Covid-19 inspires ISIS to explore bioterrorism, experts warn
▶ Experts raise fears during pandemic that extremist groups will use deadly pathogens as weapons
Security officials have detected rising interest from ISIS in using biological weapons, as the world continues to fight the coronavirus pandemic.
The mass deaths caused by Covid-19 and the virus’s effect on the global economy have put security services on alert for bioterrorism. The US Department of Homeland Security recently said that terrorists were making “bioterrorism a popular topic among themselves”. The UN and the Council of Europe have also given warnings about possible bioterrorism attacks.
Meanwhile, Iran’s health ministry announced a record 221 coronavirus deaths on Thursday. Iran has recorded 250,458 infections and 12,305 deaths, health ministry spokeswoman Sima Sadat Lari said.
It is suffering from a resurgence in cases and deaths after easing lockdown measures to help revive the economy.
The UAE reported 532 new cases of Covid-19 on Thursday, after conducting 49,000 more tests. The new infections brought the total to 53,577. At least 1,288 people recovered from the virus, for a total of 43,570. One patient died, raising the toll to 328.
The number of active cases dipped under 10,000 for the first time since April 30.
In Tokyo, 224 new cases on Thursday marked a record single-day high for the Japanese capital as authorities focused testing on the city’s nightlife districts.
In Australia’s second-biggest city, five million people began a new lockdown on Thursday, returning to tough restrictions only weeks after they ended.
Melbourne residents have been told to stay at home for six weeks after other measures to contain a surge in Covid-19 failed.
Security officials detected increasing interest from ISIS members in the potential use of biological weapons during the coronavirus pandemic, experts said.
The death toll caused by the virus and its crippling of the global economy put security services on alert for bioterrorism, The National was told.
The US Department of Homeland Security recently said in a memo that terrorists were making “bioterrorism a popular topic among themselves”.
The UN and the Council of Europe gave warnings about the threat of bioterrorism attacks.
ISIS is understood to be re-examining its experiments on using bubonic plague as a weapon and there are concerns the extremist group will attempt to attack a high-security biosafety laboratory.
Biosecurity expert Hamish de Bretton-Gordon told The National that the group’s long-standing ambitions had come back into focus.
“We do know that ISIS and Al Qaeda have experimented with bioweapons but found chemicals much easier to make,” he said.
“The Covid experience will undoubtedly change this and we must now be on our guard as it has brought the world to its knees and will take years to get out of it.”
Mr de Bretton-Gordon, a former army officer, investigated attempts by ISIS in Syria and Iraq to introduce plague to refugee camps and examined the group’s research into weaponising Ebola.
The UK’s senior defence adviser to the Middle East, Lt Gen Sir John Lorimer, said intelligence was being gathered to ensure extremist groups did not create bioweapons.
“It is important for us to continue determining what research Daesh are doing and that’s a priority,” he said.
“We’ve got all the right capabilities in place to deal with any chemical or biological system that they come up with and we have got measures we can put in place to defeat them.”
While Gen Lorimer said there was no “specific information” about biological weapons he gave a warning that security forces had to keep “absolutely alert to any option or capability used against Iraqis or coalition troops”.
“We will keep scanning and researching the intelligence to make sure we are on that,” he said.
The pandemic also demonstrated that security services needed to focus on terrorist groups developing less deadly pathogens that are easily transmissible, such as Covid-19.
The threat is not limited to extremists in the Middle East and white supremacists in the US also discussed in chat rooms the use of biological weapons.
Bioweapons include botulinum toxin, anthrax and smallpox. Chemical weapons can be substances such as nerve agents, including sarin and VX, or marginally less sophisticated gases such as mustard and chlorine, which have both been used by ISIS. Mr de Bretton-Gordon said terrorists wanted to develop the weapons because they were terrifying.
“The psychological to physical impact is 10 to one. It’s horrific,” he said.
“It’s quite difficult to get it right but it’s very easy to terrorise a lot of people with small amounts.”
Secure laboratories that store deadly pathogens could be targets for extremist groups.
“I’m hugely concerned that in light of Covid-19 they will be looking at the vulnerability of level-4 labs around the globe,” Mr de Bretton-Gordon said.
“You can imagine what an attack or explosion at one of these labs could do, especially psychologically.”
A western military intelligence source confirmed that there were concerns over bioterrorism activity.
“ISIS are not stupid,” the source said.
“We are aware that they are exploring many avenues to pursue their objectives.”
The threat is not limited to extremists in the Middle East. White supremacists in the US also discussed the use of bioweapons