The ISIS Chemical Biological Threat to the West: a discussion with Dr. Jill Bellamy
by Jerry Gordon, Lisa Benson and Richard Cutting (January 2016)
The Islamic State (IS) terrorism’s long arm reaches out from its self-declared Caliphate in Raqqa, Syria. It broke like a thunderclap in the waning days of 2015. There was the downing of a Russian Metrojet Airbus 321 flight in the Sinai with 224 passengers and crew with a bomb secreted aboard by possible ISIS operatives on October 31, 2015. A suicide bombing by ISIS-linked operatives in the south Beirut bastion of Iran's proxy Hezbollah killed 43 on November 12th. The worst was yet to come the following evening with the bloody spectacles of Paris massacres on November 13th perpetrated by Belgian and French born Moroccan émigrés and ISIS suicide bombers who entered Europe in the flood of more than 1 million Muslim refugees using fraudulent Syrian passports. The audacious plot by European ISIS operatives at a soccer stadium, outdoor cafés and the Bataclan music hall resulted in the deaths of 130 innocent civilians, more than 350 injured, 95 of the latter seriously. Five days later on November 18th, French police swat teams fought a pitched battle in the predominately Muslim banlieue of St. Denis in suburban Paris resulting in deaths of the mastermind of the Paris attacks, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the 28 year old Belgian born ISIS fighter, his French born cousin and other perpetrators.
The US was not spared ISIS-inspired terrorism. On December 2nd, an American born Pakistani husband and his immigrant Pakistani wife, who entered the US under an unvetted K-1 fiancée visa, killed 14 innocent colleagues of the husband in a blaze of assault weapons fire at a holiday gathering in San Bernardino, California. The open borders of the European Schengen System and the vulnerable US immigration control system were broken by these ISIS terrorist events against the backdrop of the massive Muslim refugee flight from Middle East and South Asian conflicts.
French Premier Manuel Valls at National Assembly, November 19, 2015
On November 19th, French Premier Manuel Valls warned the French National Assembly about the possibility that ISIS may have the capabilities in Europe to inflict mass casualties through the use of deadly chemical and biological weapons. The Daily Mail reported:
France’s prime minister has warned his country to be prepared for chemical and biological attacks as he told MPs that the ‘macabre imagination’ of ISIS is ‘limitless’.
Manuel Valls made the ominous prediction while calling on French MPs to extend the country’s state of emergency for another three months, amid fears another attack is imminent.
The warning comes as U.S. security officials report that they have found proof that ISIS is developing bio-weapons with the help of Syrian and Iraqi scientists in the Middle East.
The French Premier’s allegations about ISIS' resort to possible CBW attacks before the National Assembly were realized when two Syrian nationals were arrested in Geneva, Switzerland on December 12th after a search of their vehicle revealed explosives and toxic gas. Just prior to the Geneva arrests, the European Parliament Research Service released a report entitled, ISIL/Daesh and non- conventional weapons of terror. It noted:
Rob Wainwright, the head of Europol, the coordinating organization of EU countries' police forces, confirmed during a hearing in the European Parliament on 19 November that Europe was likely to face new ISIL/Da'esh attacks after those in Paris the previous week. According to Wainwright:
We are dealing with a very serious, well resourced, determined international terrorist organization that is now active on the streets of Europe. This represents the most serious terrorist threat faced in Europe for 10 years.
Several experts have warned that there is a genuine risk of ISIL/Da'esh using chemical, biological, radiological or even nuclear materials in the context of future attacks on European targets. It has been suggested that the group’s next weapon of choice could, for example, be an improvised explosive device containing chemical or radioactive materials.
