The decommissioning of Syria’s vast chemical weapon arsenal has brought its weapons of mass destruction into the media spotlight. Far less attention has been paid to Syria’s admitted biological warfare program, one of the largest in the Middle East today. While Asad’s chemical weapons have been monitored for decades, biological weapons are silent weapons. There are no identifying heat signatures, no activities such as mixing precursor materials for loading into conventional warheads, which could be indicative of a chemical weapon facilities and few observable activities by which to identify a biological weapons laboratory. Biological weapons usually exhibit a combination of selected characteristics: they are highly infective, highly transmissible, have lengthy incubation periods and are untreatable (no vaccines or medical counter-measures available), among other desired attributes. Above all, they are silent weapons, in some instances deniable until noted epidemics and pandemics occur.
A primary concern for this weapons class is continuity of command and control over the laboratory infrastructure required to support it. The looting of Asad’s laboratory infrastructure which supports this weapon complex, due to internal fighting and Syria’s ongoing civil war, is of extreme concern for international public health security. The potential that the looting of dual-use technologies and weaponized agents may have allowed Al Qaeda to fulfill their decades-long quest for a biological weapon capability makes the security of Syria’s biological weapon infrastructure critical. This paper explores the possibility that Al Qaeda has looted Syria’s laboratory infrastructure and the consequences such an acquisition may mean to the international community as whole.
As of June 2014, twelve Syrian chemical weapon production facilities remain structurally intact, even as United Nations weapon inspectors, under the auspices of the Hague-based Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) struggle to negotiate with Bashar al Asad over an estimated 100 tons of Priority 1 and Priority 2 chemicals still remaining in Syria, representing approximately eight percent of the total declared material. While Syria was identified decades ago as possessing the largest chemical weapons stockpile in the Middle East, its government has largely denied the existence of its biological weapons programs, dismissing any reference to them as “purely speculative.”
In July of 2012, when Jihad Makdissi of Syria’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs acknowledged Syria’s chemical and biological weapons programs on state television, international focus was squarely set on Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile. Makdissi abruptly admitted what segments of the U.S. intelligence community had known for years: Syria possessed biological weapons capability. Makdissi stated that Syria would never use “any chemical and biological weapons… inside Syria,” and that the Syrian army was storing “all stocks of these weapons” securely, and that such weapons would only be used in the event of “external aggression.”
The United Nations report on the use of chemical weapons inside Syria and statements by Jihad Makdissi has sparked numerous concerns. Syria is party to the 1925 Geneva Protocol, which bans the use of biological weapons.  Syria signed the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) in April 1972, but has not ratified the treaty.
Most highly pathogenic agents suitable for weaponization are zoonotic, meaning they are transmissible from animal to human. From a bio-defence perspective, veterinary vaccine facilities have typically comprised a significant part of a state’s biological weapons/warfare complex. For instance, the Soviet Biopreparat program (multiple institutes and facilities), Iraq’s biological weapons program, which comprised Salman Pak, Al Hakum, and Al Manal (the Foot and Mouth Disease Center), South Africa’s Project Coast (Roodeplaat, Research Laboratories, Roodeplaat Breeding Enterprises, Compression Laboratory) , have all conducted much of their clandestine work via veterinary facilities.
SYRIA’S BIOLOGICAL WEAPONS COMPLEX
While it is relatively easy to identify chemical weapon manufacturing plants and suspected nuclear facilities, the same does not hold true for biological weapon infrastructures. Generally, clandestine biological weapons programs operate beneath a legitimate research cover and in parallel to an illicit offensive research and development infrastructure. Aside from affording complementary investigational research on zoonotic diseases, veterinary vaccine manufacturing processes are difficult, until the very end of the process, to identify as having an offensive use (essentially, a weaponized capability). Both the Soviet Union and Iraq ran robust biological warfare programs beneath the radar for decades. Syria’s biological weapons research and development programs reflect a similar structure. “The biological warfare agents that are believed to have been developed by Syria include virulent pathogens, such as anthrax germs, and the lethal biological toxins botulinum and ricin. Western estimates suggest that Syria has significant quantities of these biological warfare agents, although the evidence for this is inconclusive. Syrian possession of the smallpox virus is likely.”
