Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Looting the Labs: Syria's Biological Weapon Program and Al Qaeda

Since 911 and the U.S. anthrax attacks, focus has been placed on 'bio-security.' Bio-security' has a number of situational-dependent meanings. For the purpose of this article, 'bio-security' will be defined as: 

"[ ]encompass(ing) the prevention of the intentional removal (theft) of biological materials from research laboratories. These preventative measures are a combination of systems and practices put into its place at legitimate bio-science laboratories to prevent the use of dangerous pathogens and toxins for malicious use, as well as by customs agents and agricultural and natural resource managers to prevent the spread of these biological agents in natural and managed environments.[1] More recent definition with advances in technology also involves oversight of dual-use research (Koblentz, 2010). Dual-use research has the potential to create new health security issues. The most inclusive definition of all would be biosecurity as "security against the inadvertent, inappropriate, or intentional malicious or malevolent use of potentially dangerous biological agents or biotechnology, including the development, production, stockpiling, or use of biological weapons as well as outbreaks of newly emergent and epidemic disease" as defined by The National Academies of Science (Koblentz, 2010). This definition is analogous to that of health security. Although security is usually thought of in terms of "Guards, Gates, and Guns", biosecurity encompasses much more than that and requires the cooperation of scientists, technicians, policy makers, security engineers, and law enforcement officials." see:

Syria today possesses a number of dual use facilities and laboratories which comprise sections of a highly compartmentalized biological weapon program. In July, 2012, Jihad Makdissi, Syria's spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced on Syrian state television that the regime would not use chemical or biological weapons against its civilian populations, confirming what had long been suspected by Western intelligence agencies. See: and Highly concerning is Assad's potential loss of command and control over his bio-pharmaceutical infrastructure, which supports and contributes, to this weapon complex. The SSRC which is the core research center for Assad's WMD programs contributes as well, however the SSRC is relatively well protected with hardened labs and some estimates suggest it is partially now guarded by IRGC/Quds.

Serious concerns remain however, with regard to the looting of some laboratories and one estimate, from a source who has previously provided highly accurate, in country accounts, on a number of facilities, estimates the looting to be at around 70% of Syria's laboratories and veterinary vaccine facilities. The source is a highly credible NATO citizen, whom I've personally had direct contact with for over seven years. The source has provided ample documentation and photographic evidence from inside the labs.  The looting has occurred in sections where Al Qaeda has been fighting. In one incident, five members of Hezbollah were killed. While Hezbollah would likely be privy to direct transfers of laboratory equipment and or pathogenic agents, Al Qaeda generally would not, as they are not a state sponsored entity, although there is evidence to suggest they work on occasion with what would appear to be counter-interests. In my view, as BW expert, there is a risk that Al Qaeda, given their lengthy track record of not only calls to acquire and use BW/WMD as a religious duty, but their long term recruitment of experts trained in Western universities, could divert materials and pathogenic agents; possibly skirting it to AQLIM or Islamic Jihad of Yemen. It is possible AQ, well aware of Syrian laboratory infrastructures, could  divert such materials in areas where it is fighting and has access to these facilities. An  geospatial analysis of areas where Syrian labs now under ISIS controlled zones, paints an increasingly concerning picture. It is not a coincidence that Yazid Sufaat, Al Qaeda's long time BW expert who ran Al Qaeda's anthrax program then set up his own private facility, 'Green Laboratory',  was recently rearrested for planning terrorist activities in Syria and is currently being held under ISA detention. Israel too, aware of the threat both Hezbollah and Al Qaeda's possession of biological warfare agents and dual use related materials (lab stocks) poses, has interned a known biological weapon expert for Al Qaeda. Samar Halmi Abdel Latif Al-Barq was recruited by  Ayman al-Zawahiri, now head of Al Qaeda and the same recruiter of Sufaat under Osama bin Laden. Al Barq's, detention has no doubt  removed a major Al Qaeda biological weapon threat form the region however, the looting of Syrian laboratories is very concerning. See:

Syria is long suspected of conducting work on botulinum, anthrax, smallpox, ricin, T2, among other agents and toxins. Laboratories working on vaccines would be a target of AQ  and fighting near those labs gives ample opportunity. The labs have not been destroyed by bombings or damaged by mortar rounds, but looted of their equipment. Assad does not need to loot his own labs and one has to question to what extent he maintains command and control over this deadly infrastructure.  Will update shortly.
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.

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