Dr. Jill Bellamy in Bio-Protection Gear
Dr. Jill Bellamy, a member of the UN Counter Terrorism Task Force and noted biological warfare threat reduction expert, has been the Cassandra-like predictor that ISIS terrorists would open the Pandora’s Box of non-conventional chemical and biological weapons. We have interviewed Bellamy several times. Her prescience about the lurking threat of the Syrian bio-warfare complex in a Damascus suburb was reflected in our January 2013 NER interview, The Dangers of Syria’s Bio-Warfare Complex Should Assad Fall. Former Israeli Deputy Chief of Mission at the Washington, DC Embassy upon reviewing that interview called Bellamy’s revelations, “breathtaking” warning about the threat of terrorists overrunning the Syrian Scientific Research Center complex - a complex now under the security of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps.
In conversations with Dr. Bellamy she had raised the threat that the Islamic State with more than $1 billion in funding from smuggled oil sales, extortion and looted bank hard currency and gold reserves could acquire the professional staff of scientists and technicians and equip laboratories for production of leading edge synthetic biological weapons. She had also drawn concern over foreign ISIS fighters in Libya gaining control of Gaddafi-era chemical weapons caches sealed by the UN.
In two segments of the Lisa Benson Radio Show on National Security, on November 22th and December 20, 2015, listen here and here, a panel composed of Ms. Benson, Advisory Board Member Richard Cutting and Jerry Gordon held a discussion with Dr. Bellamy about these non-conventional ISIS chemical and biological weapons threats to Europe and the West. What follows is the consolidated discussion from both programs.
Lisa Benson: Welcome back, everyone. I would like to bring on Dr. Jill Bellamy.
Dr. Jill Bellamy: Thank you very much for having me.
Benson: You are recognized as an international expert on biological warfare, a member of the United Nations Counter Terrorism Task Force. You previously developed and ran NATO-sponsored policy programs on biological terrorism. You have published extensively in these related fields in papers such as the National Review, The Washington Post, The Washington Times, Le Monde, Le Temps, New English Review, and the Jerusalem Post. It is my great honor to have you, Dr. Bellamy. I am going to turn this over to two of my colleagues and friends who know this subject much better than I do, Richard Cutting and Jerry Gordon.
Jerry Gordon: Jill, Premier Manuel Valls of France alerted the media by drawing attention to the possible chemical and biological threat from ISIS. What do we know about this?
Bellamy: In my view that Premier Valls would come out and make such a statement is really quite an incredible thing to happen. It signals that they possibly have actionable intelligence they are working on. I believe that the Islamic State definitely possesses a chem-bio capability and it is amazing now to see Valls come out with this statement. They have also imposed an extended three-month time period of martial law which hopefully helps them utilize this intelligence that they have acquired. However, bio-chem weapons have frequently been left out of the picture. Here we have a major statement coming out on this. We need to discuss the chemical weapons side and separately the biological ones. In my personal view, France is at a slightly higher threat of chemical warfare than biological for the simple reason that we have seen IS' capability of using chemical weapons. On several occasions, they have used mustard agents. They have also used sarin. This has been confirmed by the UN. We have a situation where they have already been using it in the Caliphate. The potential that they could bring this into Europe is extremely high. This is very easy using the refugee routes. Thus chemical weapons use in France could result in mass casualties. However, the other side of this is the biological threat. IS does possess, and has been training, in the use of biological weapons. They have set up labs. They have recruited scientists. For me the bio side is much more of a risk to everybody. I think it is an international public health security threat.
Benson: That is astounding.
Bellamy: We need to be looking at those refugee routes extremely closely. We have huge refugee camps between Turkey and the border of Turkey and Syria. Refugee populations always represent a public health risk because of the living conditions in these camps. When you start exposing certain people in these camps to biological pathogens, and when these people come into Europe through the Balkans, it becomes extremely dangerous. You start to expose more people to different types of diseases. That kind of threat is something that we have to take very seriously. Valls is to be applauded for coming out with this statement.
Richard Cutting: Dr. Bellamy, thank you for your work. You mentioned in the past that we in the West cling to the concept that biological warfare is morally repugnant, as well we should. That may not be the case in the mindset of some of the players now in the Middle East. If we go on the premise that the mindset is somewhat of a predicate for actions that might be taken, can you tell us how these weapons are viewed in other people's minds who aren’t Americans or Westerners. Is there a danger in us missing their intentions?
