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.

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