As occurred with other state programs, such as the Soviet Biopreparat program, a massive biological warfare program which was denied at the time by Western intelligence sections, even after a number of high level defections from Biopreparat military scientific staff; Syria’s pharmaceutical industry has played a key role in supporting Asad’s offensive biological weapon programs. Unfortunately, unlike with chemical weapons, the BTWC treaty (signed by Syria in 1972, but which it never ratified), has no associated verification protocol and no inspection regime. The UN is therefore highly unlikely to receive a legal mandate to inspect Asad’s admitted biological weapons program. Syria’s primary biological weapons research and development facility is the Damascus-based Scientific Studies and Research Centre (SSRC), which Jane’s Intelligence Services and other analysts link to the military establishment. The SSRC is allegedly responsible for advanced research and development of nuclear, biological, chemical and missile-related technology. Syria today possesses a number of dual-use facilities and laboratories which comprise sections of a highly compartmentalized biological weapon program.
The potential loss of command and control over this bio-pharmaceutical infrastructure, which supports and contributes to the SSRC weapon complex, is concerning. While the SSRC, Syria’s core WMD research center, contributes as well, it is relatively well-protected with hardened labs, and some estimates suggest it is guarded by elite forces. Osama Shamy, a spokesman for the FSA, describes the research center as “a fortress located inside a mountain and surrounded by tanks and artillery.”
In discussing weaponized agents and the infrastructure required to maintain them, several important factors set biological weapons apart from conventional weapons. In an analysis presented by Martin Furmanski, he notes, with some accuracy,
“Most biological weapons agents are much more fragile: most need to be stored “wet” and refrigerated. They only last 30-60 days at most. Refrigerated storage is a hallmark of biological weapons warheads: in inspections the presence of refrigerated munitions bunkers is taken to indicate the presence of biological weapons, and during the Cold War the U.S. identified biological weapons warheads on Soviet missiles because infrared images indicated the warheads were refrigerated! Only a few of the fragile agents can be dried: most are killed in the drying process. Of those that can be successfully dried, often only a small fraction of the original organisms survive, reducing the potency of the biological weapons preparation. But dried it can be kept for months or years.”
“Drying is a double-edged sword: it makes the agent less perishable in storage but introduces a variety of problems in addition to the loss of agent in the drying process. The drying process is difficult and hazardous. And the drying process complicates getting the biological weapons agent back into the air: most dried powders “clump” and the agent falls harmlessly to the ground. It takes a lot of research and development to dry the agent in the first place, and then a lot more research and development to develop ways of releasing it. Such an effort would typically require a national military biological weapons effort.”
AL QAEDA’S ACQUISITION EFFORTS
In contrast to the fortress-like security of the SSRC itself, the viability of Syria’s pharmaceutical infrastructure and specifically veterinary vaccine and agricultural research facilities in Hama, Homs, Latakia, Cerin, Aleppo and Damascus, are of grave concern to analysts in light of recent looting. Given Al Qaeda’s ongoing efforts to acquire biological weapons capability, this theft cannot be seen as coincidental. Syria’s bio-pharmaceutical infrastructure and its dual-use equipment have experienced looting in areas where heavy fighting by Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS) forces has occurred.
Since Al Qaeda has been vocal about its intent to acquire bioweapons capability, the recent arrest of the former head of Al Qaeda’s “WMD Directorate,” Yazid Sufaat must be seen as an alarming development. Sufaat is tied to al-Mihdhar and al-Hazmi, both of whom were part of the team responsible for hijacking American Airlines Flight 77 and crashing it into the Pentagon. Sufaat was Al Qaeda’s anthrax expert and established a number of labs in Afghanistan prior to the entry of the Northern Alliance. Although it is mildly disturbing to consider that Yazid Sufaat is again under ISA (Internal Security Act) detention, having previously been held for 7 years in Malaysia, and was charged in 2013 under section 130G (a) of the Penal Code for promoting terrorism in Syria, along with Muhammad Hilmi Hassim and his wife, Halimah Hussin. Sufaat’s intended role in Syria may well have been an advisory one.
Further alarm bells were rung when another Al Qaeda operative trained in microbiology, Samer al-Barq, was detained by Israeli security forces in 2010 when he attempted to enter Israel from Jordan. According to an article on the Global Security Newswire,
“Al-Qaida’s interest in biological weapons is well documented and dates back to at least the late 1990s, according to Western issue experts. More recently, the international terrorist network’s Yemeni branch in the last year has been attempting to stockpile the lethal poison ricin for use in possible large-scale attacks in the United States, some intelligence sources have said.”
