Friday, January 31, 2014

India 1: How the Soviet's acquired and built one of the most advance smallpox weapon programs

Washington and Moscow are joining forces to prevent an international effort to destroy their remaining stocks of smallpox, arguing that the supplies could be needed develop a vaccine in the event of a bio-terror attack.

Much has been written on the Soviet Biopreparat program since its discovery in 1989, following the defection of several senior scientists who headed up the program, notably one of the largest clandestine BW programs ever run by a State. Expert analysis on all facets of Biopreparat are in the public domain and this is not intended as a review of those experts work only a glimpse into one aspect common to all military BW programs. Often overlooked, but of interest in understanding how biological warfare programs develop is the procurement and acquisition process undertaken in obtaining culture collections particularly after the ratification of the BTWC in 1976. While the fall of the Soviet Union ushered in an era of concern over scientific flight and while states such as Syria, Iran and the DPRK are suspected of having obtained highly pathogenic strains of Category A agents from the former Soviet stocks, it is the Soviet acquisition of India 1 a particularly virulent strain of smallpox,  which is perhaps more indicative of how sections of some programs have been built. It is worth considering that during natural and re-occurring outbreaks of deadly disease such as Ebola and other viral hemorrhagic fevers (VHF), some thought should be given to securing outbreak sites beyond protocols to prevent further transmission of  disease or epidemics.

Although the Soviet program dates back to the 1920's, their acquisition of India 1 is of special interest today as we consider how states such as Syria and the DPRK build their biological warfare programs. 

India 1 
Smallpox is believed to have emerged in human populations about 10,000 BC. Smallpox was responsible for an estimated 300-500 million deaths during the 20th century alone more than all wars combined. As recently as 1967, the WHO estimated 15 million people contracted the disease and two million of those died that year. See:
Smallpox is caused by infection with variola virus, which belongs to the genus orthopoxvirus, the family poxviridae and subfamily chordopoxiridae. In 1947, the Soviets established a smallpox weapon production facility in Zagorsk, 75 km from Moscow. In 1971, after an open air field test of weaponized (aerosolized) smallpox believed to be based on the India 1 strain at a military testing ground on the Aral Sea, an outbreak occurred. General Prof. Peter Burgasov, former Chief Sanitary Physician of the Soviet Army and a senior researcher within the Soviet program of biological warfare, described the incident:  
On Vozrozhdeniya Island in the Aral Sea, the strongest recipes of smallpox were tested. Suddenly I was informed that there were mysterious cases of moralities in Aralsk. A research ship of the Aral fleet came to within 15 km of the island (it was forbidden to come any closer than 40 km). The lab technician of this ship took samples of plankton twice a day from the top deck. The smallpox formulation—400 gr. of which was exploded on the island—"got her" and she became infected. After returning home to Aralsk, she infected several people including children. All of them died. I suspected the reason for this and called the Chief of General Staff of Ministry of Defense and requested to forbid the stop of the Alma-Ata—Moscow train in Aralsk. As a result, the epidemic around the country was prevented. I called Andropov, who at that time was Chief of KGB, and informed him of the exclusive recipe of smallpox obtained on Vozrazhdenie Island.[98][99]  See:
Ken Alibek, as he is known publicly was Chief Scientist at Biopreparat from 1987 to 1992. He contends:

"The Russians themselves had proposed the global eradication program back in 1958. They had pledged to provide 25 million doses of vaccine every year to the program. If we hadn't had that amount of vaccine we could never have succeeded.' Alibek further contends that the Kremlin had a clear understanding that if smallpox was eradicated, and vaccination ended, the virus had the potential to be the most powerful and effective weapon ever created to eliminate human life. According to Alibek, one particularly virulent strain India 67 or India 1, was chosen by the Russians to be weaponized. They perfected techniques for mass producing smallpox and maintained a rolling annual stockpile of hundreds of tonnes. They also developed ways to disseminate the virus in aerial bombs and ballistic missile warheads. Additional work was done to enhance the virulence of the virus and to combine it with other viruses." See:

But how did the Soviet's actually acquire their India 1 strain? For the most part this has been speculative. Raymond Zilinskas, Milton Leitenberg and Jens Kuhn in their impressive work entitled:  The Soviet Biological Weapons Program: a History, note three possible sources: 1. That they could have acquired it from a 1959 smallpox outbreak in Moscow, result of an Indian passenger, the index case who arrived on a plane from New Delhi. 2. The Institute for Viral Preperations in Moscow which was a WHO reference center may have received it as part of a normal exchange as it was common practice for laboratories to exchange culture collections; or 3. When it was confirmed that the Indian passenger had smallpox, Zagorsk sent a scientific team to Moscow. They collected blood samples and took it back to their institute and weaponized it over the course of eight years.

