Cover: Implications of the Pandemic for Terrorist Interest in Biological Weapons

Implications of the Pandemic for Terrorist Interest in Biological Weapons

Islamic State and al-Qaeda Pandemic Case Studies

Published May 31, 2022

by John V. Parachini, Rohan Kumar Gunaratna

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Research Questions

  1. What if the IS or al-Qaeda obtained and spread a highly contagious virus in a community or country that they sought to punish?
  2. With the pandemic highlighting weaknesses in response efforts, will these groups now seek to obtain infectious viruses to achieve these same deadly results?

Some policymakers and analysts have expressed concern that weaknesses in responses to the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic will motivate terrorists to seek biological weapons. However, an examination of the Islamic State (IS) and al-Qaeda narratives about the pandemic reveals no causal relationship between the pandemic and any heightened interest in biological weapons. A review of the historical pursuit of biological weapons by the IS and by al-Qaeda reveals that both groups evinced some interest, but ultimately each employed conventional forms of attack instead. Despite limited IS use of chemical agents that challenged the taboo against the use of poison as a weapon, there are formidable hurdles that nonstate actors must clear to develop, produce, and use biological agents as weapons.

Although the prospect of the IS and al-Qaeda pursuing biological weapons is not zero, it is unlikely, given both the difficulties and the much easier and readily available alternatives that meet their deadly objectives. In the wake of the pandemic, several measures can enhance capabilities to address both public health and military challenges. These measures reduce the possibility of and improve the response to a future naturally occurring pandemic while also helping to deter, prevent, and respond to any possible terrorist acquisition and use of biological weapons. Focusing unduly on the potential, but unlikely, terrorist use of biological materials as weapons skews resources to unique military and counterterrorism measures and away from measures that are useful in both events. In the post-pandemic period, governments need to rebalance their efforts.

Key Findings

Looking at both the historical baselines and the pandemic-era narratives of the IS and al-Qaeda, neither group seems likely to use biological materials in future attacks as a consequence of the global COVID-19 pandemic

  • It is unlikely that an actor with only modest knowledge can access the necessary materials and fashion a biological weapon.
  • The prospects of an individual or a group successfully accomplishing all the necessary steps are not zero, but given the difficulty involved in developing such weapons and the fact that conventional weapon alternatives are readily available, nonstate actors have routinely chosen other means of attack.
  • Even such terrorist groups as the IS and al-Qaeda, which have not hesitated to commit terrible acts of violence, have not demonstrated a concerted effort to develop biological weapons, and their chemical weapon activities have thus far been much less deadly than their conventional weapon attacks.

COVID-19 and the effects of global climate change are stern prompts to reimagine threats to national and international security

  • Prioritizing threats is a difficult task, particularly when threats are novel.
  • Although individuals and reports issued warnings about the possibility of a pandemic, other near-term or long-feared postulated threats took precedent.
  • Slow-moving and naturally occurring events rarely get the same attention as hostile states or terrorist groups, and feared “bolt from the blue” attacks from states or terrorists have tended to dominate the thinking of political leaders and national security experts.

Recommendations

  • Review and enhance controls on high-containment biological labs, pathogen collections, and laboratory equipment that could be used for pernicious purposes.
  • Expand collaboration between the animal health and human health sectors.
  • Place higher priority on near-term conventional innovative threats that the IS and al-Qaeda might inflict on the global community.
  • Reinforce international norms against the use of chemical and biological weapons.
  • Change the conceptual approach to gauging the threat.

This research was sponsored by the U.S. Department of Defense and conducted within the International Security and Defense Policy Center of the RAND National Security Research Division (NSRD).

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