There are grounds for concern whenever high profile arrests and detentions are conducted with regard to terrorists highly educated in the life sciences, specifically in connection with Syria. The looting of Syria’s pharmaceutical laboratories (which would mainly have been Biological Safety Level (BSL) 1 or 2), estimated at around 70 percent, of which probably 20 to 30 percent are likely contributors to Asad’s bioweapons programs, should not be seen as a series of random incidents.
Looting a pharmaceutical firm or research facility means divesting it of bio-reactors, laminar flow hoods, centrifuges, incubators, refrigerators etc. and since the laboratories would possibly be involved in research on highly pathogenic agents, such as rabies, cholera, botulism, ricin, any looting would need to be orchestrated with care and precise timing. It’s not like walking off with a TV set from a city shop during a riot, when looting would be haphazard and looters would grab what they can on the go. There is a moderate probability that the looting of Syrian pharmaceutical facilities has been orchestrated by Al Qaeda, who may have retained highly-skilled, Western-educated biological and chemical experts for this purpose. Certainly, the reported looting of these facilities has occurred in sectors where Al Qaeda has been fighting.
While Hizballah would likely be privy to any direct transfers of laboratory equipment and pathogenic agents (there have been credible accounts of limited transfers to a laboratory with direct links to Hizballah in Lebanon), Al Qaeda generally would not, as they are not a state-sponsored entity; although there is evidence to suggest they work on occasion with what would appear to be Iranian counter-interests. There is a risk as well that Al Qaeda could divert materials and pathogenic agents, possibly transferring them to Al Qaeda in the Land of the Islamic Maghreb (AQLIM) or Islamic Jihad of Yemen. An analysis of areas where Syrian labs are now based in ISIS-controlled zones paints an increasingly dire picture. It is likely Al Qaeda would have previously identified not only the labs of interest, but also the equipment, pathogens and research projects which they intended to remove. It is important to note that the facilities which have been looted were not destroyed during conflict and then looted. It is therefore likely the labs were targeted during episodes of fighting once sectors where the laboratories existed had fallen under ISIS control.
In contrast to this, Hizballah, while interested in chemical and biological weapons, is supported by both Syria and Iran and has access to this class of weapons technology without having to steal, divert or loot official facilities. Moreover, Hizballah is perceived to be an ally of the Asad regime and working in close collaboration. Al Qaeda’s quest for biological weapons and the situation on the ground in Syria, where at times Asad has lost command and control over sections of his bio-pharma industry is extremely worrying from a counter-bioweapons perspective.
While chemical weapons pose an immediate risk to both civilian populations and military personnel, they are limited munitions which do not spread beyond a calculated geographic theater. In contrast, biological weapons are living organisms with the potential to be highly infectious and highly transmissible. Syria’s biological weapons complex is significant. It is not minor, nor can it be considered “emerging.” It is technologically advanced; a review of the open literature cites several programs which display the hallmarks of bioweapons programs, namely, the laboratory infrastructure supporting Asad’s weapon’s complex is both legitimate and produces commercial products, but has a dual use component which supports a biological weapon program. Most open source documents cite the primary location as the SSRC complex in Damascus, with further facilities recently consolidated in Aleppo and Homs acting as prime contributors to Syria’s bio-warfare research and development. Unlike the old Soviet Biopreparat weapons, which were stockpiled and relatively easy to identify, rapid advances in the life sciences has made stockpiling for the most part obsolete. This has had the unfortunate result of creating highly agile programs with very low identification markers. As Dany Shoham wrote in the BESA Center Perspectives Paper in 2012, “Israel has good reason to fear that Syria’s chemical and biological weapons arsenal could fall into the wrong hands–to terrorist elements within Syria, to an even more hostile Syrian regime, or to Hizballah and Iran.”
The culmination of Al Qaeda’s long history of attempts to acquire biological weapons capability, lack of an international inspection regime associated with the BTWC treaty and Asad’s intermittent loss of command and control over sections of his bio-pharma infrastructure due to fighting, have all increased the risk of targeted looting. Countering a dictator in possession of biological weapons is a far easier task than countering terrorists with this capability.
