UK minister warns of growing chemical, biological attack threat

LONDON: A “breakdown of world order” has led to a growing threat of chemical and biological attacks, Britain’s defense secretary has warned.

Ben Wallace told The Times that hostile states have been ignoring long-established codes of conduct regarding chemical and biological weapons such as nerve agents and lethal pathogens. 

After the Salisbury attacks in Britain and widespread chemical strikes by President Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria, Wallace said terror groups are now seeking to use such weapons.

Syrian chemical attacks include the use of sarin in the town of Khan Sheikhoun in April 2017 — which killed hundreds — and a chlorine strike on the city of Douma in April 2018, which was assessed to have killed dozens.

“Globally, I think there is a growing threat of chemical or biological (attacks),” said Wallace. “It depends on what is at hand for people using the internet. It is unfortunately what happens in a sort of breakdown of world order where you see countries like Syria use it on its own people.”

He warned that the internet has given a “turbo boost” to the spread of information regarding chemical and biological weapons, including their production and use. 

With many terrorist groups operating in Syria during the country’s war, fears are rising that they could develop their own chemical attack capabilities.

Chemical weapons specialists told Arab News that the conflict in Syria has revealed how these deadly instruments can be easily produced and deployed.

“There’s a growing threat from terror groups,” Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, former commander of UK military chemical and biological counterterror forces, told Arab News.

“The threat is visible when you look at the Middle East and Syria. It doesn’t necessarily come from traditional weapons, as we’re seeing toxic industrial weapons like chlorine — which are very easy to get hold of — being used,” he added.

“Assad is still in power because he used chemical weapons. The world has seen how effectively it works.”

De Bretton-Gordon added that when he was an advisor to Kurdish forces during the fight against Daesh, they endured chemical attacks from the terror group.

On Wallace’s comments regarding concerns posed by the sharing of deadly information online, de Bretton-Gordon said: “The internet has put this into the domain of bad actors. For something that’s relatively easy to get hold of, chemical weapons can be tremendously effective.”

He added: “We’re also concerned about the biological threat. Experts like me had always focused on deadly pathogens like anthrax. I endured an anthrax attack in Iraq — which I detailed in my book ‘Chemical Warrior’ — which we knew was difficult to get hold of, and there were medical countermeasures. But as coronavirus has shown, even a mild pathogen can bring the world to its knees. Bad actors around the world will be looking at this, as they are with chemical weapons.” 

He warned: “Toxic industrial weapons are the most viable threat for non-state actors in Syria and beyond. Chlorine was the original chemical weapon, and it can be easily reproduced today.”

Philip Ingram, a former senior British military intelligence officer, told Arab News: “Terror organizations have been watching developments in Syria closely. With chemical and radiological substances going missing in war zones such as Syria, it’s possible that they’ve fallen into the hands of terrorists.”

He added: “The effect these agents have is disproportionate to the cost of acquiring them. That will appeal to smaller nations and terror groups influencing larger ‘enemies,’ increasing the likelihood of the use of chemical and radiological weapons.”




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