Sunday, October 25, 2015

Islamic State and Catastrophic Terrorism: De-skilling in WMD

When we consider 'catastrophic terrorism'  for example, 911, when terrorists used conventional methods of hijacking commercial airlines for use as WMD (weapons of mass destruction), essentially the use of commercial airlines as bombs, its possible to consider this one of the major mass destruction instances of 'de-skilling.' In contrast to the recent, suspected bombing on board the Russian commercial airline Metrojet 9268 over the Sinai which, although causing loss of life is not mass casualty in the sense of 911 and the use of a plane to kill thousands of civilians. The Madrid train bombings, the use again of transportation systems to deliver bombs and cause mass casualties is conventional, catastrophic and mass casualty. In the field of WMD terrorism, the acquisition of biological warfare agents has not occurred in any significant or coordinated undertaking, unlike nuclear materials which have witnessed statistically significant diversion, theft and sale on black markets mainly running through the Balkins. Conventional terrorist weapons continue to dominate acts of mass casualty as the materials required are relatively easy to acquire, manufacture, divert, steal and use. Islamic State has the capacity to build and deploy bombs and have also used chemical agents against civilians on a number of occasions. See:

If we talk about a 'history' of biological weapon development outside military and state labs, attempts to develop and use it have failed to result in mass casualty events. Aum Shinrikyo, the Japanese cult who made several attempts to use BW, according to Monterey Institute of International Studies who published a detailed chronology of Aum's attempts which can be found here: 

"Aum's interest in chemical and biological weapons (CBW) terrorism can be traced back to 1990. between 1990 and 1995, Aum launched 17 known CBW attacks with motivations ranging from assassination to murder.  Of these attacks, 10 were carried out with chemical weapons (four with Sarin, four with VX, one with phosgene and one with hydrogen cyanide) and seven attempted attacks were carried out with biological agents (four with anthrax and three with botulinum toxin, although in both cases the microbial strains were apparently non-virulent). In addition to these cases Aum is alleged to have killed 20 of its members with VX and has been linked more tenuously to more than 19 other CBW attacks and attempted attacks (13 attacks where Aum involvement is suspected and six possible copycats)."  

Aum is considered by most CBW experts to have been one of the best funded and staffed terrorist organizations at the time involved in research into CBW. Their laboratories were state of the art and they had a number of doctoral and post doc level scientist working with them. Aum invested millions in their CBW efforts and still did not achieve anything close to mass casualty or catastrophic terrorism. During the release of Sarin on the Tokyo subway according to Monterey Institute only 12 people died. When we consider the cost of using a BW agents its generally considered one of the cheapest WMD to use. This was not the case for Aum who worked on their BW program for years and invested millions only to achieve a handful of deaths. In comparison to the 2004, Madrid train bombings which killed 191 people and injured 1,800, conventional weapons used in catastrophic terrorist acts is a far more efficient way to create mass casualties, than the history of BW would seem to suggest. 

However, when we consider the future of BW and its use in catestrophic terrorism, given advances in the life sciences, the concept of 'de-skilling' which begins to emerge is more concerning. As I have previously written on, de-skilling and refer to my colleague Johnathan B. Tucker's work on this topic, see:

"[ ] the evolution of many emerging technologies involves a process of de-skilling that, over time, reduces the amount of tacit knowledge required for their use. Chris Chyba of Princeton, for example contends that as whole-genome synthesis is automated, commercialized, and "black-boxed," it will become more accessible to individuals with only basic scientific skills, including terrorists and other malicious actors." See

Tucker contends: 