Within the U.S. intelligence community, Rolf Mowatt-Larssen is widely acknowledged as the leading analyst of WMD terrorism. In Graham Allison’s introduction to “Al Qaeda Weapons of Mass Destruction threat: hype or reality?” published by the Belfer Center for International Studies in January 2010, he wrote, “After more than three decades in public service in CIA operations, and most recently, Director of Intelligence and Counterintelligence at the U.S. Department of Energy, Mowatt-Larssen has compiled a comprehensive chronology that addresses the skeptics head on, by presenting in unclassified form, Al Qaeda’s roughly 15 year quest to acquire WMD.” Allison continues, in his summary of Mowatt-Larssen’s chronology:
“…[A] clear hallmark of al Qaeda’s approach is to pursue parallel paths to procure these deadly materials. Multiple nodes of the network were assigned to different tasks of the overall WMD effort, acting and reporting independently, ensuring that failure in one cell did not jeopardize the entire operation. By taking into account possible operational set-backs and intelligence breaches, al Qaeda has displayed deliberate, shrewd planning to acquire WMD.”
Unfortunately, analysts face overwhelming criticism in relating bioweapons events, such as the looting of laboratories to the public, due to what has been perceived as faulty intelligence on Iraq. As Mowatt-Larssen himself concisely notes:
“WMD terrorism skeptics abound, and for understandable reasons. There is widespread suspicion in America and abroad that WMD terrorism is another phony threat being hyped for political purposes, and to stoke fears among the public. The case that the WMD terrorism threat is real bears no association with the Iraq intelligence failure whatsoever, in terms of the reliability of the sources of intelligence, the quality of the information that has been collected, and the weight of the evidence that lies at the heart of our understanding of the threat. If anything the biases in WMD terrorism analysis tilt toward treating the absence of information as an absence of threat; this could become a vulnerability in the defenses considering the very real possibility that there may be a terrorist plot in motion that has not been found.”
The situation on the ground in Syria today affords Al Qaeda an opportunity to acquire the bioweapons capability they have sought for the last 15 or more years. Al Qaeda has been consistently clear in its continuous calls to acquire and use biological weapons against the “infidel.” While it is prudent to treat such looting with caution, the global community cannot afford to err on the side of risk where Asad’s biological weapon programs and the looting of its supporting infrastructure is concerned. The potential consequences to international health security are too great. Should Al Qaeda acquire bioweapons capability, they will use it. As biological weapons are, in many instances, highly transmissible and given the advanced nature of Asad’s bioweapons programs, the expression “it’s the pace, not the space” truly applies here: since biological weapons are designed not only to be highly infective but highly transmissible, it is therefore the pace of disease transmission, not the location of deployment, that is significant. With modern air travel and public transport–even the movement of refugees–the pace of outbreak is the most important factor as it presents significant obstacles to containing deliberate mass casualty pandemics.
Should Al Qaeda deploy a biological weapon in regions lacking well-developed public health infrastructures, the risk of pandemic would be high. While securing Syria’s bioweapons facilities and preventing looting of these facilities and laboratories is critical to global public health safety, it is a nearly impossible task. For the near future, it’s essential to maintain intensive MEDINT and HUMINT capabilities in addition to appropriate technical (geospatial) assets already in place.
* Dr. Jill Bellamy is a recognized international expert on biological warfare and defence. She represents a number of pharmaceutical Fortune 500 firms in defence and civilian procurement related to NATO States and the US National Strategic Stockpile. She is a listed bio-security expert with the U.S. Department of Defence, Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Defence Information Analysis Center. For the past 17 years she has worked to increase awareness of the threat posed by state sponsored bio-warfare and terrorism. Her consultancy, Warfare Technology Analytics, based in The Netherlands, supports government, defence and industry clients.
 Statement to the Fortieth Meeting of the Executive Council, Remarks, Ambassador Robert P. Mikulak, United States Delegation to the Executive Council Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, The Hague, Netherlands, April 29, 2014. URL: http://www.state.gov/t/avc/rls/2014/225340.htm
 Makdissi, Jihad, “Press Conference by Dr. Jihad Makdissi”, Syrian TV Official, 23, July, 2012. URL: www.youtube.com/watch?v=Aj_7Tqn9Sfw&feature=youtu.be&t=3m52s.
