Rapid advances in gene editing and so-called “DIY biological laboratories”which could be used by extremists, threaten to derail efforts to prevent biological weapons from being used against civilians, the world’s only international forum on the issue has heard.
At meetings taking place at the United Nations in Geneva which ended on Thursday, representatives from more than 100 Member States which have signed up to the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) – together with civilian experts and academics – also discussed how they could ensure that science is used to positive ends, in line with the disarmament blueprint set out by UN Secretary-General António Guterres.
Although the potential impact of a biological weapons attack could be huge, the likelihood is not currently believed to be high. The last attack dates back to 2001, when letters containing toxic anthrax spores, killed five people in the US, just days after Al Qaeda terrorists perpetrated the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington.
Nonetheless, the rise of extremist groups and the potential risk of research programmes being misused, has focused attention on the work of the BWC.
“There’s interest from terror groups and we’re also seeing the erosion of norms on chemical weapons,” said Daniel Feakes, head of the BWC Implementation Support Unit at the UN in Geneva.
“That could spread to biological weapons as well,” he said, adding that “at the worst, you could be talking of epidemics on the scale of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, or even a global pandemic that could result in millions of deaths.”
In a bid to stay on top of the latest biological developments and threats, the BWC’s 181 Member States hold a series of meetings with experts every year, traditionally in the summer. The reports that are discussed during these sessions are then formerly appraised in December.
At the eight-day session just ended, science and technology issues were debated for two days – a measure of their importance.
Among the developments discussed was the groundbreaking gene-editing technique CRISPR. It can be applied – in theory – to any organism. Outside the Geneva body, CRISPR’s use has raised ethical questions, Mr. Feakes said, but among Member States, security ramifications dominated discussions.
“Potentially, it could be used to develop more effective biological weapons,” he said, noting that the meetings addressed the growing trend of “DIY biological labs”. However, the meetings also focused on the promotion of “responsible science” so that “scientists are part of the solution, not the problem”.
In addition to concerns that the Biological Weapons Convention lacks full international backing, the body has also faced criticism that its Members are not obliged to allow external checks on any illegal stockpiles they might have.
The issue highlights the fact that the BWC lacks a strong institution, its handful of administrators dwarfed by larger sister organizations including the OPCW – the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.
The OPCW’s 500-strong staff – based in the Hague – have weapons inspectors training facilities, Feakes notes, explaining that the BWC’s focus is therefore much more “about what States do at a national level”.
Concern for the future
Looking ahead, and aside from the rapid pace of scientific change, the biggest challenge is keeping the Biological Weapons Convention relevant – which appears to still be the case today.
“There are no States that say they need biological weapons,” Mr. Feakes says. “That norm needs to be maintained and properly managed. You can’t ban CRISPR or gene editing, because they can do so much good, like finding cures for diseases or combating climate change. But we still need to manage these techniques and technologies to ensure they are used responsibly.” Gene editing, in simple terms, involves the copying of exact strands of DNA, similar to cutting and pasting text on a computer.
The latest BWC session in the Swiss city also involved key intergovernmental organizations, scientific and professional associations, academic institutions, think tanks and other non-governmental entities.
Formally known as the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on their Destruction, the BWC was the first multilateral disarmament treaty to ban an entire category of weapons.
It opened for signature in 1972 and entered into force in 1975. It currently has 181 States Parties, and six States that have signed but not yet ratified it.
Moscow remembers horrendous terrorist attack in Beslan
On September 3, the Russian Federation is marking a memorable date, specifically, the Day of Solidarity in the Fight against Terrorism that became part of Russian legislation in 2005, a year after a horrendous terrorist attack in Beslan that killed over 300 Russian citizens, including children. This appalling terrorist atrocity was something unprecedented in terms of its meanness and brutality, and it highlighted the need to rally the entire international community against terrorism.
“We have to state that, in the current international realities, the issue of combatting terrorism has long since lost its unifying essence. The collective West that considers itself a beacon of democracy and human rights is openly waging a hybrid war against Russia. Not only is the West using Ukraine as a geopolitical battering ram against our country, but it is brazenly turning a blind eye on the terrorist essence of the Kiev regime and is sponsoring it,” official statement, released ahead of September event, said.
