CURRENT AFFAIRS : Raising the stakes



A laptop seized in Syria suggests Islamic State is pushing to develop a nightmare Black Death terror weapon amid intelligence fears the jihadists, who have long sought chemical and biological capabilities, are planning major attacks on the West



As if the medieval machinations of the Islamic State (IS), the latest and possibly the most dangerous of the Islamist radical groups to emerge from the Middle Eastern maelstrom, were not murderous enough, there are reports that a black Dell laptop, captured by a rival rebel group in Syria contains detailed instructions on how to weaponise bubonic plague for a biological attack, possibly against western capitals or even the organisation’s Muslim opponents.

The laptop with its apocalyptic manuals apparently belonged to a Tunisian Islamist named Mohammed S., and was seized in January when rebels linked to the western-backed Free Syrian Army overran a jihadist base in Idlib province, a major battlefront in northwestern Syria that borders Turkey.

The laptop revealed that the Tunisian had studied chemistry and physics at two universities in his homeland until 2011 and later went to Syria, along with some 2,000 of his countrymen, to join the Islamist forces fighting to bring down the Iranian-backed Syrian regime of President Bashar Assad.

The US magazine Foreign Policy reported in late August that a rebel commander, identified only as Abu Ali, had given it access to “hidden files” in the laptop’s memory – allegedly some 146 gigabytes containing 35,347 files. These included a 19-page manual detailing how to assemble a biological weapon by using bubonic plague, also known as the Black Death, the disease that ravaged medieval Europe.

The files also contained a 26-page fatwa, or religious ruling, by a radical Saudi cleric named Nasir Al Fahd, currently behind bars in the kingdom for jihadist activities, sanctioning the use of chemical or biological weapons against the jihadists’ enemies.

“If Muslims cannot defeat the kafir (unbelievers) in a different way, it is permissible to use weapons of mass destruction,” the cleric declared, “even if it kills all of them and wipes them and their descendants off the face of the Earth.”

“Clearly, if the Islamic State were able to develop effective biological weapons, it would employ them, if not against targets in the West, then against regime targets in Iraq and Syria,” observed Scott Stewart, a security analyst with the Texas-based private intelligence group Stratfor.


Toxic terror


Chemical and biological warfare, CBW in military-speak, has been around for millennia in the Middle East. Herodotus, the 5th century BC Greek historian, describes Scythian archers using poison-tipped arrows. Indeed, the word toxin comes from the Greek word toxikon, which in turns derives from the Greek term for arrow, toxon.

The oldest archaeological evidence of CBW was found in Syria a few years ago. During a battle in 256 AD, nearly 2,000 years ago, researchers found that Sasasian Persians in the final stages of besieging the Roman-held fortress of Dara-Europos on the Euphrates River burned bitumen and sulphur, which create toxic compounds when added to fire, to kill a platoon of Romans digging a tunnel under the walls to intercept one being dug by the attackers to breach the defences.

Al Qaeda, and other terrorist movements, have dallied with chemical and biological weapons for years. But these are notoriously difficult to handle and control and actual attacks have been few and far between.

Jihadist groups are reported to have sought to develop viable biological or chemical weapons since before 9/11. They have clearly failed, possibly because key figures in that clandestine programme have been systematically killed by the Americans and their allies.

But the laptop uncovered in Syria would suggest the jihadists have not given up their drive for weapons of mass destruction and heightened fears that the United States and Western Europe, which jihadists see as tormentors of the Muslim world, will become targets of militants who seek to recreate Islam’s glory days.

It should be noted that it is difficult to assess the accuracy of the recent spate of dire warnings from Western intelligence chiefs about the threat of biological, or more conventional, attacks by jihadists, particularly the IS which now controls much of Iraq and Syria.

These warnings may well be exaggerated and intended to justify intensified Western, and particularly US, military action against IS and its emerging Islamic caliphate despite growing opposition in the United States and Europe to getting caught up in yet another Middle Eastern war that will end badly, if it ends at all.


This story was published in full in The Middle East (TME) printed edition in November 2014






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