 Syria, Country Profiles, Biological, Nuclear Threat Initiative, February, 2013. URL: http://www.nti.org/country-profiles/syria/biological/
 United Nations Mission to Investigate Allegations of the Use of Chemical Weapons in the Syrian Arab Republic Report on the Alleged Use of Chemical Weapons in the Ghouta Area of Damascus on 21 August 2013. URL: http://www.un.org/disarmament/content/slideshow/Secretary_General_Report_of_CW_Investigation.pdf
 U.S. Department of State, Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation, “Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use of War in Asphyxiating, Poisonous or Other Gases, and of Bacteriological Methods of Warfare URL: http://www.state.gov/t/isn/4784.htm
 Block, S. M. (2001, January–February). The growing threat of biological weapons, American Scientist, 89:1. Retrieved November 17, 2008. URL: http://www.americanscientist.org/issues/feature/the-growing-threat-of-biological-weapons
Shoham, Dany, “The Fate of Syria’s Chemical and Biological Weapons”, BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 177, 6, August, 2012. URL: http://www.biu.ac.il/SOC/besa/docs/perspectives177.pdf
 Kort, Michael, Global Issues: Weapons of Mass Destruction, Infobase Publishing, p.73, New York, 2010.
 Robert Sherman, “Syria’s Special Weapons,” Federation of American Scientists, 12 May 2000, www.fas.org; “Nuclear, Syria: Proliferation,” Jane’s CBRN Assessments, 2 July 2008, www.janes.com.
 Jorisch, Avi and Cavaliere, Victoria, “Heart of Darkness: Inside Syria’s Los Almos”, Vocative, 30, September, 2013. URL: http://www.vocativ.com/world/syria-world/heart-of-darkness-inside-syrias-los-alamos/
 Interview: Experts Q & A: Zilinskas and Furmanski, American Experience, URL: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/interview/weapon-experts-q-and-a/
 Embassy of the United States, Kualalaumpur, Malaysia, Country Reports on Terrorism 2013, Country Reports: Malaysia, 30, April, 2013. URL: http://malaysia.usembassy.gov/reports_terrorism2013.html
 Joscelyn, Thomas, “Al Qaeda’s anthrax scientist”, The Long War Journal, 12, December, 2008. URL: http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2008/12/al_qaedas_anthrax_sc.php#ixzz30pSs77KH Al
Embassy of the United States, Kualalaumpur, Malaysia, Country Reports on Terrorism 2013, Country Reports: Malaysia, 30, April, 2013. URL: http://malaysia.usembassy.gov/reports_terrorism2013.html
 Nuclear Threat Initiative, “Alleged Al-Qaida Biowarfare Expert Revealed to Be in Israeli Custody”,18, November 2013. URL: http://www.nti.org/gsn/article/alleged-al-qaida-biowarfare-expert-revealed-be-israeli-custody/
 One estimate, from a source who has previously proven highly accurate, in-country accounts, on a number of facilities, estimates the looting to be at around 70 percent of Syria’s laboratories and veterinary vaccine facilities. The source is a highly credible NATO citizen, whom I’ve personally had direct contact with for over seven years. The source has provided ample documentation and photographic evidence.
 Nassief, Isabel, ‘Regime Regains Ground on the Coast”, Institute for the Study of War, Aug 22, 2013 http://www.understandingwar.org/backgrounder/regime-regains-ground#sthash.R69nKAK8.dpuf
 Interview with source ‘NB’ October, 2013, Munich, Germany.
 Fulton, Will, Joseph Holliday and Sam Wyer, “Iran Strategy in Syria”, Institute for the Study of War, May, 2013. URL: http://www.understandingwar.org/report/iranian-strategy-syria
 Block, S. M. (2001, January -February). The growing threat of biological weapons, American Scientist, 89:1. Retrieved November 17, 2008. URL: http://www.americanscientist.org/issues/feature/the-growing-threat-of-biological-weapons
 Bellamy, Jill, “Sudan’s Connection to Syria’s WMD’s”, Israel Hayom, 23, January, 2014. URL: http://www.israelhayom.com/site/newsletter_opinion.php?id=7121
 Shoham, Dany, “The Fate of Syria’s Chemical and Biological Weapons”, BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 177, 6, August, 2012. URL: http://www.biu.ac.il/SOC/besa/docs/perspectives177.pdf
 Mowatt-Larssen, Rolf, “Al Qaeda Weapons of Mass Destruction threat: hype or reality?”Belfer Center for International Studies, January, 2010. URL: http://belfercenter.ksg.harvard.edu/files/al-qaeda-wmd-threat.pdf