Bellamy: Absolutely. I have to say when you see a Jordanian pilot being burned to death in a cage; these are not people who will hesitate at all to use chemical or biological warfare agents. They simply do not have that kind of moral capacity. For them, this is just another class of weapons, and they will use it. Whatever works the best, whatever is the cheapest, they will use it. Preventing them from attaining this capability is absolutely vital and whatever we need to do we should.
Cutting: If we put that together with your concept in the prior statement about possibly using refugees themselves as vectors and, an absolute lack of hesitation to use these weapons, you have something of a whole system there. Is that valid?
Bellamy: Yes, absolutely. First of all, they want to get rid of the refugees as well. These are people that they do not want coming back into the Caliphate. If they spread disease, it's not going to make any difference to them whatsoever. It would be a plus for them. However, we have something that could spawn into major pandemics. We need to be very aware of that.
Benson: We have just reminded America that the refugee movements can be used as vectors for spreading biological weapons.
Cutting: Dr. Bellamy, the streaming of refugees into various European countries with documentation that can't be sourced back to adequate database information in the countries of origin is my understanding of the problem. Is that true? How does that relate to the potential of ISIS using them as weaponized human beings?
Bellamy: One of the things that we need to be really careful about is that most of the refugees are not going to be terrorists. However, there are already ISIS operatives in Europe who have used those routes, and who have been in Europe for months. Thus we need to be careful. A lot of the refugees go into detention centers. Those detention centers, are the perfect opportunity to conduct social network analysis of them and find out who they know. It would be the ideal situation to be able to talk to them and find out: "Who do you know and what are the connections there?" We have very powerful social network analysis that we can use. In the United States, they have it. They use it less so in Europe. More needs to be done using these tools to assess, who among the refugee streams are potential terrorists. We need to be connecting those dots to make sure that we screen people who are going to be causing problems in our communities and might spread disease.
Gordon: Dr. Bellamy could you assess for us the top silent killers that have been developed by Syria and partners such as North Korea and even Iran? And let's start off with anthrax. We know about that because of an incident that occurred just after 9/11 in Washington DC and across the country. We had 22 diagnosed cases, five of whom died and tens of thousands of federal postal and other employees innoculated. We spent over $300 million to clear government facilities. How can we deal with that threat?
Bellamy: I think that we need to start looking at the Syrian Scientific Research Center (SSRC), which is the main research center in Syria. It is now guarded by IRGC forces from Iran. We need to make sure that bio-weapons are not handed over to IS should they overrun the SSRC. The SSRC is where Assad had most of his biological and chemical weapons programs. We absolutely have to protect that and make sure that no command and control is lost over that research facility. Otherwise the loss of it to IS would be huge. In terms of protecting the United States, we know about the 2001 attack. It has been in the news. However, anthrax is treatable with Cipro. Thus, we have good counter measures for anthrax. However, I wouldn't rule out that IS could use it in a territory-denial situation. From my perspective, what I'm very concerned about is that Syria possesses smallpox. I think it was very wise for the United States government to increase their stockpile against smallpox. If the SSRC were to be overrun, I would be very worried about that. They also possess a number of synthetic biologicals which could be an issue. I think IS possesses the scientific capability to be able to deploy that type of weaponized biological agent. I think we need to be looking at their scientists. I absolutely believe that the United States' cutting back on its threat-reduction programs was a mistake. We need to increase those biological threat reduction programs. It is a very dangerous situation that you have in Syria. Now is not the time to drop the ball. We need to beef up our threat reduction programs.
