Thursday, November 24, 2016

Scientific Flight from Syria to Lebanon

Recently, I met a long time scientific colleague at a defense conference who happened to mention one of his Syrian colleagues had decamped to Lebanon. While this casual observation may be nothing more than names dropped into a conversation, it does beg the question of the consequences of 'scientific flight,' not only from the SSRC in Syria, but other, what I will call, "labs of concern" scattered throughout the Middle East and Asia. Moreover, should we, as Europeans, be worried about the potential risk of scientists from countries under sanction by Europe and the US, coming to work in our most sensitive pharmaceutical sectors or perhaps the transfer of their weapon knowledge via recruitment by Daesh?

One can recall the deep concern, after the fall of the Soviet Union, of scientists with biological, nuclear and chemical weapon expertise fleeing to states which offered lucrative contracts and the threat reduction programs developed to inhibit and keep track of a handful of these folks e.g. ISTC. As US threat reduction programs, over the past few years, have disintegrated are we safer now? Has the threat diminished? Common sense would seem to dictate that not only has the threat not diminished, it likely has increased as scientific communities are displaced throughout unstable regions wracked by war. One benefit of a strong Russia is the reduction of scientific flight from former Soviet military laboratories, however without restoration of the status quo in the Middle East in site, offensive weapon programs and the proliferation threat this poses, could well replace the former Soviet threat tenfold.

As my colleagues' colleague takes up residence in Lebanon any potential knowledge of offensive programs, run out of the SSRC which is currently sanctioned by the US Treasury Dept., could well pose a risk of knowledge transfer to forces hostile to the US, Europe and certainly Israel. According to a report by IHS Jane's Military and Security Intelligence Centre:

"Despite the existing range of sanctions against the organisation (see Box 4), the SSRC remains largely intact. Even if the current international effort to dismantle Syria's chemical agent development and storage activities are completed effectively, the SSRC has accrued and established a sizeable knowledge base and technical expertise. Aided by its enduring external support network, this capability could easily be resurrected some time in the future. The most recent co-operative international opportunity to curtail the SSRC's activities were measures adopted by the EU on 29 November 2012 (Designation 1117/2012). However, these focus not on the SSRC's proliferation activities or breach of international, US, and European law in pursuit Jane’s Page 5 of 6 of materiel or technologies to support its proliferation ambitions, but on human rights violations, namely providing "support to the Syrian army for the acquisition of equipment used directly for the surveillance and repression of demonstrators". Undeterred by the existing international sanctions and aided by concerted procurement activities, the SSRC's missile and rocket development has been secured and consolidated, and its proliferation momentum continues unabated.
The SSRC and entities operating on its behalf have appeared on the US list of Specially Designated Nationals (SDNs) since 2005 under Presidential Executive Order 13382, 'Blocking Property of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferators and their Supporters', which prohibited US citizens and residents from doing business with the SSRC. In 2007 the US Treasury banned trade with three subsidiaries of the SSRC: the Higher Institute of Applied Science and Technology (HIAST), the Electronics Institute, and the National Standards and Calibration Laboratory (NSCL)."

For a detailed description of proliferation issues with the SSRC see Jane's:

NATO Member States would surely benefit from a more defined common approach to this threat and a clear policy on countering proliferation of scientific flight from Syria to other states. As the perception of Russia as a Cold War enemy recedes, perhaps its time to assess the more realistic and long term threats posed by proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. In order to secure Europe we will need to develop a more rigorous shift in our perception and resources to define a non-proliferation approach which emphasizes non-state parties; one which considers a new paradigm for dealing with Daesh recruitment of scientific experts. Maintaining command and control of scientific institutions within states of concern should be our raison d'etre.

Sanctions on the SSRC in Damascus

Sunday, November 22, 2015

France and Belgium Prepare for CBW Attacks While Europe Sleeps

The rod shaped Anthrax bacteria: Bacillus anthracis bacteria, the cause of anthrax. Magnification: x18,300
While France and Belgium prepare their populations for continued terrorist attacks and the possible use of chemical or biological weapons, other EU states avoid the obvious conclusion that a prepared public is better than an unprepared one. Several smaller states, excluding Spain and Germany, continue the drum beat that there is no significant threat to them or their civilian populations. In study after study this has not been proven to be the case and public preparedness has been shown to reduce casualties (see:; 

PM Valls statement on the bio-chem threat was in part motivated by the apparent loss of several bio-chem suits from a Paris hospital. While its possible these suits were misplaced or that inventory lists were incorrect, and warnings are not based singularly on bio-chem suits being unaccounted for, the French have taken appropriate measures.  Belgium has increased security at its nuclear facilities and France has increased protection for water supply facilities taking note of analysis by French intelligence that IS is capable of manufacturing crude chemical warfare agents.