Follow-up blogs will consider how Iran and Syria may have collected their variola strains and what efforts might be undertaken to prevent further proliferation.
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Jill Bellamy is an internationally recognized expert on biological warfare and defence. She has formerly advised NATO and for the past seventeen years has represented a number of bio-pharmaceutical and government clients working on procurement strategy between NATO MS and Washington DC. Her articles have appeared in the National Review, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The Sunday Times of London, Le Temps, Le Monde and the Jerusalem Post among other publications. She is a CBRN SME with the U.S. Department of Defence, Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Defence Information Analysis Center and CEO of Warfare Technology Analytics, a private consultancy based in the Netherlands. She is an Associate Fellow with the Henry Jackson Society, UK.

Syria's Biological Weapon Program

As international attention focuses on the destruction of Syria’s long denied chemical weapons program, its biological weapons program, although acknowledged in 2012 by then-Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi, remains in the shadows. For decades as Assad quietly built his chemical arsenal from trading with partners such as Germany and the Netherlands[1], these activities and the sale in chemical pre-cursors, which are illegal under the United Nations Chemical Weapon Convention (CWC), slid under the radar and caused no real concern. For the most part the sale of chemical precursors to States like Iraq, Iran and Syria were largely ignored or in some instances, denied by non-proliferation parties who were more inclined to criticize the United States for their engagement in Iraq and failing to support the Biological and Toxin Weapon Convention, Verification Protocol. The latter of which would have allowed inspectors drawn from countries like Iran to enter our most classified defence laboratories. As Syria quietly amassed a huge chemical weapon arsenal non-proliferation and arms control NGO’s and even several State signatories to the Chemical Weapon Convention, looked the other way. 

Klein online: Israeli Special Operations inside Syria

Today, as Syria's chemical weapon stockpiles are destroyed at sea, their biological weapon program, just as their chemical program was for decades, is willfully being ignored. The focus on Syria's chemical weapon destruction, is a highlight for 'non-proliferation' experts who will likely try to claim victory for something they denied was happening for two decades. Syria has developed biological weapon programs which continues to be treated by these same non-proliferation advocates with high skepticism, denial, ignorance, in much the same way its chemical weapon programs were until chemical weapons were deployed on the streets of Damascus. Leaving little room for the disbelievers to pretend Assad had no chemical weapon respositories and or more concerning no intent to use this. Even after chemical compounds (sarin) were deployed in Jobar, a suburb of Damascus, while United Nation inspectors were less than ten kilometers away, there has been on major outcry for Assad to hand over his biological weapon programs, just as there was no outcry, particularly from nations who collected extensive intelligence on this, over his chemical weapon stockpile. Until the use of Sarin in Jobar and after thirteen or more previous CW deployments (strikes), were efforts taken so the non-proliferation community could appear to be at the helm. While weapon experts and inspectors for the most part would acknowledge Assad's CW and BW programs have existed for decades, the non-proliferation community remained largely unwilling to do so and mainly denied the existence of Assad's BW programs run out of the SSRC in Damascus. 

Ake Sellstrom, who headed up the UN inspection team issued a report on the sixteenth of September, " which concluded that evidence collected in the Ghouta area of Damascus following an attack on 21 August provided 'clear and convincing evidence that surface to surface rockets containing the nerve agent sarin were used." Thursday's report said evidence indicated chemical weapons were probably used in Khan al Assal outside Aleppo, Jobar in the eastern suburbs of Damascus, Saraqueb near Idlib in the north-west, and Ashrafiah Sahnaya in the countryside outside Damascus." Syria: Chemical Weapons probably used in four more places, UN inspectors find, The Guardian, 13, December, 2013. URL: http://www.

While the CWC inspection regime, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, announced it will run out of funding to destroy current stockpiles, of additional concern is the transfer of chemical and biological weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon. The idea that CW and possibly BW were transferred to Lebanon over a year ago, is met with general denial by arms-control NGO's and non-proliferation advocate alike. Just as Syria's chemical weapon programs were denied for over two decades allowing them to quietly amass tons of CW. The concept that Syria posses a BW capability and may have transferred sections of Hezbollah, tends to be acknowledged by Western Intelligence agency however. Khaled Daher, a Lebanese Member of Parliament, stated "Iran's Revolutionary Guards constructed underground bunkers and store rooms in Lebanon to house long-range missiles capable of carrying chemical warheads that Hezbollah received from Syria." see: Report: Iran trained more than 30,000 Hezbollah fighters, UPI, 19 October, 2013. URL: News/World News/2013/10/09/Report-Iran-trained-more-than-30,000-Hezbollah-fighters/UPI-96051381315851