"Gerald Epstein, of the Center for Science, Technology, and Security Policy, writes that whole-genome synthesis “appears to be following a trajectory familiar to other useful techniques: Originally accessible only to a handful of top research groups working at state-of-the-art facilities, synthesis techniques are becoming more widely available as they are refined, simplified, and improved by skilled technicians and craftsmen. Indeed, they are increasingly becoming ‘commoditized,’ as kits, processes, reagents, and services become available for individuals with basic lab training.”[17] In 2007 Epstein and three co-authors predicted that “ten years from now, it may be easier to synthesize almost any pathogenic virus than to obtain it through other means,” although they did not imply that individuals with only basic scientific training will be among the first to acquire this capability.[18]
To date, the de-skilling of synthetic genomics has affected only a few elements of what is actually a complex, multi-step process. Practitioners of de novo viral synthesis note that the most challenging steps do not involve the synthesis of DNA fragments, which can be ordered from commercial suppliers, but the assembly of these fragments into a functional genome and the expression of the viral proteins. According to a report by the U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, a federal advisory committee, “The technology for synthesizing DNA is readily accessible, straightforward and a fundamental tool used in current biological research. In contrast, the science of constructing and expressing viruses in the laboratory is more complex and somewhat of an art. It is the laboratory procedures downstream from the actual synthesis of DNA that are the limiting steps in recovering viruses from genetic material.”[19] 
When we consider Islamic State and the potential that they can and will use BW, de-skilling becomes a major factor in their ability to develop this capability. They clearly have the resources to finance such operations and it is likely they could attract former scientists from Syria and the Levant to work with them on BW agents for use against other states and or refugee populations. Without having to capture a weapon lab or divert materials, it is possible IS will be able, over the next few years to research and manufacture BW agents. As IS consolidates into a state actor, their acquisition of this capability is concerning. Catastrophic acts of terrorism using BW, particularly against perceived enemy states of IS (Europe, the US, Russia etc.) could well result in mass casualties and pandemics. Again, it is transportation infrastructures which are highly vulnerable and refugee camps which lend themselves to large populations in poor living conditions. These populations are accessible to IS and to terrorist who may infect water supplies, or a general population. The movement of refugees into Europe and the potential to infect these individuals when they are located in central facilities is concerning as well, as it would be the use of people as weapons. While many in the IC consider these concepts to be on the margin of their concerns, given that bombs have always achieved high kill ratios and the use of BW thus far has been extremely limited, governments have still invested billions to protect their citizens from this very scenario. Its time we begin to seriously consider our counter-measures against the increasing and determined intention of IS to create a terrorist state and their increasing potential to use humans as mass casualty weapons. 

In terms of both public health and counter-terrorism, we must increase protection of refugee populations, specifically those who are based in camps along the Turkish boarder and those refugees who may be at an increased risk from IS and other terrorist groups. We must provide increased health checks and far better living conditions for these people, if we want any chance of deterring IS use of BW against our own populations. Refugee populations are by far the most vulnerable and IS exploits any vulnerability they encounter. In terms of immigration into Europe, refugees must be provided a much higher standard of medical checks and treatment compared to current practices. They must also be provided consistent medical treatment, particularly when we consider childhood vaccination schedules and general health checks to make sure they are not unwittingly spreading disease. I believe it is a moral duty to provide this so that people fleeing war torn states do not become the victims of terrorism.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Vladimir Putin's Syrian Strategy: Reducing the Risk of Biological Terrorism in Europe

“There are an estimated 5,000 to 7,000 fighters from Russia and other CIS member states fighting for ISIL,” Putin said referring to IS by its former name.“We certainly cannot allow them to use the experience they are getting in Syria on home soil.” Putin was speaking to leaders of the CIS, a regional union of a dozen former Soviet republics. He reported details of the Russian bombing campaign in Syria targeting the jihadists and assured that there was significant progress in defeating IS. He added that Russia stands for the creation of “as big a coalition to fight the extremists and terrorists as possible and is working with major regional and international partners” like Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, Jordan and Israel. Vladimir Putin also reiterated that Russia is acting in compliance with international law in Syria."
“The operation of the Russian Air Forces supported by the ships of the Caspian Fleet are in full compliance with the international law and absolutely legitimate, since we are conducting it at the formal request of [Syrian] President [Bashar] Assad,” he said.
The Russian leader said CIS members should be on guard for possible retaliation from the terrorists and ramp up cooperation between their national counterterrorism and border guard agencies.---For full article see:

With the exception of Israel, no other state has more experience successfully countering jihadi terrorists operating in their own territory than Russia. Obviously there are numerous countries who struggle with jihadi terrorism and have experience combating it, but their success is debatable. Russia has been highly successful and has a wealth of experience in combating this specific type of terrorism. IS poses a direct threat to the Caucuses, with the leader of Russia's Chechen Republic Ramzan Kadyrov, issuing statements reiterating the risk returning fighters pose to his territory. While the West drags its feet, Russia has already made impressive gains in Syria against ISIS targets. The refugee crisis in Europe, which surely will spill over to the United States at some point has hastened the view that we must cooperate with Russia, to end the refugee crisis by ending the encroachment of Islamic State into Syria and Iraq.

"If anything Putin sees the potential threat to Russia from ISIS as bigger and more urgent, because the number of Russians (many of them Chechens) thought to be fighting with ISIS and the threat of jihadism in and around Chechnya. Russia's desire to combat ISIS need not be seen as a pretext for protecting Assad; the converse may rather be true. In Russia's view, as Putin set out at the UN, the Assad government is all that stands in the way of complete victory for ISIS and the de facto disappearance of the Syrian state. For Putin, the priority is the preservation of the Syrian state. He looks at Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, and sees western interventions that have resulted in anarchy. He foresees the same for Syria if the west sees toppling Assad, rather than combating ISIS as the priority." See:

While the refugee crisis, a humanitarian disaster caused  partially by our failure to intervene in Syria to stop ISIS at a much earlier stage is worrying, IS manufacturing of crude chemical munitions will be a real wake up call, should such unconventional warfare munitions be used against European targets. Russia, of all countries, has sadly learned by experience, the devastation Islamic terrorism can bring to the field. They have suffered sustained terrorist attacks in their own country for years from Islamic Chechen terrorists. For more information see: In contrast to a country like the Netherlands who dip their feet in the water, to look good by sending a couple rusty F16's, Russia has the capability, the resources and the international clout under President Putin to bring ISIS to its knees. Its time we support him and his forces to end the humanitarian crisis brought on by Islamic State's war in Syria and Iraq.

