The main objective of this Advanced Research Workshop titled “The Risk of Skilled Scientist Radicalization and Emerging Biological Warfare Threats” was to assess the risk and ability for radical terrorist groups, such as the Islamic State, to recruit highly-skilled scientists. Indeed, over the past years, it has become increasingly clear that the Islamic State is both willing and capable of online recruitment of Westerners to their cause. Through Facebook, Twitter, and other social media, the Islamic State has been able to attract recruits previously thought unlikely to espouse jihad.
This workshop was one-of-a-kind in that it brought together unique perspectives from the social science community and the scientific technical community to discuss the risks of the radicalization of chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) skilled scientists.
Skilled scientists are not immune to the appeal of terrorist groups. Indeed, terrorist groups not only consist of combatants but also consist of leaders, financiers, ideologues, military trainers, and scientists, all of whom are part of a complex eco-system. The split between al-Qaeda (AQ) and the Islamic State (IS) can be thought of as an outcome of a community of jihadis made up of bourgeois and thugs. AQ promotes an inclusive ideology among its members, avoiding sectarianism. It values meritocracy and rigorous training (military and education). This translates into large scale sophisticated operations whose main objective is to target political, military, and economic targets. On the other hand, the Islamic State has promoted a sectarian ideology and ‘equal opportunity’ among skilled and unskilled jihadis, which translates into indiscriminate attacks against civilians and non-civilians alike. In assessing the risk of radicalization of highly-skilled scientists, this is a key difference must be taken into account.
With respect to the potential radicalization of scientists outside of organized terrorist organizations, of particular concern is the issue of “lone wolves” (i.e. an individual who prepares and commits violence alone, outside of any command structure and without material assistance from any group).
In drawing on lessons learned from past cases, A.Q. Khan is an important example of scientist radicalization. His motives were rooted in nationalism. However, he was not a frustrated young student, but rather an established scientist with familial, community, and professional ties. Another example is Bruce Ivins, who was the alleged perpetrator of the Amerithrax attack against government and media officials post 9/11. Scientists like A.Q. Khan and Bruce Ivins not only shed light on the challenges posed by “lone wolf actors” but also highlight the potential consequences of a better executed plan by an organized group.
If the objective is to undermine the Islamic State, then the physical and digital caliphates must also be considered and combated simultaneously. Digital propaganda facilitates a physical caliphate by attracting fighters to the Islamic State's territory, and the existence of a physical caliphate facilitates digital propaganda by allowing the Islamic State (IS) to create and disseminate an organized narrative. While it is often mistaken that all IS propaganda is overwhelmingly violent and militaristic, much of their produced visual media focuses on themes like governance, religion, commerce, regulation, policing, and helping the poor. Through this narrative, the Islamic State is attracting people to the caliphate with the promise of a new kind of society.
Recent studies indicate the over-representation of engineers and medical doctors within terrorist groups. This phenomenon was present also in the first Intifada between the Palestinian authority and Israel. To prevent the radicalization of highly-skilled scientists and engineers, communities and societies must better integrate these individuals into the broader global scientific enterprise and reward and promote science as a peaceful and diplomatic tool to improve the conditions of their countries.
Many assessments of IS access to potentially dangerous resources seem often to over-emphasize material resources (i.e. critical materials, infrastructure, and human resources) and underestimate immaterial factors such as knowledge, skills, capital, and time. Although there is basic CBRN knowledge available in the open literature, history has shown that the deployment of an effective CBRN weapon requires more than basic skills and a considerable amount of so-called “tacit knowledge”. The acquisition of tacit knowledge takes time and requires sustained team work. With IS losing its territory and its safe haven, the short-term prospects that IS might resort to a complex CBRN operation is decreasing while the risk of “low-tech” operations with vehicles or knifes is increasing.
Of particular concern is the “DoItYourself (DIY) Bio” community, which is a growing global movement thanks to easy access to materials and equipment that can be ordered online. However, despite the de-skilling of biotechnology and the easy acquisition of equipment and raw materials, working with living (micro)organisms requires a certain level of expertise and DNA manipulation aimed to create more virulent pathogens remains a challenge (highlighted by Aum Shinrikyo's attempt in the 90s). To prevent both unintentional and nefarious events, community self-regulation could help. This includes creating a monitoring mechanism, educating the DIY-bio community, and creating codes of conduct for DIY-bio. External controls such as DNA synthesis and strain repository regulations, custom control, and law enforcement have an important role to play as well.