At the same time, the Western line to “isolate” Russia has not been crowned with success even in such a sensitive area as the fight against terrorism. The opinion of Russia remains significant and weighty during dialogue with friendly states. The Russian Federation prioritises cooperation with friendly states in the current complicated conditions of foreign policy turbulence. For example, we are collaborating rather fruitfully with our partners at various regional associations, including the Commonwealth of Independent States, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and the Collective Security Treaty Organisation.
Close contacts between the security agencies of these associations’ member states are taking place under the auspices of the CIS Anti-Terrorism Centre and the SCO’s Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure. As for the CSTO, it can deploy its Collective Peacekeeping Forces in the shortest possible time, and this is an extremely important, effective and essential factor in facilitating counter-terrorism security in the zone of its responsibility.
Additionally, the BRICS Counter-Terrorism Working Group now ranks among the most advanced cross-regional formats. The BRICS Counter-Terrorism Strategy and the Action Plan for its implementation, drafted in 2020 and 2021 when Russia and India chaired BRICS, are the gold standard, reflecting an analytical and well-thought-out perception of real, rather than imaginary, terrorist threats.
The Russian Federation also supports constructive dialogue on counter-terrorism operations with the states of the African continent. The Declaration of the Second Russia-Africa Summit on Strengthening Cooperation in the Fight against Terrorism, signed following the Second Russia-Africa Summit in St Petersburg in July 2023, reflects the common approaches of our countries.
“We will continue to coordinate joint efforts in the above-mentioned multilateral formats, including those aimed at streamlining the existing mechanisms for coping with the security risks of the states involved,” the statement finally said.
The Beslan school siege and the Moscow theater siege were the toughest tests that Vladimir Putin went through during his 20 years in power. “Major terrorist attacks were the toughest to deal with. The Beslan school siege was one of them. I will never forget it. Another one was the Moscow theater siege,” Putin noted in the Kremlin.
Back in 2019, officers and rescuers who helped to release hostages from Beslan’s School No.1 in 2004 were awarded by Vyacheslav Bitarov in the Caucasus republic of North Ossetia.
More than 1,200 people were taken hostage during the terrorist attack at a school in the North Ossetian city of Beslan, which occurred on September 1, 2004, the first day of the academic year. The tragedy claimed 334 lives, including 186 children. Some 126 of these hostages became handicapped, of them 70 children.
The school, located next to the district police station, housed approximately 60 teachers and more than 800 students. Its gymnasium, where most of the hostages were held for 52 hours, was a recent addition, measuring 10 metres (33 ft) wide and 25 metres (82 ft) long.
There were reports that men disguised as repairmen had secreted weapons and explosives into the school during July 2004, something that the authorities later denied. However, several witnesses have since testified they were forced to help their captors remove the weapons from caches hidden in the school. There were also claims that a “sniper’s nest” on the sports-hall roof had been set up in advance.
The attack at Beslan was met with international abhorrence and universal condemnation. Countries and charities around the world donated to funds set up to assist the families and children that were involved in the Beslan crisis. This School No. 1 was one of seven schools in Beslan, a town of about 35,000 people in the Republic of North Ossetia–Alania in Russia’s Caucasus.
ISIS in Afghanistan exists, but the threat is overestimated
After a serious study, the UN Security Council management institutes issued a report concerning the activities of the Islamic State-Khorasan, a unit of an international terrorist organization in Afghanistan. The UNSC stated that the group is still a significant danger to the stability of the country and the Central Asia region. Despite the solid research, these conclusions seem exaggerated and alarmistic. In particular, the statistical data and the organization’s size proposed by the UN Security Council are in question. However, it is difficult to overestimate the value and importance of this report and the activities of the main UN institute. The most important thing for today is not to bypass the situation in Afghanistan and to push a diplomatic influence on the Taliban movement and its sponsors.
On the eve, the UN Security Council expressed apprehension regarding the activities of the Khorasan wing of ISIS and considered the Khorasan group “as the most serious terrorist threat in Afghanistan and neighboring Central Asian countries for nowadays.” In the UNSC report on the threats posed by ISIS, the number of militants of this group (together with their family members) is estimated from 4,000 to 6,000 people, exceeding previously published data on the number of ISIS members in Afghanistan. Some States from the Central Asian region believed that the number of Khorasan militants and their family members in Afghanistan was about 3.5 thousand people.
The report and the statement of the UN Security Council were spread in the media on August 25. “The terrorist group ISIS and its units still pose a danger in conflict zones and neighboring countries,” the statement said. It is reported that the operational capabilities of “the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant – Khorasan” group have increased, and its attacks have become much harder.
