Foreign Policy magazine got a great exclusive last week when Jenan Moussa and Harald Doornbos were shown a laptop with all kinds of goodies (full story here I’d also recommend a subscription to Foreign Policy BTW, chem bio turns up fairly regularly). Predictably the media went wild with the story that inside a 19 page document was information on how to make ‘bubonic plague’ and put it inside ‘hand grenades.’ In addition to this was a 26 page document that provided justification for using WMD against civilians. The laptop belonged at one point to Muhammed S. a Tunisian national that had studied chemistry and physics at University. Jenan Moussa has a nice video on the whole story here .
So what can we actually deduce from this information? The first is the uncertainty whether chemistry undergrads are trying to destroy the world. We know that the laptop did indeed belong to Muhammed, but we don’t know whether he and it parted company before the files were uploaded. Thanks to a bit of detective work from Messrs Doornbos and Moussa we know a fair bit about Muhammed, but he was not found in possession of the laptop, this was instead taken from a IS ‘safe house.’ The fact that he travelled to Syria to fight, and had an undergraduate degree, seems without question, but this doesn’t make him an aspiring WMD terrorist, so yes, there is circumstantial evidence linking him to it, but not definitive.
The second is that it does not seem that he was the originator of this information. None of the reports have suggested that he wrote it, just that he possessed it: he also possessed similar information on disguises and stealing cars. It would seem to be that the <100gb worth of information was pretty much the IS entry-level library, everything you wanted to know about terrorism but were afraid you’d be shot if you asked. Whether he had read this information or even tried to recreate the advice inside is unknown.
Thirdly, from what little has been released the ‘blueprints’ provided seem basic at best. If all biological weapons needed to be created was a 19 page document then we would not have the monolithic research institutions that we have in Nato, Russia, China and elsewhere. Even the document justifying their use comes with an addition seven pages. There are also a number of items in there that make me wince and have negative value, such as the suggestion that biological weapons are perfect because they are cheap, and can be spread via artillery rounds or the water system. The long distance shots of the pages also seem a little light on detail, very little data/experimentation seems evident, and a lot of it is text and drawings. It is also not just about Yersinia Pestis, it also references Botulinum Toxin and other chemical weapons, so what little concrete information is in those 19 pages would seem to be watered down. Information this scant could be more of a threat to the perpetrator than the victim.
The final thought is that we have heard it all before. AQ has had their manuals and done their experiments, the Anarchist Cookbook, and others, has been out there for a couple of decades, this is not a new phenomenon. CBRN devices have the same fixation for radical terrorists as ‘secret weapons’ did for Hitler, they fixate upon them and they become articles of faith, but in reality a plague outbreak here or there (and despite media concern plague’s infectivity is not great) is not going to swing the tide of the conflict.
In conclusion it is not worth writing off Moussa and Doornbos’ find, it confirms what we already knew, and adds a little meat onto the bone and there is value in that. It might not be the ‘laptop of doom,’ but it does suggest to me that there may well be a real laptop of doom out there, one with a lot more information, no howlers and some detailed experimentation and data. It is also desperately concerning that young, intelligent, scientific men are going to fight in this conflict, if Muhammed S was keen to build a device he may not be the only one, and eventually someone with real talent or understanding will unlock the potential of a CBR attack. There still needs to be experimentation and field trials, and firing devices into enemy lines and observing what happens is not necessarily the best way to go about doing this. Labs, ranges and factories will all need to play their part before a significant, viable weapon is made… but, sadly, this is what IS now has. They have effectively made a new failed state between Syria and Iraq and have time and opportunity to experiment. Nato and Russia will have to achieve some kind of détente if this threat is to be dealt with, but with conflict in the Ukraine this seems as far away as ever.