Recently the European Parliament issued a breathless report on the risk of Da’esh (ISIL/ISIS) use of “non-conventional weapons of terror,” specifically focusing on CBRN threats. It managed to get some notice in Europe, but only minor mention in the US. This post will evaluate that report and its ilk, along with addressing the ever-present problem of threat inflation.
Before we get to the EU, CBRN, and Da’esh, we should begin with some background starting in 1992. On December 26, 1991, the Soviet Union ended and so did the last vestiges of the 20th century Cold War. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, there were deep concerns about the ultimate fate of the Soviets’ nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons. In particular, as the Soviets withdrew from the former states of the Warsaw Pact and later the former republics of the USSR, there was considerable concern about loose nukes or other CBRN weapons ending up on the black market or in the hands of rogue regime elements. International agreements resolved many of the issues of control, so that the Russian state took responsibility for all of the Soviet’s former CBRN, the actual location of those weapons and many of the research facilities associated with them was in former Soviet States. Even if nuclear weapons went back to Russia, the expertise to make them or other weapons of mass destruction and many of the facilities supporting those programs, did not.
It was from this situation that Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) programs emerged. The US state department along with the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, worked with former Soviet states and Russia to remediate test grounds, de-militarize facilities, and dispose of weapons of mass destruction. In more than a few cases, the United States took possession of materials and evacuated them to the United States for disposal. A great though somewhat sensationalized account of those early operations is in Leslie and Andrew Cockburn’s One Point Safe. Nevertheless, alongside these efforts in tangible threat reduction came a new phenomenon, threat inflation.
As counter-intuitive as this is, it happened in part because of worries about former Soviet weapons or weapon designers helping “rogue states” or terrorist actors to develop their own CBRN weapons. In order to mitigate this threat the United States began to hire many of those former scientists and engineers to work in the US or at new civilian research facilities funded by the CTR program in former Soviet states. A number of these scientists also defected to the US as the Soviet Union unraveled. The most famous of which was Dr. Ken Alibek, whose book Biohazard recounted his time within the Soviet bioweapons program. That book remains popular among the professional and not so professional CBRN crowd, though many who cite it fail to understand some of its inherent problems.
Alibek, a serial self-promoter, quickly formed a bio-defense company and started talking up the bio-weapons threat in the media, on Capitol Hill, and to anyone who would listen. All of this talk about WMD threats started to bleed into popular culture too, becoming a Hollywood storyline. A series of mid 90s blockbusters featured CBRN weapons in the wrong hands including The Rock , The Peacemaker, Broken Arrow, even 12 Monkeys. This had an effect, compounded by real events.
While face melting chemical weapons and stolen nukes were becoming a pop culture trope, the very real Oklahoma City Bombing and the Aum Shinrikyo attacks in Tokyo made ”Weapons of Mass Destruction” a US national security priority. In Congress, the response to the breakup of the Soviet Union was the Nunn-Luger Act, which birthed the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program. OKC and Aum in the mid-90s produced the Nunn-Luger-Domenici Domestic Preparedness Act of 1997. The latter act, gave birth to the National Guard Civil Support Teams-WMD and opened the federal spigots for a host of CBRN related programs within DoD and domestically via the Office of Justice Programs-Office of State and Local Domestic Preparedness Support latersubsumed into DHS.
It was not just Congress getting in on the CBRN game, President Clinton’s National Security Strategies all cited the threat of WMD as one of the top national security priorities in the post-Cold War environment. That led to new Department of Defense programs and funding, as well as the Anthrax Vaccination Program for military members. Of course, the fear of Iraqi WMD during Desert Storm in 1990-1991 and the continued games UNSCOM and UNMOVIC played with the Iraqi Intelligence Services also formed a distinct narrative in western media, leading to the now infamous Desert Fox campaign and strikes on the Al-Shifra Sudan Pharmaceutical plant, which were later shown to be deeply flawed. The Al-Shifra attack foreshadowed many of the issues with Iraq WMD intelligence in 2003, but the narrative was outrunning the truth.
Public worries, media attention, and federal interest conflated and in due course led to extensive federal spending. This led to the emergence or retooling of a host of new and old defense contractors selling their expertise, equipment, or research on the CBRN threat. Things reached a height in 1998 when then Secretary of Defense Bill Cohen went on “This Week” with Cokie Roberts and held up a 5 pound bag of sugar claiming a similar amount of anthrax could destroy half the population of Washington, DC. Cohen was trying to highlight the focus of the Clinton Administration on the “WMD” threat and to justify the new Anthrax vaccination program begun within the US military, which had gathered some opposition. Likewise, the Clinton administration needed something to make their case on Iraq after the Russians outmaneuvered them in negotiations over Iraq (sounds familiar). Not coincidentally, Cohen’s bag of sugar argument probably came from the examples given by Ken Alibek in his book. Which were later echoed in the otherwise well-researched work of Richard Preston.
