemporary society.
Cheaper and More Potent
Bioweapons could become the weapons of choice for non-state actors for several reasons. First, they are more potent than chemical agents and they offer a cheaper route to CBRN (Chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear) capability. Secondly, there are more regulations on chemical, nuclear or radiological equipment, whereas dangerous biological pathogens are more available, as is access to biotechnology.
Although easier to access, bioweapons do come with specific challenges. First, not all bioweapons are easy to construct and deliver, which is why one distinguishes between naturally occurring pathogens such as the deadly bacillus anthracis and synthetic ones. Secondly, having the capability does not mean one has the will to carry out such attacks, as bioweapons are notoriously hard to control.
Jihadist Case Studies
Over the last two decades, there have been examples of al-Qaeda and Islamic State either using or looking to use bioagents. It began soon after 9/11 when US Central Command discovered that al-Qaeda opened a laboratory in Afghanistan to examine pathogens — specifically anthrax. CIA Director George Tenet claimed that Osama bin Laden believed that acquiring such capabilities was a religious duty. In 2008, Midhat Mursi al-Sayyid Umar, the head of al-Qaeda’s al-Zabadi chemical weapons program, had published manuals on how to manufacture biological and chemical weapons. In the early 2010s, American intelligence officials were concerned that an al-Qaeda affiliate in Yemen was looking to procure castor beans used to manufacture ricin. In June 2018, German security forces arrested Seif Allah H., an Islamic State sympathizer, for trying to construct a ricin bomb and, a month earlier, French counterterrorism police officers arrested two brothers whom they claimed were preparing to commit a terrorist attack using either explosives or ricin. One of the brothers had downloaded tutorials on how to construct a ricin-based poison.
Assessing the threat of bioterrorism is challenging as there are only a handful of examples of non-state actors using bioagents with ‘traditional’ groups largely eschewing this form of terrorism, whereas ‘non-traditional’ groups actually explore such tools. The former refers to anarchists, nationalists, and the New Left, whereas the latter are religiously-inspired, cosmic warriors who have a predisposition towards extra-normative acts of violence.
A Growing Will To Use Bioagents
The need to remain vigilant about bioterrorism stems from the fact that extremists have thought about using such tools to achieve their goals — specifically because when it comes to bioweapons there is evidence of cross-extremist pollination, with some jihadists taking note of what right-wing extremists do in this space. A prime example is with Islamic State fighter Muhammad S., who had a background in chemistry and physics. His laptop contained instructions issued by former American Nazi Party member Kurt Saxon, on how to extract the deadly toxin ricin from castor beans. In other words, traditional groups may eschew the idea of using such tools, but individuals and franchisees may not, as seen with Jemaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD), an Indonesian group affiliated with the Islamic State. In 2019, Indonesia’s counterterrorism unit, Detachment 88, discovered explosives laced with abrin — a biological agent found in rosary pea seeds. Reportedly, the group was planning on using such explosives to attack the Cirebon Police Headquarters in West Java.
Islamic State has shown greater interest in bioagents than al-Qaeda. In 2014, Syrian rebels fighting Islamic State recovered a laptop that included propaganda materials and a 26-page fatwa written by Saudi cleric Nasir al-Fahd discussing the permissibility of using weapons of mass destruction. Also discovered on the laptop was a 19-page manual on how to develop biological weapons, including instructions on how to extract the bubonic plague from infected animals. Reportedly, Islamic State had used chemical weapons over 30 times in Syria, and its members have allegedly looked into using hydrogen sulphide in Australia and anthrax in Kenya.
With the loss of its territory and the targeting of senior leaders, it is evident a theological rift has occurred within the Islamic State. There is evidence of two wings — the ‘moderates’ and ‘dissenters’ — with the former being less doctrinally rigid, as they recognize their limitations in defeating the infidels. This schism has impacted the group’s strategy and tactics. In Africa, Islamic State franchises have appeared in the Sahel, Lake Chad Basin, the Horn of Africa, coastal West Africa, and Central and Southern Africa. The danger here is that some of these groups might opt to use one of the many naturally-occurring dangerous pathogens.
The onset of Covid-19 has led governments to intensify and improve their bio-preparedness and bio-defense capabilities. There has also been better coordination and will to cooperate to address biohazards. However, on the other hand, extremist groups exploited the pandemic and lockdown, taking advantage of people’s increased willingness to embrace conspiracy theories. As a result, there is a strong probability of a new wave of non-state actor activities that could include the use of bioagents, as people have seen the damage such pathogens are able to cause.
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