"Eau de Paris, the capital's state-run water company, has banned access to six sensitive sites to all but key personnel following the Government's decision to declare a state of emergency for three months. "Our eight security agents are the only ones to be accredited by the defence ministry and are in permanent contact with the terrorism cell of Paris police headquarters," a spokesman told Le Parisien." "The storage and treatment sites have protective fencing and special sensors to detect intrusion. To limit the risk of contamination, Eau de Paris has increase the amount of chlorine added to water at five supply sites." "The dose injected has been raised," said Celia Blauel, president of Eau de Paris. Chlorine is a key indicator of any anomaly in the water. "When the chlorine level drops, it means there is a biological contamination." she said." 

"It emerged last week that hospitals and emergency services across France have been supplied with the most powerful antidote to sarin and other nerve gas chemicals for the first time. Under a November 14 decree, the army's medical service was ordered to distribute stocks of the drug atropine. Manuel Valls, the French prime minister, said that the country could rule nothing out when it came to terrorists bent on mass murder, including "chemical and biological weapons".

"Iraqi and American intelligence have warned that IS is aggressively pursuing development of chemical weapons, setting up a branch dedicated to research and experiments with the help of scientists from Iraq, Syria and elsewhere in the region. French intelligence agents are convinced that IS is producing mustard gas, after obtaining samples from in Syria. However, US intelligence officials do not believe that IS has the capability to develop sophisticated weapons such as nerve gas.

While the US intelligence community may split hairs over the capability of IS (ISIL in the US) to manufacture military grade nerve agents, this is largely irrelivant. IS has the capability to manufacture crude chem weapons and they have proven to be quite effective in Syria. 

The security services of both France and Belgium are to be commended. Both countries share similar population demographics and have extensive experience with terrorism. Additionally, they have both worked, since 911, to prepare their populations for such bio-chem attacks, some of these scenarios I developed and ran myself with their government officials in attendance. Far from being the weakest link, as some media outlets have portrayed the situation, they are in fact the best prepared within the EU to counter such threats.  The weakest link are those countries who have not prepared their public, are currently bombing IS and have announced it on the nightly news without one moment of thought to the risk they have placed their population in and no counter-terrorism or counter intelligence experience to fall back on. 

In 2005, French Interior Minister Dominique de Villepin called for international cooperation against bioterrorism at an Interpol meeting in Lyon. He promoted the idea of creating a joint database and a rapid alert network for theft, diversion and illegal transfer of biological agents, as well as a list of designated groups and individuals of concern. De Villepin also proposed the creation of an international center for monitoring bio terrorist threats. Mr. de Villepin went on to plead for a better coordination of Biotox style (the French government response to the deliberate introduction of the smallpox virus) plans at European level. "Why not to imagine for example a European reaction plan against a biological attack?"he asked. Furthermore, he added, the EU should initiate an update on reserves of vaccines so that each country knows the nearest country to turn to in case of emergency." See:

For over a decade the French government has established itself as the gold standard when it comes to bio-security, bio-safety and certainly countering, on the ground threats from would be bio-terrorists. In 2003, French authorities discovered ricin like substances in Gare du Lyon train station. Subsequently nine suspects of North African descent, who had trained in the Pankisi Gorge and were associated with AQ were arrested. While this is just one high profile example of a possible bio-threat, the French have developed outstanding and what I would describe as comprehensive capabilities to counter the threat of bio-terrorism. This depth of expertise offers a lot from which Member States within the EU could well benefit. France's Biotox-Piratox under their Vigipirate model is and has been a clear forerunner in bio-security and bio-safety for the analysis of attacks with deliberate disease. The French model, according to a report by European Hospital, published in 2013 includes the following structure: See:

"Born in the USA out of the anthrax scare that followed the 9/11 attacks, the formation of a network of laboratories kept on 24/7 alert against potential bio-terrorism was introduced in France at the end of 2001.

