Proliferation of Biological Weapons to Extremist Groups and Its Dependence on State Weapon Programs



The proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, especially biological weapons, to Sunni Islamic extremist groups poses a grave threat to the security of Canada and its interests. The most dangerous area in proliferation is the possibility that states with known weapon programs including Iran, Syria and North Korea may directly or indirectly assist the extremist groups. If these groups can close the gaps in their capabilities, this will allow them to execute plans with biological or other weapons of mass destruction. This could take the form of threats or actual attacks against Canada, the United States, or other Canadian allies. While Canada has taken a number of steps to address these developments, further information is needed on these proliferation activities.


1. While extremist groups using conventional weapons can cause extensive damage, they have great difficulty forcing determined governments to accede to their demands. The possession of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) by extremist groups, however, presents a more serious problem and a grave danger to the security of Canada. Under some conditions, a single act of terrorism could kill many thousands of people and induce levels of panic and political reaction that some governments could not deal with. Even the credible threat of a chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear (CBRN) attack may give extremist groups coercive power. Sunni Islamic extremist groups have declared their intentions to cause mass casualty attacks against Western targets but have not done so due to lack of more advanced capabilities. At the same time, countries such as Iran, Syria and North Korea have WMD programs, which may include chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons as well as their means of delivery. They are also involved in the proliferation of these capabilities to other states and possibly other groups. These countries are known sponsors of terrorism when it serves their strategic interests.  This Brief addresses the potential connection of these state WMD programs, and their associated international proliferation networks, with the Sunni Islamic extremist groups and whether these groups can acquire material or knowledge that would enable them to achieve their goals especially in the form of biological attacks.

Sunni Islamic extremist groups Intentions and Capabilities

2. There are more than  35 listed entities under Canada's Anti-Terrorism Act. These include al-Qaida, Egyptian Islamic Jihad, Islamic Group and others, which operate in over 60 countries (see for the current listing). While Osama Bin Laden is the leader, numerous reports credit Ayman al-Zarahawi as the driving force behind plans to use WMD. These groups pose an unprecedented transnational threat to Canada and other countries. Their common cause is to remove Western influence from the Middle East and other Islamic countries and to install Islamic governments that follow the extremists' interpretations of Islam. Bin Laden was reported to say that he felt it was a religious duty to acquire WMD. The Director-General of MI-5  Eliza Manningham-Buller said al-Qaida and its affiliated groups were 'the first truly global threat'. Using increasing levels of violence, entering into no negotiations and rarely claiming responsibility for the attacks characterize these groups. These factors plus their stated intentions make them prime candidates to acquire and use WMD.

3. Sunni Islamic extremist groups have pursued unconventional capabilities in the past. At the trial of Ramzi Yousef, it was revealed that the massive explosion at the World Trade Center in 1993 was intended to disseminate cyanide as chemical weapon but it did not succeed. More recently plots in England, France and Jordan were disrupted that included the planned use of the toxin ricin and chemical weapons combined with high explosives. The perpetrators of the anthrax attacks in 2001 have not been identified but some evidence points to Sunni Islamic extremist groups. In February 2004, Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet stated that al-Qaida and more than two dozen other extremist groups are pursuing CBRN materials. He stated that there was a heightened risk of poison attacks with simple delivery methods but that this might change as 'non al-Qaida' groups share information on more sophisticated methods and techniques. He concluded by stating 'what we've learned continues to validate my deepest concern that the enemy remains intent on obtaining and using catastrophic weapons'. Thus, there is a gap between Sunni Islamic extremist groups' intentions and their capabilities with respect to WMD. While al-Qaida could try to develop their own techniques, as it appears they were attempting in Afghanistan before October 2001, there are more direct routes. The most likely way to close the gap would be to acquire the necessary components from existing programs by purchase, theft or acquisition through third parties.

National WMD Programs

4. Key states that have acquired or are developing WMD are Iran, Syria, North Korea and until 2003 Iraq and Libya.This section will focus on Iran, Syria and North Korea. These states are also developing ballistic missiles and other means of WMD delivery. North Korea, in particular, has made a major industry in the proliferation of ballistic missiles particularly to the Middle East. While some WMD materials may have transferred from Iraq to Syria before the U.S. led invasion, there are no confirmed reports. More importantly, when Libya renounced its WMD programs, it revealed valuable information about international networks involved in the proliferation of WMD and their components. While the world community has been focussed on Iran and North Korea because of significant information revealed about their nuclear weapon programs, all 3 countries have major chemical weapons programs. Syria is reputed to have the Middle East's largest chemical warfare program. It is believed to possess sarin (GB), a non-persistent nerve agent in bulk and weaponized forms and a mustard agent in weaponized form. Syrian chemical weapons are directed at Israel, which has formidable conventional forces as well as nuclear weapons. North Korea has weaponized chemical agents including mustard gas, phosgene, sarin and V-agents.  Iran suffered thousands of causalities from Iraqi chemical weapons after which it developed a retaliatory capability. US officials report that Iran can produce several hundred tons of chemical agent annually and that it may have already produced as much as 2,000 tons of agent, including mustard, cyanide, and possibly sarin nerve agent. Iran, Syria and North Korea have research and development programs related to biological warfare and may have some agent production facilities as well. Iran and North Korea have been reported to possess the smallpox virus. Iran has one of the most advanced biotechnology programs in the region and has co-operated with and acquired dual-use equipment from Cuba. There is a strong correlation in that countries with extensive chemical weapons programs usually have concurrent biological weapons programs. Syria and North Korea have not signed the Chemical Weapons Convention and both have signed the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention. Iran has signed and ratified both Conventions.