While the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) addresses the risk of biological proliferation by state actors, it is limited. The BWC needs to be strengthened to reduce the risk of non-state actors. Non-state actors may develop low level biological weapons (BW) using commercially available and naturally-occurring zoonotic agents targeting animal health and the food supply. Scientists need to be involved in the policy discussion if biotechnology advances will make it easier for non-state actors to develop a BW. The question is if the need for tacit knowledge will start to disappear as biotechnology moves forward.
Overall, an intentional biological attack seems to be the most consequential of challenges among the whole spectrum of CBRN events because, even if it might have a low probability of occurring, its consequences could be catastrophic. However, history showed that this risk of intentional misuse is lower than the risk natural and accidental outbreaks. Whether intentional or unintentional, robust public health systems (specifically infectious disease prevention, detection, and response infrastructure) is by far the best preparation for a possible biological event.
On the chemical side, the Open Source Intelligence (OSINT) is an efficient tool for the detection of alleged use of chemical weapons because it provides time sensitive and actionable information. Evidence suggests that IS has attained crude chemical weapon capability, in the form of sulfur mustard and chlorine, and has developed homemade rockets for delivery. It also suggested that IS has the ability to conduct chemical weapon attacks on a wide geographical area. However, their capability at present is rather limited and the real danger is long term.
The issue of the WMD delivery systems, meaning not only CBRN materials, but also CBRN devices, IEDs, etc., needs to be taken into account because there is no international mechanism to deal with dual/multi-use items nor any chemical-biological terrorism convention or non-proliferation treaty (the Biological and Chemical Weapons Conventions are just disarmament treaties).
Strategic trade control systems' main objective is to rule sensitive trade exchanges between states, but not between states and non-state actors. This means that WMD proliferation activities within a state by individuals or organisations not involving cross-border movements are not under the scope of strategic trade control regimes or systems. A way ahead could be developing verifications systems especially for bio, defining guidelines/MoU to counter/reduce the risk of license shopping, raising operators' awareness, and increasing exchanges of information between state authorities on WMD-related operators and activities. A reference entity in this framework is the UN1540 Committee, which should be strengthened in order to counter IS's activities. In addition, a robust bio-surveillance system at the border should be set up in critical areas, such as the Hindu Kush, Central Asia, Mesopotamia, etc.
As a preventive measure, returning foreign fighters need to be closely monitored, as they are likely to end up in many places, especially in countries with weaker links and law-enforcement systems. Some recommendations include:
i. Bolster the role of scientific communities (specifically academic institutions, scientific societies/associations, and other non-governmental scientific entities) in the countries of concern in order to avoid scientists' potential dissatisfaction and consequent radicalization;
ii. Strengthen values around culture of responsibility and safe/secure science for peace, starting from the level of lower education institutions (not limited only to the level of the academic and professional associations);
iii. Better intelligence sharing, especially between Europe and Arab countries, since the returning fighters may end up as refugees in other counties or in any place where they can seek refuge;
iv. Protect high risk bio and chemical facilities as they are easy targets;
v. Strengthen potentially vulnerable areas: capacity building in areas potentially under threat, including detection capabilities & border security; and
vi. Develop a strategy to monitor disruptive technologies.
Countering terrorist organizations requires a comprehensive approach, both inside the area of their operations as well as in the home countries of foreign fighters, with strong cooperation among the members of the international community across the military, intelligence, policy-making, and scientific communities. The key to mitigating and combating radicalization is two-fold: governance and youth empowerment. Dissatisfaction with local politics was necessary for groups like IS to take root. Preventing radicalization of scientists requires intervention at an early stage in their education and careers, including providing trans-national and global opportunities for professional development as well as technical training on topics such as culture of responsibility and dual-use reach of concern. An enduring end to political violence and terrorism of the kind represented by IS will require reconciliation, participation, and ultimately representation of the relevant political communities.
Maurizio Martellini, Ph.D.a Corresponding author. Landau Network Fondazione Volta, Como, Italy; E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Corresponding author. Landau Network Fondazione Volta, Como, Italy; E-mail: email@example.com.
a Landau Network Fondazione Volta (Como, Italy)
b Health Security Partners (Washington, DC, USA)