Benson: We have to think about whether our antibiotics and vaccine stockpiles can meet these biological threats from Syria; especially if their biological programs are in danger of being over taking by IS. We have to speak to our lawmakers about bolstering the biological threat reduction programs to deal with this threat. Right after the Paris attack both France and Belgium were on high alert for a biochemical attack. Jerry Gordon and you have been discussing that and the potential of ISIS using sarin gas and other toxic agents from Libya. Why does post-Gaddafi Libya represent a possible ISIS CBW threat to the European Union, Israel, and potentially the United States?
Bellamy: I think that one of the big problems with Libya at the moment is an ISIS group called Katibat al-Battar al-Libi comprised mainly European fighters. They are mostly from Holland and Belgium. Gaddafi constructed his CW programs so they were spread throughout Libya. They weren't consolidated in one place. They were sealed up by the UN, but were not processed the way that Assad's chemical weapons were destroyed. So they are basically sitting there. The problem would be how viable they still are if the sites have been overrun, which we think they have been. How viable are these chemical weapons? I would think that they probably still are. This is an extreme threat to Europe. However, we also believe that ISIS already has some chemical, biological, and possibly nuclear material in Europe. This is extremely serious. You see statements being made by the European Commission, and Premier Valls in France and Europe gearing up for a CBW and possibly nuclear attack.
Benson: Are they prepared for this?
Bellamy: For the most part Europe is absolutely not prepared for it at all. The exception is France, which routinely has national plans in place and conducts exercises. They are very prepared, because they are one of the highest targets of Daesh (ISIS). When you're looking at biological weapons, in terms of other European countries, it doesn't really matter if the French are prepared. Because if something happens in another European country and they use bio weapons, it will spread to other countries, so it doesn't really matter how prepared are the French. It will not protect the rest of Europe. I think we need to see major changes in how we prepare. We need to be doing what Israel does. Israel annually runs Orange Flame, which is a bio-preparedness civilian and military two day exercise. They routinely have done this every year since 2005. They train on different types of Category A biological warfare agents like smallpox and anthrax. This is what we really need to have happening in Europe now. It's now time for Europe and America to do this. We need to prepare our children and the school system to handle this type of attack, and it’s just not being done.
Benson: This is frightening information, and, we don't hear our lawmakers talking about this. The Pentagon has altered our intelligence reports. We don't even know if they are getting this information.
Bellamy: Let's hope they are. However, I don't know, either.
Benson: What are you hearing about sarin gas coming out of Libya?
Bellamy: Yes, I think sarin and possibly VX. However, that is a little bit on the fringe. I wouldn't want to say that they have VX yet. What was sealed up by the UN, I would be very worried about Daesh obtaining. I think that they have. It is very concerning.
Benson: Dr. Bellamy, that is horrifying. Sarin gas is not easy to transport because it's so lethal in small amounts. We have to find out how to prepare our communities for this potential attack. We have no civil defense in America for this threat.
Gordon: Just as we were starting this discussion, there was a flash announcement about a possible bomb aboard an Air France flight out of Africa. That raises a question about airport security. In light of your comment, I wonder if you could give us an illustration of how vulnerable airports are in Europe to a possible CBW attack.
Cutting: It's a matter of logistics, transport, financing, and getting the weapons in theater are the essential first steps. The vulnerable locations are clearly available in Europe. Any place where there's a high intersection of people moving through airports, train stations, theaters – large groups of people where these chemical or bio weapons can be used. They can be dispersed in aerosol or any vector format. It is the volume and movement of people in these areas that creates the weapon’s asymmetrical geometric, impact. As those infected move and spread.
Bellamy: European transportation networks and systems are extremely vulnerable. If we look at a country like the Netherlands, their airports are very vulnerable. I don't believe that they lack resources. However, they don't seem to be able to put into place the types of systems that are needed to protect their airports, specifically from biological and chemical attacks. Something as simple as having atomizers in their airport bathroom toilets, that could easily be filled with biological or chemical agents. The Dutch designed these floor to ceiling toilets at Schipol outside of the airport where you would go through screening, so the general public can go in there. You can't see who is up at the ceiling putting anything into this type of system. You could be releasing that every 15 – 20 minutes. I don't know how often the atomizers go off, but, you could probably get a pretty good bio hit by using those atomizers.