 5. States that do not respect arms control agreements or accepted norms against disease and poison as weapons are more likely to directly or indirectly provide material, knowledge or other types of assistance to extremist groups when it serves their interest. There have been several examples of networks or individuals engaged in proliferation. Information from Libya confirmed and helped stop the nuclear proliferation network of A. Q. Kahn, the Pakistani connection to Iran, North Korea and Libya. Director General Manningham-Buller of MI-5 said that intelligence suggested that 'renegade scientists' gave terrorist groups the information they needed to create CBRN devices and that such weapons would only become more sophisticated. Reports suggest that Iran has tried to recruit former Russian personnel with biological weapons experience from Biopreparat. In another example, Iraq may have helped Sudan and al-Qaida with the al-Shifa dual-use chemical facility located near Khartoum. This was based on the evidence of the chemical EMPTA, which is a unique marker for the Iraqi method of VX nerve agent production. This facility was destroyed in August 1998 by a U.S. cruise missile attack.

6. Within CBRN weapons, nuclear weapons production is most likely beyond the capability of small groups. While there have been reports that Bin Laden has purchased tactical nuclear weapons from individuals from the former Soviet Union, these reports are unconfirmed. Security improvements surrounding storage for Russian fissile materials suggest theft is not likely. The Co-operative Threat Reduction Program has invested billions of dollars in security upgrades in Russia. Radiological and chemical weapons are limited in their mass casualty capabilities since the amount of agent and the delivery vehicles needed would preclude their use by extremist groups.

Biological Weapons and Proliferation

7.  Biological weapons, which can include bacteria (anthrax, plague) and viruses, (Ebola, smallpox and Lassa), have been singled out for special concern for mass casualty attacks. While biological agents are easier to produce, there are important conditions that are needed for widespread dispersal, which can vary from agent to agent. This has two separate parts. First, the agents themselves are treated to ensure stability during dispersal. The second part is the dispersal process itself. The necessary methods and agent properties have been determined through extensive research and development (and trial and error as well). Some details are available in the open literature and more details keep coming out, due in part, to the scrutiny of the anthrax attacks in 2001. However, the exact methods to prepare agents for dispersal, are closely guarded secrets. This distinction also explains the constant debate concerning the ease or difficulty of making biological weapons. While Sunni Islamic extremist groups can probably produce some biological agents, they may not have the technical ability to prepare the agents for dispersal to cause mass casualties. Therefore, it is this information that would be one of their key objectives.

8. A critical distinction for counter proliferation efforts is that for nuclear weapons and long-range delivery systems, the components needed to produce them can be clearly identified. For example there are no civilian uses for U-235 enriched to 90%. If one detects the chemical precursor EMPTA it is a clear indicator of VX production. This is not the case for biological and toxin weapons. Most equipment and materials are dual use. That is, the equipment used in biological warfare agent production has legitimate uses in pharmaceutical and biotechnological industries unlike nuclear and ballistic missile technologies. It has been observed that arms and export control work well for the nuclear and ballistic technologies but not for dual-use technologies. Therefore, traditional controls will not work for dual use equipment and materials related to biological weapons.

9. In response to this dynamic threat, Canada has taken the following steps:
 Participation in the Proliferation Security Initiative to intercept WMD material and delivery systems in transit;
 Launching of the CBRN Technology and Research Initiative to address vulnerabilities;
 Creation of the Integrated National Security Assessment Centre;
 Formation of the Counter Proliferation Branch within CSIS;
 Participation in the G8 Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons and Materials of Mass Destruction; and,
 Creation of the Department of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness.

Canadian Implications

10. Canada has a long-standing goal to prevent proliferation of WMD to enhance international peace and security. It has been a participant in multilateral arms control including the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, the Chemical Weapons Convention and organizations such the Australia Group to limit CBW. While previous WMD arms control and non-proliferation focussed on serious regional conflicts in the Middle East and South Asia, there is growing concern that Canada itself could be threatened. Canada has the second largest number of extremist groups operating within its borders following the United States. Bin Laden has mentioned Canada twice in his declarations. Canada is thus faced with a significant proliferation problem. While individual countries are developing WMD, these same countries also participate in proliferating WMD to other countries. The primary concern is that extremist groups may get what they need from these proliferation networks. Canada must guard against improper acquisition of biotechnology or pharmaceutical information or materials that may have WMD applications. Furthermore, Canada must prevent the use of its territory as a base of operations related to these activities.


 The acquisition of more advanced WMD by Sunni Islamic extremist groups would be a direct strategic threat to Canada.
 WMD programs in countries such as Iran, Syria and North Korea while dangerous in and of themselves, pose a significantly greater risk since they may provide direct or indirect assistance to extremist groups. More information is needed about the international proliferation networks.
 Biological weapons, because of their mass casualty capabilities, pose the most serious proliferation risk. While the immediate concern focuses on classical agents such as anthrax, in the longer term, concerns will mount about novel agents modified by genetic techniques for which current vaccines and antibiotics will not work that could make formidable strategic weapons.