"Could al-Qaeda have access to biological weapons?"
Jill Bellamy Van Aalst
Henry Jackson Society’s new WMD expert warns Syria’s biological weapons could fall into AQ’s hands
October 15th 2013 While the removal of chemical weapons in Syria is currently the focus of the world’s attention, experts from the Henry Jackson Society (HJS) have...
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While the world has been focusing on the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles, President Assad’s biological weapons programme is a far graver danger. Indeed, a bio-weapon attack would actually put the whole world at risk because of the inherent nature of biological pathogens, toxins and viruses that can spread like wildfire through modern means of transport. Most worrisome is the distinct possibility that al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, al-Nusrah, may have access to these bio-weapons.
The civil war has left sections of the bio-pharmaceutical infrastructure destroyed. Looting of labs has been observed, indicating that Mr Assad is losing command and control over one of the most dangerous classes of weapons remaining in his WMD arsenal. What triggered a major red flag is that a very credible source has told us that he saw, near Aleppo, a looted pharmaceutical laboratory that was probably a cover for a biological weapons production site. The fact that it took place in the Aleppo area where the rebellion, and in particular al-Nusrah, is very strong, tends to confirm that al-Qaeda may — potentially — be in possession of biological agents.
Al-Qaeda’s primary biological weapon expert, Yazid Sufaat, was arrested in February while trying to enter Syria. His arrest is all the more concerning given that the UN has allowed the Assad regime to maintain its biological weapons programme. Sufaat was charged with inciting terrorist acts that “threatened the public in Syria”.
Sufaat graduated from California State University Sacramento with a degree in biology. He is known to have served in the Malaysian army and went on to become al-Qaeda’s main biological warfare specialist.
In 1993, Sufaat established Green Laboratory Medicine, a pathology lab where he tried to weaponise anthrax on behalf of al-Qaeda. He had direct ties to Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Mihdhar, both of whom were on Flight AA 77, which crashed into the Pentagon on 9/11.
Sufaat was arrested in 2001 in Malaysia and was detained until 2008.
The threat of al-Qaeda’s potential biological weapon capability is not new. Notably, when the Northern Alliance entered Kabul in 2001 they discovered seven laboratories, two of which were running advanced research on anthrax and agent X (a biological agent which was never disclosed publicly).
Al-Qaeda operatives in Europe have also tried to develop biological weapons. In France, Menad Benchellali, a poisons specialist who was arrested in 2002, had produced small amounts of ricin and botulinum toxin that he intended to release in the country. In 2003, the British authorities arrested seven individuals accused of producing ricin. The most plausible instance of a biological weapons incident occurred in January 2009 when about 40 al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb terrorists reportedly died of bubonic plague in a training camp in Tizi Ouzou, Algeria
If it is confirmed that al-Qaeda acquired sections of Mr Assad’s biological weapons, the danger is very real since it has the competence and expertise to weaponise and deploy some agents. A nightmarish scenario could unfold if a biological weapon were placed perhaps in a ventilation system at Heathrow. You could have then a mass exposure, whereby the travelling public could spread the disease, causing an international health emergency.