When Israel dares to raise the subject of biological or other unconventional weapons, or provide its ‘allies’ with evidence of almost any class of weapon acquired by Hezbollah, Iran, Syria, Sudan or any other terrorist organization, it is usually swiftly rebuked and generally treated with skepticism, marginalized and in some circles, treated with hostility just for providing such intelligence. If we consider the case of the use of chemical weapons on civilians in Syria, until their use, Israeli intelligence was dismissed. When it is accepted that a state has WMD programs, the next argument intended to oppose actually dealing with the reality of it, is to formulate discussion on ‘intent.’ Up until Sarin was deployed in Damascus and other sites, most WMD experts would caution that he did not have the ‘intent’ even if he had the capability and that Syria’s programs were for deterrence. It is time to take a sober look at Assad’s BW programs and ‘intent,’ which apparently was not accurately assessed per his use of CW.

In an article which appeared recently in the Times of Israel, the staff writer notes:

“In an unclassified report in April, US Director of National Intelligence James Clapper assessed that Syria could be capable of producing limited biological weapons.“Based on the duration of Syria’s longstanding biological warfare (BW) program, we judge that some elements of the program may have advanced beyond the research and development stage and may be capable of limited agent production,” Clapper wrote. “Syria is not known to have successfully weaponized biological agents in an effective delivery system, but it possesses conventional and chemical weapon systems that could be modified for biological agent delivery.”

The Times article continued with a statement by Anthony Cordesman from A 2008 report on Syrian WMDs, who went further, citing Israeli sources. According to Israel, Cordesman wrote, “Syria weaponized botulinum and ricin toxins in the early 1990s, and probably anthrax.” He noted “reports of one underground facility and one near the coast,” cited a “possible production capability for anthrax and botulism, and possibly other agents,” and mentioned “limited indications [Syria] may be developing or testing biological variations on ZAB-incendiary bombs and PTAB-500 cluster bombs and Scud warheads.” The Cordesman report noted that “using advanced agents – such as the most lethal forms of anthrax – can have the effectiveness of small theater nuclear weapons. It is difficult to design adequate missile warheads to disseminate such agents, but this is not beyond Syrian capabilities – particularly since much of the technology needed to make effective cluster munitions and bomblets for VX gas can be adapted to the delivery of biological weapons.” See: Assad's biological weapons absent from US-Russia deal, The Times of Israel. URL: 

Today in Damascus, Al Assad retains a significant biological weapon program although some may argue that nearly 70% has now been looted (see follow-up post), That program poses a direct threat to international health security which his CW arsenal simply did not. Syria's BW programs post an existential threat to Israel if not the entire international community. Concerning is the pattern of denial which emerged as a hallmark of non-proliferation advocated over Assad's CW stockpiles. An expert source commented, 'In Geneva when discussions of Syria's BW programs arise it is treated as a non-issue, almost a myth, so abstract that it didn't bear discussing in any depth or detail. When it did come up it was quickly dismissed as posing no more of a danger than a natural outbreak any disease may present. Generally Syria's BW programs were dismissed and denied by non-proliferation advocates and any expert who brought up the matter was dismissed or rumored to be working for the US State Department, with the intent to marginalized biological defence specialists by an over riding non-proliferation advocacy.' While natural outbreaks of pandemic disease, even avian flu and genetically modified versions of this or other highly pathogenic agents could potentially pose catastrophic mortality rates, nothing compares to a well orchestrated, multi-state release of BW, most probable genetically modified pathogens, created in a military weapon laboratory and deployed by trained military/terrorist personnel, such as the Quds forces or Hezbollah would pose a significant weapons of mass destruction threat. Natural outbreaks of disease do not compare to an offensive biological weapon deployment by a State. If this isn't concerning enough, part of the training on deployment for this weapon class has apparently been conducted with the consent of the Khartoum government in Sudan. While South Sudan spirals into tribal war, it is not unimaginable that Iran's IRCG may well have provided not only training in conventional weapons, but biological and chemical weapon deployment as well. It is probable training was conducted by the Al Quds Force, responsible for extraterritorial operations, a primary component of which is training up Islamic fundamentalist terrorist  organizations. Currently the Quds Force conducts training activities in Iran and Sudan. See URL: http//  

As noted by Katherine Zimmerman in an American Enterprise Institute Report: "The United States sanctioned Sudan as a state sponsor of terrorism in 1993 for harboring international terrorist groups, including Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), Lebanese Hezbollah, and Egypt's al Gama'a al Islamiyaa.(17). At least 10 paramilitary training camps in Sudan provided training to Hamas and other terrorist groups at the time.(18).  