It should be noted that the organization uses serious propaganda. For example, “The Voice of Khorasan” group produces propaganda in Pashtun, Persian, Tajik, Uzbek, and Russian to recruit new militants from ethnic groups in the region. According to the author of these lines, the organization conducted and tries to conduct propaganda in educational institutions of Afghanistan and some religious organizations and institutes.
Recall that the deadliest IS attack in the region occurred on July 30 this year at the congress of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam party in Pakistan. As a result of this incident, at least 63 people were killed and more than 100 were injured. The organization also claimed responsibility for last week’s bombing in Kabul. Two people were killed, and one was injured.
The Afghan wing of IS has already been labeled in the West as IS-Khorasan. This group first declared itself in 2015. Although the main places of the organization’s activities are Afghanistan and Pakistan, the ancient Khorasan province traditionally covers the territories of modern Turkmenistan, Iran, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. The headquarters of IG Khorasan is located in Nangarhar province in eastern Afghanistan. In January 2016, the US State Department included IG Khorasan in the list of terrorist organizations.
In the UN Security Council report, the member states of the SC called for preventing Afghanistan from becoming a hotbed of terrorism and stressed that “the Taliban should be encouraged not to deviate from its promise to destroy ISIS.” Meanwhile, the Taliban government considered the report of the UN Security Council on the threats posed by ISIS from Afghanistan to the world unfounded. “The fact that the activities of the Islamic State in Afghanistan over the past year have been reduced to zero, and the international organization publishes such undocumented and negative propaganda and cannot provide proof of this, puts the organization’s status into question,” the Taliban stated.
“The ambassadors to the UN Security Council were informed by two high-ranking counterterrorism officials about the threats posed by the IG, including the presence of 20 groups in our country, the development of weapons, and statements about increasing the operational capabilities of the IG. The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan rejects these unfounded accusations again, calling for clear participation in such issues,” the Islamist movement said.
The Taliban claims that “anyone who makes such unfounded statements either has no information or strengthens the fighting spirit of the IG, which becomes bolder from this kind of propaganda, provokes instability in the region.” “The fact that the activities of the IG in Afghanistan over the past year have been reduced to zero, and the international organization publishes such undocumented and negative propaganda and cannot provide proof of this, puts the status of this organization into question,” the Taliban statement said. The Taliban claim that over the past two years, their security forces have conducted hundreds of operations against illegal armed groups and IS, “ammunition has been seized and the operational capabilities of IS have been destroyed.”
In addition, the UN report mentioned that up to 5-7 thousand people are still in terrorist groups in Iraq and Syria. “Experts said that despite the counterterrorism operations against ISIS, the group still has 5-7 thousand people in Iraq and Syria, most of them are militants. However, the IG deliberately reduced the intensity of attacks in order to focus on recruiting new fighters and regrouping,” the agency notes. It follows from the UN Security Council report that despite the IG’s losses and reduced activity in Iraq and Syria, the situation is still dynamic, and the terrorists can seriously strengthen their positions again.
It should be noted that the UN Security Council report has become a significant and relevant phenomenon among social scientists, researchers of international relations, Terrorism Studies, and Middle Eastern Studies. It is clear that after the Taliban seized power in Afghanistan, the situation with international terrorism deteriorated, as the author of these lines has repeatedly written about. For example, in neighboring Pakistan, the number of terrorist attacks increased several times, which caused the death of a large number of civilians. Despite the statements and promises of the Taliban and their sponsors in Islamabad and among the Pakistani military elite and the ISI intelligence services, given to the international community publicly and on the sidelines, there is no real fight against international terrorism.
At the same time, the UN Security Council statistics on the number of IS militants in Afghanistan seem to be overstated. The Taliban is still a monopoly radical terrorist organization in Afghanistan. Despite the large number of various terrorist organizations located on the territory of this country, they cannot be a significant threat or competitor to the Taliban. They have historical and fundamental support and sponsorship from the Pakistani military. In addition, the Taliban are an ethnic organization and, despite their radicalism and repression, have support among broad segments of the civilian population. As for the statements of the Taliban about their struggle and the victory over the IG Khorasan, they are not totally meaningless, but this does not deny the fact that the radical movement is not fighting other terrorists in Afghanistan.