Gordon: After the anthrax incident following 9/11 in October 2001, the U.S. government really got concerned and invested something in excess of $12 billion to protect major airports against a biological warfare threat here in the United States. The obvious question is: Was that money well spent, or are we, frankly, still in danger?
Bellamy: I think that it is impossible to test for every single biological agent that could be developed, especially when you're getting into synthetic biological areas, which both Iran and Syria have worked on. It is very difficult to protect against all of that. You're going to catch the major ones. You might detect anthrax, perhaps botulism, and smallpox if they were ever released. However, we are now at a stage where they are developing things that I don't believe we have good countermeasures for or even for detection purposes. Life sciences have moved way beyond what our capabilities are for detection.
Benson: What do we do?
Bellamy: I think what we really need to do is start having the types of drills that they do in Israel. I'm very envious of the Israelis and how they completely involve their citizenry in these types of exercises. That is what needs to be happening. We need to be prepared. You can't prevent every kind of attack that could happen. If you have good intelligence, that's definitely a step in the right direction. If you willfully ignore certain types of intelligence you are reducing how protective you can be of your citizens. So this is a very difficult situation. In Europe, we have very limited resources in terms of intelligence. The United States obviously has more, and they have more assets available. Still it is, very concerning.
Cutting: Dr. Bellamy, when offered the opportunity by a credible source why didn't U.S. intelligence acquire what seemed to be a veritable treasure trove of information on Syrian and Iranian biological warfare developments?
Bellamy: It really was quite surprising and very worrying to me that they did not. We had somebody who presented us with over 1,000 photos that he had been able to take over a several year period, within Iranian and Syrian laboratories. He was part of a scientific exchange program with these different laboratories. He photographed himself with staff. Some of the photographs were taken under the radar; however most of them were taken in the open. He came to us and said, "Look, I've been doing this for seven to ten years. I've been visiting these different scientists. I have good contacts with them," and showed photographs that were sent to the U.S. government. This was never followed up on. This person who did this is a NATO member state's national. We are not talking about a source that's off in the clouds. This person was in the defense establishment of one of the countries here in Europe and a scientist able to do this. Long before we had trouble with Syria or there were tensions and problems with Iran, at least in terms of Europe, this person had been invited regularly to Iran and to different laboratories. In these photos it looked like there was some offensive research going on. When offered to US intelligence this was never followed up on.
Gordon: Is this attitude indicative of not only the U.S. intelligence community, but some national security echelons in Europe? What is behind their inability to come to terms with this threat, as against the so-called terrorist threat that we saw in Paris in November 13, 2015? What is in the mindset of these folks when they are confronted with the opportunity, as my colleague Richard Cutting just said, to gain a treasure trove of information about what our enemies are doing to prepare offensive weapons?
Bellamy: I think maybe a year and a half ago or so this person came to me. At that time in Europe they were really seriously trying not to focus on CBW threats. I don't know about the United States, but they wanted to literally sink this opportunity. I don't think that they wanted anybody looking at it very closely. In Europe we always have this kind of tension where they think they are going to panic the public if they prepare them. My view on this is a prepared public is not going to be panicked. That is what we need to be doing. Why the U.S. didn't pick up on it, perhaps it's the attitude of the current Administration. I think that our greatest offense is preparing the public and doing it through civil-military exercises, and conducting periodic drills. That is one of the major keys to protecting our societies. We really need to do this to reduce the bio warfare threat against vulnerable countries in the West.
Gordon: This is an illustration of why this discussion is invaluable, imparting information that you could not obtain elsewhere in the media.
Benson: Dr. Jill Bellamy, thank you. We value your insight, and on behalf of Richard Cutting, Jerry Gordon, and myself, keep it up and report back to us often.
Bellamy: Thank you very much for having me, Lisa.
Also see Jerry Gordon's collection of interviews, The West Speaks.
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