Initially interested only in the search for Bacillus anthracis, (the causative agent of anthrax), the structure was enlarged in 2004 with the mission to carry out the analysis of all chemical and biological agents that could present a terrorist threat.
Under the jurisdiction of the Interior Minister for National Defence and Safety, a network of laboratories known as Biotox-Piratox has evolved, within the context of the national security plan ‘Vigipirate’.
Since 2011, the network has extended its missions to include the discovery of all substances of suspect nature in the environment, in drinking water, and/or the food chain, that could have been placed by a deliberate malevolent act, or by negligence. The aim of the network is to act efficiently and promptly in collaboration with the health services, police and army to eliminate the threat and protect the general public."
Structure of Biotox-Piratox
According to the European Hospital report, "Dr. Binder, President of the Network's Scientific Board and Security Defence Advisor for INSERM, will present the work of the network at the Journées Internationales de Internationales de Biologie (JIB) in Paris at the beginning of November.The network has been set up to work in a way that is optimal when confronted with a potential biological or chemical risk to public health. The network is organised over three levels. Level one is known as our ‘sentinel laboratories’. These countrywide laboratories must be able to recognize a suspicious situation, package or sample, alert the authorities, and recognize which of the 100 or so, level 2 laboratories is best adapted to deal with the situation.

‘Each geographical defence-zone in France has at least one reference laboratory for 'human health' and another reference laboratory for chemo-toxicological analysis of the environment. These include 10 water board and 10 military labs. All the level two laboratories were selected from the results of an inquiry carried out by the scientific board in 2005. In addition to their scientific excellence, their specialty, geographical localisation, equipment and ability to maintain a permanent 24-hour cover, were all taken into consideration.
‘For the most part the human-health labs are connected to a public hospital in each zone. While the toxicology environmental labs belong to different bodies including among others the police, gendarmerie and the national agency for food safety. A full list of level two laboratories is available from the Biotox-Piratox council.
‘The level three laboratories are not necessarily mobilized as soon as the level two labs, as they are the highly specialized members of the network. Their role is to confirm the nature of a suspected pathogen and therefore have to be able to carry out rapid identification techniques such as rt-PCR under security conditions of at least category three. They also must have trained personnel for dealing with the treatment and containment of a potential infection of the pathogen.Responsibility for communication with the public for allaying fears and ad hoc communication rests with the governmental services.‘Looking at the archives, since its existence in 2003 the network has dealt with 1,300 alerts. In 2003, 207 separate incidences were recorded, but since 2010 this has reduced to a steady 150 a year. Due in part to better understanding of what we are looking at and the organisation of the network, the number of analyses for suspected agents for bio-terrorism has fallen from 77.8% to fewer than 2% in 2011." 
For an in depth report on French bio-preparedness planning I highly recommend a look at Eurosurveillance, Volume 17, Issue 45, 08 November 2012 "Assessment of the Bio-Preparedness and of the Training of the French Hospital Laboratories in the Even of Biological Threat ( An additional reference by Dr. Binder is also recommended, see:

While France and Belgium have spent years preparing for Islamic terrorism and prepared their public to face bio-chem threats, while they have real and extensive experience in Africa and the Middle East and their security services are within the top three in the world, other countries exempt themselves, continuously engage in 'peacekeeping' operations, to look good, lack counter terrorism experience and stand on the side lines criticizing their neighbours. I'm horrified that this particular country has openly criticized Belgium and France on national television while there are on-going operations.  They surely are the weakest link. A couple years ago when I sat with one of their so called 'bio-chem' experts, his total lack of knowledge was stunning. His concept of bio-defence was 'decon.' That was it. It was basically what to do post attack and in my view he struggled with the post attack plan as well. There was no concept of prevention, preparedness or response. In question after question I posed to this individual on board a warship, the only responses he could come up with were so simplistic I fear what will happen when this country is hit with any kind of bio-chem attack. The sad truth is that countries who have deliberately chosen not to prepare their public, who pretend they have no internal jihadi issues, who can't seem to meet their NATO obligations, and avoid the uncomfortable truth that they do not possess the resources, knowledge, expertise or experience in counter terrorism or counter intelligence to protect their public, are in fact the weakest links in Europe.