“The United States sanctioned Sudan as a state sponsor of terrorism in 1993 for harboring international terrorist groups, including Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), Lebanese Hezbollah, and Egypt’s al Gama’a al Islamiyya.[17] At least 10 paramilitary training camps in Sudan provided training to Hamas and other terrorist groups at the time. Over the years, both the US and Israel have periodically hit targets in Sudan for facilitating terrorism and weapon trans-shipments. American cruise missiles hit a pharmaceutical company in Khartoum in 1998 that had alleged links to Osama bin Laden, and Israeli planes hit an arms convoy in January, 2009(27) The Yarmouk Military Industrial Complex in Khartoum, struck in 2012, was allegedly linked to Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), exploded in October 2012. (18) See: Zimmerman, Katherine, Strike on Khartoum: October 23, 2012, American Enterprise Institute:

Sadly, unlike chemical weapons, it doesn't matter where biological warfare agents would be released or which lab it comes from. As biological weapons are living organisms, it’s the pace not the space that is uniquely characteristic. As we have witnessed with the outbreak of WPV1 in Syria which the WHO has typed back to Pakistan and which was likely introduced into Syria by foreign fighters, namely AQ, when bio is released either in Syria or Sudan where fighters have been trained up on it for the last several years, the global community is at immediately risk. This is not like a chemical munition that detonate and is contained and dissipates. Biological weapons in Sudan and the training of Hezbollah’s forces at camps in the North are a serious and real time danger to international health security. War torn countries like Syria and Sudan pose significant risks in terms of command and control over WMD arsenals. While we might applaud the efforts of the non-proliferation groups for finally acknowledging Syria has a chemical weapon program, although begrudgingly and their rather forced position to now dispose of it, Assad keeps his far more valuable biological weapon complex intact. full content report available:

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Jill Bellamy is an internationally recognized expert on biological warfare and defence. She has formerly advised NATO and for the past seventeen years has represented a number of bio-pharmaceutical and government clients working on procurement strategy between NATO MS and Washington DC. Her articles have appeared in the National Review, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The Sunday Times of London, Le Temps, Le Monde and the Jerusalem Post among other publications. She is a CBRN SME with the U.S. Department of Defence, Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Defence Information Analysis Center and CEO of Warfare Technology Analytics, a private consultancy based in the Netherlands. She is an Associate Fellow with the Henry Jackson Society, UK.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Iran's Biological Weapon Complex: Author's note: In 2010, when I was asked to take a look at Iran's biological weapon programs, I hesitated. I went in eyes wide open considering that if Iran even had a program it surely was an emerging one in its infancy and could hardly pose a threat, particularly as international attention was squarly focused on Iran's budding nuclear aspirations. I was surprised after undertaking nearly two years of research to discover a more advanced biological weapon complex than I ever imagined. This is a section of the research from that period.

Black Six: Furture Weapons of War

Laboratory image of the smallpox virus
Six pathogens, throughout the history of biological warfare, have been considered the most deadly and therefore the most suitable as weapons: anthrax, botulinium, plague, smallpox, tularaemia and viral hemorrhagic fever(s), of these, only smallpox has no other known host, but humans.

“The last case of endemic smallpox occurred in Somalia in 1977, and eradication of the disease was officially declared in 1980. With no natural reservoir, variola virus, which causes smallpox, has existed only in laboratories; indeed, the last case of smallpox was due to infection acquired in a laboratory in the United Kingdom in 1978. During the global program of smallpox eradication, the World Health Organization (WHO) made concerted efforts to decrease the number of laboratories retaining variola virus. On the basis of contacts with all countries and a total of 823 microbiology institutions, 76 such laboratories had been identified by 1978.1,2 By 1984, only the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in Atlanta, and the Research Institute of Viral Preparations, in Moscow, retained variola virus isolates. In 1994, the Russian isolates were moved to the State Research Center of Virology and Biotechnology (the VektorInstitute), in Novosibirsk, Russia.”[10]

“There is concern that variola virus resides outside these laboratories and could be used as a weapon by terrorists. Possible sources are virus in countries that claim that they destroyed their stocks but did not and virus acquired from laboratories in the former Soviet Union.3,4 An accidental or deliberate release of smallpox could cause a major epidemic.5-7 Because vaccination against smallpox has not been performed routinely in the United States since 1972 and in the rest of the world since about 1982, there is now a large population of susceptible persons.1 Thus, if an outbreak occurred, prompt recognition and institution of control measures would be important.”[11]

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