Why do some European states hold back from cooperation with Russia when this would clearly be to their benefit? A few European countries feel they are exempt from Islamic terrorism and think they can naively claim some kind of neutrality. They believe if they are not perceived as a primary force against IS, even though they donate their last F16's to the cause and make a spectacle of themselves by announcing this on national tv to seek attention, they can kind of slide under the radar. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Their countries are at greater risk because they choose not to cooperate to the extent that is needed, lest they be seen to help President Assad stay in power which might pit them against their UK counterparts. Unfortunately such choices, designed purely to be perceived as 'politically correct'  are likely to increase the threat IS poses to them and their allies.

Russia, on the other hand, has consistently offered cooperation, even while being blamed for events they had nothing to do with and threatened with legal procedures. President Putin has over the past four years consistently asked for cooperation and offered olive branches to the West in order to rid the Levant of IS. RT quotes President Putin:

"I don't really understand how our American partners can criticize Russia's counterterrorism effort in Syria while refusing direct dialogue on the all important issue of political settlement," Putin explained. "Putin was commenting on the refusual by the Obama administration to receive a Russian delegation headed by Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev to discuss the differences the two nations have on the Syrian crisis. The US said it would not talk unless Russia followed Washington's lead and stopped helping the Syrian government of President Bashar Assad." "I believe this position to be unconstructive. The weakness of this position is apparently based on a lack of agenda. It seems they have nothing to discuss." Putin said at a meeting with the Kazakhstan president in Astana." See:

Israel and a handful of other countries, thankfully, understand the practical side of cooperation, beyond  trying to be perceived as politically correct or attempting to garner some kind of international attention. They understand fully the consequences of IS over running Syria and Iraq. At the moment Russia is fighting our war for us. They are literally paying for it and war is expensive. For an analysis of the costs see: They will suffer possible loss of life in fighting IS, so that Europe can enjoy peace and security from the threat of IS; a far more serious threat than Syria under Assad ever posed. Additionally, they have suffered criticism for bombing civilian areas, without any mention that IS is using civilians and these areas as human shields. They know very well that Russia will be blamed for collateral damage and any loss of civilian life. Beyond the strategic posturing of some countries, its time for Europe to take a serious look at the consequences, should IS operatives infiltrate refugee camps and or gain access to European immigration routes, which in my opinion has already happened. Coordination with Russia is crucial, not only to prevent mishaps between nations currently engaging IS, but to ensure Syria does not fall to possibly the worst terrorist organization we have ever witnessed.

Why does Western Public Opinion Support Russian ops in Syria?

ISIS Bio-Chem Capabilities: Targeting Europe

"The use of mustard agent would mark an upgrade in Islamic State's battlefield capabilities, and a worrisome one given U.S. intelligence fears about hidden caches of chemical weapons in Syria, where Islamic State controls wide swaths of territory." See:

In terms of biological and chemical capabilities, IS has manufactured and used crude chemical warfare agents against civilians and will likely continue an interest in manufacturing these agents. In August, ISIS is strongly suspected of using mustard agents. See: Confirmation of the use of HD was made a while later. See:

Its imperative we offer support to secure the SSRC in Damascus to prevent IS from acquiring any kind of biological weapon capability or the ability to spread disease in refugee camps or elsewhere.

"The HD [compound] of mustard is listed as a 'Schedule 1' chemical weapon and is strictly banned under the international treaty known as the Chemical Weapons Convention. When sprayed or released from artillery shells, mustard agents blister skin and can damage lungs if inhaled."

While no one blinks as IS uses sulfur mustard against Kurdish forces, they may blink if they use something like a multi-resistant strain of TB in highly populated refugee camps and if those same refugees travel through the Balkans into Europe. I'm in support of helping resettle refugees and they deserve a safe passage, but their health and the biological threat from IS must be considered a significant public health issue in that resettlement process. In terms of warfare agents, Russian forces, although not yet on the ground, could well face CBW agents if a ground offensive is deemed necessary. IS is considered to be manufacturing its own very crude CW and working to attain a CBW capability and possibly a nuclear capability. While Russian forces are well prepared for unconventional weapon use, we must still consider that they are placing their forces in harms way and the result of this will benefit Europe and the West considerably. If European states are serious about reducing the risk of terrorism in Europe from ISIS, they must coordinate with Russia and provide support for their operations to oust ISIS and end the humanitarian crisis brought on by ISIS solidifying its state across the Levant.

