EU Report: ISIS Could Commit Chemical or Biological Terror Attack in West

Terrorist group already has foreign fighters on its payroll who can manufacture lethal weapons from raw materials, as well as access to toxic agents left behind by the tyrants of Syria, Iraq and Libya.

A UN researcher takes a sample of earth at a site targeted in the Damascus area, Syria, 2013.
AP

Could Islamic State carry out chemical or biological terrorism in Europe? Yes, and it might, warns a briefing to the European Parliament published this week, saying that the radical Islamic group has money; scientists – some of foreign origin – on the payroll; found an abundance of deadly toxins stockpiled by the tyrants of Syria, Iraq and Libya; and could make more of its own quite easily.

"European citizens are not seriously contemplating the possibility that extremist groups might use chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear materials during attacks in Europe," writes analyst Beatriz Immenkamp in the briefing. They should.

It wouldn't be a big leap. ISIS has used mustard and chlorine gases in Iraq and Syria. And a laptop belonging to a Tunisian physicist who joined ISIS was found to contain a paper on weaponizing bubonic plague bacteria obtained from animals. The intent is there: the governments of Belgium and France are already working on contingency plans.

Moreover, it would be fairly simple for ISIS sympathizers to obtain the materials for chemical and biological attacks in Europe itself, the report says. The continent is brimming with them and security is inadequate.

Israeli experts add that the group could make deadly chemicals of its own, and could be already developing the capacity to weaponize them.

DIY mass war

At least some chemical weapons, whether gaseous, liquid or solid, are fairly trivial to make. To attack the Kurds, for example, says the EU report, it appears that ISIS simply repurposed fertilizer.

Making – or obtaining – the chemical is the first stage. The second is weaponizing it. Can ISIS make its own chemical weapons?

A screengrab of an AP video from Sept. 18, 2013 shows a student wearing a gas mask and protective suit during a session on reacting to a chemical weapons attack, in Aleppo, Syria.
AP

ISIS may have manufactured crude shells containing toxic chemicals, the EU report says. "[Weaponization] can be done crudely by putting the substance into shells and firing those shells," says Dany Shoham, a specialist in unconventional weapons from the Begin Sadat Center of Strategic Studies at Bar Ilan University.

Indeed, ISIS' use of chemical weapons has been crude so far, but the group could become more sophisticated in their weaponization in the future, he suggests.

Alternatively, ISIS could capture already weaponized chemicals. It is probable that ISIS has deployed both weapons it made itself and weapons it captured, says Shoham.

As for resources: In June 2014, ISIS seized control of Muthanna, Iraq, once the Saddam Hussein regime's primary chemical-weapons production facility. American troops were supposed to have destroyed weapons there after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, but officials admitted when ISIS conquered the city that a stockpile of weapons still existed. They claimed the remaining chemical weapons had no military value. The following month, ISIS launched its first chemical attack on the Kurds in Kobani, Syria, using mustard gas, an agent that is known to have been made at Muthanna.

ISIS may also have access to weapons containing sarin nerve gas that remained in Syria, the EU report notes, as well as mustard agents and nerve agent rockets from Iraq, and chemical materials leftover from Libya programs.

It is unclear how effective these agents would be after years of storage, qualifies Ely Karmon, a specialist in terrorism and chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear weapons at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya. But they might still be usable.

In addition, ISIS has a lot of scientific talent on board, including some inherited from the Hussein regime, says Karmon. For instance, until his death in a coalition strike in January, ISIS had Hussein's chemical warfare expert Salih Jasim Muhammed Falah al-Sabawi, aka Abu Malik, on the payroll. The United States said Abu Malik provided ISIS with "expertise to pursue a chemical weapons capability."

Possessing chemical weapons does not necessarily mean the group can use them beyond the borders of Syria and Iraq. "Transferring chemical weapons to Europe would be difficult," says Karmon. Weaponizing chemicals within the borders of Europe would also be difficult, adds Shoham, given the likelihood of being detected by security agencies.

However, Shoham and Karmon agree that ISIS could use toxic chemicals in Europe, relatively easily, in an unweaponized form – the impact of such an attack could be devastating, notes Shoham.  

Alternatively, ISIS could attack a chemical facility with conventional weapons, similar to Yassin Salhi's failed attempt to strike the Air Products chemical factory near Lyon, France, notes Karmon.

Weaponizing germs

Biological weapons – germs – are a different story. The science of bio-weaponry has come far since the millennia of yore, when besiegers might toss a disease-riddled corpse over the town walls to terrify and infect the people inside. Today's nightmare scenarios include, for example, weaponized ebola virus that can infect through the air, rather than requiring physical proximity to infected mucous membranes, or anthrax engineered to be even deadlier than the original bacterium.

How easy is it for ISIS to procure or make biological weapons? And if they had them, would they be likely they use them?

Obtaining the bugs at the base of biological weapons wouldn't be a big problem, surmises Shoham. Suitable pathogens are readily available at academic laboratories, vaccine factories and pharmaceutical companies, all of which are civilian facilities. Even if few such institutions still exist in the ISIS territories, the group might try to get bacteria from sympathizers in Europe or the United States, Shoham says.

But for all that telltale laptop of the Tunisian physicist, ISIS would have difficulty weaponizing them, Shoham thinks – yet adds that biological terrorism can also be carried out without weaponization. For example, by releasing a pathogen into a water system.

So ISIS could get the bugs and might be able to weaponize them, or could use them as is. But would the group resort to bio-war?

Working with biological agents is very risky for the handler, Shoham says, but adds: "I don't think this factor would constitute a bottleneck for a radical organization like ISIS."

The obstacle most likely to deter ISIS from deploying biological weapons isn't the risk of some lab technician falling ill. It's their inability to control its spread, says Karmon.

Unlike chemical and radiological weapons, one cannot target a defined set of victims with biological agents because they are contagious, he explains. Anybody using a bio-weapon runs the risk of infecting their own population. That in itself is a powerful deterrent.

Whether it would be enough to deter ISIS from using bioweapons in Europe, given the ability of bacteria to travel on planes, is anybody's guess.

Impact: The cost of war

Chemical and biological terrorism would probably cause significantly more damage than conventional terrorism, Shoham and Karmon agree.

Even in a best-case scenario, for instance that an infectious agent is detected in the water system before anyone drinks or bathes in it, just cleaning the contaminant from the water system would be very difficult, Shoham says. The EU report notes that in anticipation of this very sort of thing, Paris has stepped up security at its water facilities.

What can the West do to frustrate this threat?

It could try to limit ISIS' access to certain civilian and military installations in Syria and Iraq, says Shoham. Yet, doing this without ground forces may prove difficult.

Might the threat of a massive counter-attack by the West serve as a significant deterrent? Probably not, says Shoham.

Europe can screen travelers entering the continent, says Shoham, although this is unlikely to serve as a rigorous enough preventative measure. The EU report itself suggests monitoring returning fighters and radicals in the European Union, especially any known to have "CBRN knowledge."

Aside from that, the report suggests that European nations improve preparedness, for instance by equipping rescue forces with antidotes. Europe can also increase security at key installations, which Paris for one is already doing. And, in addition, European countries can start preparing, and drilling, their populations.

During the first Gulf War, the Israeli government began handing out gas masks to the general population.  They aren't effective against all forms of chemical attack, let alone biological. A full-body suit is better. But gas masks, used properly, are a good start.