Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Kenya reportedly breaks up an ISIS terror plot that may have involved bioterrorism.

A microscopic view of the anthrax bacteria B. Anthracis. CDC Photo.

Kenya's chief of police has claimed that the country has broken up an ISIS terror cell that may have been planing biological attacks. CNN. Three arrests have been made as the Kenyans have broken up the terrorist cell. The accused terrorist, led by a medical intern named Mohammed Abdi Ali, along with his wife and her friend were planning attacks similar to the one that occurred at the Westgate mall in 2013 that killed 67 people. More disturbingly, Ali's network included medical experts and a plan to use anthrax as a biological weapon. Kenya has had problems with terrorism before, but in the past they were with other terror groups, like al-Shabaab. It is now feared that ISIS has begun to get a toehold in the country as well. 

My Comment:
This is a frightening report if it turns out to be accurate. A terrorist attack, even one in Africa, would gain worldwide attention if it used a biological agent. Such an attack would cause a panic much greater then the actual threat. I remember right after the 9/11 attacks there was the US Anthrax attacks and that caused a major panic as well. Though that case is still officially unsolved, it goes to show how bad the reaction to a major terrorist incident of this kind would be. 

However, there is a chance that this threat wasn't all that serious. It takes quite a bit of skill to make an effective biological weapon, and I seriously doubt that these people had that skill. I mean, Mohammed Abdi Ali was a medical intern for crying out loud. He would not have been able to synthesize a viral agent by himself. Indeed, it requires a lot of skill and money to make even the simplest biological threats. 

That doesn't mean that the threat didn't exist though. The article mentioned that Ali was in contact with other medical experts. Who those experts were and where they worked could explain why the Kenyan government went public with this story. Thought it is hard to synthesize a viral agent if you aren't a world government, it is possible. It is certainly easier then building a nuclear device, but harder than making a chemical weapon. If these experts were well trained and smart and if they had good funding and if they had a good lab to work in then they might have actually pulled this off.

Those are a lot of if's though and I am very skeptical that this cell was seriously able to pull off this kind of an attack. My guess is that the attack was in its preliminary planning stages, and they were looking into how difficult it would have been to attempt an anthrax attack. It's possible that the government was tipped off as well since asking how to conduct a biological attack is a great way to get the governments attention. They probably asked the wrong person about this or their plans were intercepted, thus leading to their capture and the destruction of this cell. 

The threat of a conventional attack is the much greater concern here. I doubt that this cell would have ever successfully launched an anthrax attack but an Westgate Mall/Charlie Hebdo/San Bernardio style attack was almost certainly within their reach. Indeed, I think their biggest flaw as trying to do to much. Had they just stuck with the original plan and tried to pull off another major attack on westerners and Kenyan civilians they probably would have succeeded. When it comes to terrorist attacks it seems that a couple of guys with rifles can do as much or more damage then the spectacular terror attacks that have been attempted in the past. You are also much more likely to succeed. 

It is surprising to me that ISIS is active in Kenya now. Kenya has a long history of terrorist attacks, but almost all of them are conducted by al-Shabaab, the Somali terror group affiliated with al-Qaeda. Indeed, East Africa is largely their territory, with ISIS really only showing up in Egypt. The fact that they are now active in Kenya as well is a step up. I wonder how al-Shabaab will react to ISIS showing up in their neighborhood. 

It also seems that this cell was more of a home grown one, rather then foreign ISIS fighters entering the country. It makes me wonder if these people were radicalized by other locals or if they have been watching ISIS propaganda and decided to join in. It will be interesting to find out if they had major links to ISIS besides that. The article doesn't make it clear at all, and given the situation, that isn't surprising. After all, Kenya is still trying to round up the rest of this cell. 

Even though this plot was probably not to serious in terms of a biological threat, I would not be surprised if someone somewhere conducts another terrorist attack with biological weapons. I think that ISIS, with all of its money, would be able to create a viable biological agent and delivery system. They have already had some success with chemical weapons and they probably have biological experts that can help them. 

If ISIS or another terrorist group manages to get their hands on a biological agent we would be lucky if it is just anthrax and not a more serious disease. Ebola would be horrifying and Bubonic plague would spread rapidly. Smallpox would be the worst though, since our immunity to the disease is waning since it's eradication in 1980. 

The threat of a biological attack isn't just limited to Islamic terrorism. Several states, most notably North Korea, have an active biological weapons program. These weapons are horrifying and my sincere hope is that they are never used. Be it in a terrorist attack or as an opening salvo in a new war, no good can come from biological terrorism. 

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