Now, I will not go into Alibek’s numerous problems when it comes to self and threat inflation, or the many theories surrounding the Clinton administration’s elevation of WMD and Iraq in the middle of the Monica Lewinsky/impeachment scandals. You can make up your own mind, though I recommend a look at the expose the LA Times did on how Alibek’s threat inflation carried with it a profit motive and led to his ultimate decision to decamp from American academia.
Alibek and Cohen’s theatrics were more a symptom than the disease, as was the case throughout the 1990s. It was not just a few former Soviets trying to turn a buck in the New World Order, or a SecDef trying to make the administration’s case on Iraq. Plenty of struggling defense firms faced with the rapidly shrinking defense budget seized on WMD as the answer to their equally shrinking profits. Likewise, any number of researchers at major institutions in the public and private sector saw an opportunity to grab grant and research money as the federal government poured money at the WMD problem. Of course, after all of that threat inflation culminated in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, WMD quickly faded as a concern. As a new narrative took hold, WMD became CBRN and concerns faded in the public and on Capitol Hill. For the next decade, counter-IED replaced WMD as the surefire ticket to infinite profits in defense and homeland security, with UAVs a close run second.
That is how we arrive full circle with the latest EU report. Threat inflation is back as Da’esh ramps up its terror campaign in Europe and the US. I suggest looking at the EU report (and its sources) closely. At several points, it cites “experts in the field” with a footnote that references online news articles referencing similar “experts” that cites yet another news article. Whoever these experts actually are is anyone’s guess. The EU Parliament’s report seems like the same old story with a new facade. It’s the 90s all over again, there is a Clinton running for the White House and everyone’s worried about terrorist WMD. We have gone back to the future.
The EU Report’s specific assertions regarding Da’esh are also suspect. Foremost is the chemical weapons threat. That threat is real, but it is not contextualized or established in proper scope. We know that forces fighting in Syria and Iraq operating at least ostensibly under the Da’esh flag made some basic chemical weapons. They also fired chemical weapons seized from the Assad regime and used chlorine seized in Iraq and Afghanistan in IEDs and VBIEDs. However, none of this is a new phenomenon. Da’esh’s forerunner, Al Qaeda in Iraq, did much of the same, though in significantly less effective ways. The first known attempt by insurgents in Iraq to use chlorine in an IED was 12 years ago in Baghdad, and there were numerous incidents, now publicly revealed, where Iraqi chemical weapons looted by insurgents ended up in IEDs, often without the insurgents (or US EOD) realizing it.
According to public accounts, it doesn’t look like the Islamic State, despite its deep pockets, is any more sophisticated in chemical weapons use than AQI was, though they appear to have better weapons and delivery systems. Yet those originate in the Syrian regime. Iraq’s remaining stockpile in 2003 was seriously degraded or non-existent. Until the OPCW came in that was not the case in Syria. That Da’esh seized some of these weapons before the OPCW arrived is not in doubt. Yet, even if by some accounts, Da’esh manages to backward engineer their way into some crude homemade chemical weapons, so what?
Any CBRN professional worth their salt knows that even against unprotected civilian targets, it is hard to disseminate chemical weapons in order to achieve mass casualties and it requires significant amounts of agent on target. Chemical weapons are NOT weapons of mass destruction. Only explosives and nuclear weapons can achieve mass destruction. Chemical weapons have very localized effects. They always were, and remain, a tactical weapon. Which is how both the Syrian regime and insurgents in Syria and Iraq are using them. Besides, if your aim is to incite terror, it is so much easier to blow something up or shoot into a crowd. Terrorists are bombers first, last, and always. The threat from an actual chemical weapons attack is one of disruption, not destruction. Chemical attacks are hard to pull off, and as previous attacks in Iraq and Syria show, not terribly effective in the big picture. Elevating chemical weapons to “weapons of mass destruction” status is a threat inflation of the highest magnitude, especially in the crude anti-scientific world inhabited by radical jihadists.
Of course, it is fair to point out that western journalists frequently inhabit the anti-scientific world too, especially when it comes to CBRN, and that only contributes to the problem of threat inflation. Search “ISIS Chemical Weapons” on Google or Bing and take a gander at what comes up. The “quality” of the “journalism” so displayed is enough to send any CBRN Professional into a fuming rant (trigger warning!)
Some of the EU reports wildest claims relate to Da’esh’s nuclear and radiological capabilities. CBRN professionals have long known that Radiological Dispersion Devices (RDDs) are not actually as big a threat as many think. Like chemical weapons, their effects are highly localized. The public fear of radiation and the disruption produced by that fear is the target of such a device, and its outcome. Further, radiological material is exceedingly hard to smuggle. It is increasingly hard not to pass through a radiation portal these days, be you human, vehicle, or cargo container.