See full article in Pravda:

Monday, October 5, 2015

Disruptive Technologies in Bio-Defence

Disruptive technology describes a new technology that displaces an established one. Clayton M. Christiansen separates technology into two categories: sustaining and disruptive. Sustaining technology relies on incremental improvements to an already established technology. Disruptive technology on the other hand, lacks refinement, is not fully developed, appeals to a limited audience and may not have a proven practical application. ( 

Disruptive technology in the life sciences has changed the landscape of bio-technology and bio-defence.  If we consider bio-defence technology in particular, there are several advances which will likely alter how we conceive of defence and our medical counter measure options. Three major technologies: Virus Like Particles, 3D bio-printers and MIT's 4D self assembling and programmable matter technologies, will likely revolutionize bio-defence. 

In an article by Stu Magnuson, entitled: Chemical-Biological Defence Office to Kick Off Dozens of New Programs, the author contends: "There will be about 3.5 billion from fiscal years 2013 to 2018 to spend on everything from new vaccines and protective gear to information technology that will create a global early warning system for infectious diseases, said Carmen Spencer, the joint program executive officer for chemical and biological defense. "Everything is locked in Jell-O," he cautioned, referring to the continuing resolutions and budget uncertainties that have plagued the Defense Department of late. "Because of the world situation as it is today and the emerging threats, there is much more scrutiny in our ability to protect our armed forces, (and) to prevent WMD proliferation around the globe," Spenser told reporters at an advanced planning briefing for industry day at Aberdeen Proving Grounds, Md." See:
(nano particles used in untested H1N1 Swine Flu Vaccines)

While preventing proliferation of WMD is a noble cause, advancements, specifically in offensive biological weapon development and deployment platforms, which in some sectors of BW has resulted in 'de-skilling,' make proliferation and acquisition more likely. We simply can not afford to continue countering the threat of BW to our forces with current drug development models, outdated non-proliferation treaties and highly limited methodologies. If we compare developments in the chemical weapon field Johnathan B. Tucker noted in his paper entitled, "The Future of Chemical Weapons:" "At the same time that the process of economic globalization is undermining traditional nonproliferation measures such as export controls, a number of emerging chemical technologies have the potential to transform the nature of the CW threat as well. The pharmaceutical industry, for example, uses a technique called 'combinatorial chemistry' to discover promising drug candidates. This method involves the automated mixing and matching of molecular building blocks to generate a 'library' containing thousands of structurally related compounds, which are then screened for a desired pharmacological activity such as the ability to inhibit a key enzyme. Although harmful substances discovered in this manner typically have no therapeutic value and are set aside, it would be fairly easy to 'mine' a combinatorial database to identify highly toxic compounds that could be developed into CW agents.According to a group of experts convened by the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) to discuss the implications of emerging technologies for the CWC, 'Some new chemicals found by data base mining will have toxicity characteristics that could lead to their being considered as chemical weapon agents.' Before a new toxic chemical can be turned into an effective weapon, however, it must meet a number of additional requirements, including stability in long term storage, an appropriate degree of volatility or persistence to ensure its effective dissemination, a low cost production method, and the availability of medical antidotes to protect the attacker's own troops." (See: I would argue that disruptive technologies will witness, in the near future, the ability to rather swiftly overcome the above mentioned technical threshold issues.

When we consider vaccine production and medical countermeasures for bio-defence, disruptive technologies take on a substantially new meaning. "The Defence Department and the Food and Drug Administration generally takes about fifteen years and an average of 280 million dollars to develop one vaccine." Per the armed services, "Big Pharma is just not interested. Companies in that industry want to produce a billion doses of a vaccine and the military orders quantities in the 100,000 range. Bio-defence is an industry which will likely be revolutionized by these disruptive technologies.Vaccine production for example could be made on demand, while this may undercut big bio-pharma, in the long term it is likely to be highly profitable for this industry.(See: 

Additionally, our ability to bio-print vaccines and medical counter-measures will likely increase research and development and substantially decrease manufacturing and delivery times. In terms of drug development to counter the threat BW poses to the war fighter, nano particle vaccine research and development has been on going for the past several years and is a disruptive technology which will substantially change how we deliver vaccines and other drugs. Drug development is only one sector within bio-defence to be revolutionized, it is imperative we consider technologies thus far unrelated to preventing biological weapon deployment in mass casualty scenarios. Advanced BW delivery platforms such as Micro Aerial Vehicle (MAV) delivery, requires a different set of counter-measures and an understanding of and appreciation for how this technology could be utilized for purposes beyond surveillance and intelligence collection.