One of the more outlandish claims of the EU report focuses cites an IAEA report that stated Da’esh “seized low grade nuclear material from Mosul University in northern Iraq.” Of course, as the IAEA well knows, and noted, that low-grade status makes it worthless. Da’esh is not going to build any nuclear bombs, and its access to radiological material is extremely limited, likely only to some medical and research isotopes they may have grabbed when they seized Mosul. They could try to piece together some kind of small RDD with stolen or seized material, but the real effects of such a weapon are likely to be minimal, beyond public panic, and that assumes in the wasteland that is Syria anyone even notices the radioactive contamination. Further, the delayed effects of an RDD are counter-productive from a terror standpoint.
It is like one of those pharmaceutical commercials. The terrorist screams, “Aha! I have killed you with my radiation you infidel dog!” Meanwhile a monotone and fast talking voice states over a long list of exceptions reads:
By killed, we mean you may or may not experience cancer or other radiation related disease in 10 or 20 years’ time, which may or may not be life threatening. Smoking, unhealthy diet, and genetic predisposition are greater factors in developing cancer. Health risks are dependent on dose or internal contamination, and low-level radiation exposure is not a factor in later development of any cancer or other disease. Before determining your actual risk of death, please consult a medical professional and determine your actual dose of ionizing radiation and/or the extent of any internal radiological contamination as the result of inhaling radioactive dust or debris from any blast area.
Terrorists usually look for more immediate effects.
Another major highlight of dubious comport contained within the EU report is a frequent boogeyman going back to the 1990s: the “expertise” possessed by foreign fighters with degrees in “chemistry, physics, and other subjects.” Now, this is always an issue, but less than one might think. If you have spent some time with these “scientists,” you quickly learn that “expertise” is a serious misnomer. A degree in chemistry from some random Egyptian or Saudi University does not make you a chemical weapons engineer, it barely makes you an undergraduate at an American or western European university.
The only experts worth worrying about are Egyptian, Syrian, or Iraqi scientists who worked on their nation’s chemical weapons programs. Nuclear experts from Pakistan, Iran, or elsewhere are not really a concern either. Da’esh does not possess the capability to enrich uranium. Even if they decided to go that route, as the Iranians have shown, such endeavors are a long-term project that requires a lot of money and expertise. Something a bunch of illiterates focused on a medieval ideology is unlikely to achieve. Anyway, most (all?) of the relevant scientists and engineers are not interested in hanging out with Da’esh. Aum Shinrikyo’s pseudo-scientific shtick had an appeal to those of a scientific bent in Japan, and the cult targeted graduate students and others with specific skills it needed. The radical Islamic interpretation of Da’esh that harkens back to the Middle Ages is fundamentally anti-scientific. That does not mean Da’esh might not get themselves one or two “scientists” of a radical bent, but I would not bet on them getting any Nobel prizes for their work.
Even then, transitioning from being a part of a state run and funded program carrying out large-scale production of chemical weapons, to trying to make sarin in the back of an abandoned warehouse with whatever a bunch of Islamists can supply you with is a big leap, even for an expert. Aum Shinrikyo spent millions on state of the art equipment in the most highly industrialized and technologically advanced nation in the world. Even though they had many really well educated people, they never got their production quite right, resulting in purity problems among other issues. Further, Aum repeatedly struggled to disseminate its agents, failing on numerous occasions. Da’esh is up against even steeper hurdles.
Even assuming Da’esh has a small-scale chemical agent production capability, it lacks the weapons and expertise to deliver that agent effectively, and more importantly, it lacks the means to produce or smuggle that material outside of its immediate zone of control, where they are more likely to use it anyway. Should they manage to smuggle some into Europe, Turkey, or somewhere other than their immediate vicinity, the likelihood is it would be in small amounts and therefore of little use.
As far as Europe goes, it might want to dial the rhetoric back a bit. We know there are those so-called unnamed “experts” out there selling the threat, and there is always a risk, but CBRN weapons are more aspiration than real threat when it comes to Islamic radicals, and those aspirations nearly always outrun their capabilities. Turkey has more reason to be concerned, as does Syria and Iraq. But even then, as Da’esh’s use of chemical weapons demonstrates, future use (outside of Turkey) is like to be for tactical, battlefield advantage and therefore localized and not of great concern in the grand scheme of things.
In summary then, the real CBRN threat from Da’esh is almost exclusively chemical. Further, it is more likely to be a battlefield rather than a terrorist threat. If Da’esh were to employ seized or improvised chemical weapons in a terror role, their most likely target is immediate: government controlled areas in Iraq and Syria, or inside Turkey. Even then, the actual effects of such an attack are going to be localized. The EU Report is like those of the 1990s, based mostly on threat inflation, hyperbolic inaccurate media accounts, and public concerns generated by mass media, more than any real threat. History rhymes here, and yet again perception is trumping reality. I am waiting for some EU MP to show up in Brussels with a 5-pound bag of sugar any minute. It all reminds me of an old movie...