Instability in the Sahel Flames Terror Attacks in Benin
While many international observers have been focused on the war in Ukraine, Chinese aggression towards Taiwan, the violence in Sudan, or the recent coup in Niger, there has been an alarming increase of terror activity in the West African country of Benin that could pose additional security implications for the rest of the continent.
On the night of May 1, as Labor Day celebrations were wrapping up, an unidentified armed gang entered and attacked the village of Koabagou. On May 3, approximately 30 miles to the east, the village of Toura suffered a similar attack. Reports indicate over 20 people were killed and a further number of young men kidnapped. Strikingly, many of the bodies had had their throats slit. The attacks took place in the north of Benin, specifically the area adjacent to the Pendajari and W natural parks which border Burkina Faso and Niger, which have long been used by terrorists to hide and organize attacks.
Since 2019, Benin has witnessed an increase in intensity and frequency of terrorist attacks by extremist groups. These have increased 10-fold in the period July-December 2022.  Terrorist activity had been characterized by smuggling, kidnappings, and attacks on state structures such as border posts leading to skirmishes with security forces. This has since escalated to attacks on civilian structures, such as schools, and more sophisticated assaults on security forces and park rangers. However, what makes the May attacks significant was the large scale targeting of civilians. Although at this stage no reasons have been provided, we can consider the potential implications of such violence. It is also not clear who committed the attack although it is likely to have been carried out either by Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslinn (JNIM) or by the Islamic State in Greater Sahel (ISGS) although analysts agree that violent extremist groups are often composed of sub-groups with varying degrees of autonomy.
The attacks form part of a playout of the wider conflict in the Sahel. Both JNIM and ISGS have their power bases outside Benin, in Burkina Faso and Mali respectively. Both groups also have contact with extremist groups in Nigeria, who, since 2020 have increased and expanded their presence into the north-east of the country, on the border regions with Benin and Niger.  The park areas of northern Benin have been a conduit for the groups, and it is not clear whether the attacks are a result of expansion and/or competition between them. The attacks could also signify that the drive for conflict is increasingly due to endogenous reasons leading to increased Benin fighters and that JNIM’s goals in the country are changing from a “means to an end.”
The implication being that the reasons for the spread and perseverance of the attacks have their roots in Benin. Attacks also serve to recruit fighters directly through the kidnapping of young men  but also indirectly by stoking communal tensions over resources especially with the nomadic Peul. The Peul are often regarded unfairly as “foreigners” and sympathetic to extremist groups are prime targets for recruitment by JNIM.  Ultimately, the indiscriminate attack on civilians represents a more violent phase of terrorist aggression and a challenge to the Benin state with 2023 already on track to exceed 2022, the worst year on record.
The Global Fragility Act (GFA) was passed with bipartisan support in Congress and signed into law to address the catalysts of violent conflict and extremism and identified priority countries for its implementation. The GFA is innovative in that it takes a long-term view of addressing underlying causes of instability and brings in the expertise of different agencies of the United States government to address them. One of the priority areas is a group of West African states along the coast, including Benin.  The May attacks demonstrate not only how the conflict in the wider Sahel has expanded into coastal West Africa, but also how it is unleashing communal tensions amplified by increased competition for resources – and how quickly these can take hold and propagate. This is why it is important that the issues are addressed in Benin, not only for the purposes of preventing further instability and bloodshed in the country, but in the wider sub-region.
This is not an unsolvable problem, however. There are several steps that policymakers can take to address this issue. Although combatting terrorists requires a military intervention, this cannot be the only response. A strategy to address the underlying socio-economic causes of the conflict needs to be developed and owned by the local communities most affected. The government is best placed to drive the strategy, bringing in partners with it, to listen to communities’ grievances, identify solutions and establish roadmaps to achieve them.
- According to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data project (ACLED)
- James Barnett and Murtala Ahmed Rufa’i, “A ‘Sahelian’ or a ‘Littoral’: Crisis? Examining the Widening of Nigeria’s Boko Haram Conflict,” Hudson Institute, April 5, 2023
- Kars de Brujine, “Conflict in the Penta-Border Area: Benin’s Northern Jihad from the perspectives of its neighbours,” (Den Haag: Clingendael, December 2022)
- “84 orphans and 25 widows after the attack of Ketou”, May 16, 2023 headline of the on-line paper “24-hours Benin” indicates men were the targets of the killings and the kidnappings.
- NIM is often thought to be dominated by ethnic Peul although has proved capable of “recruiting from several different ethnic bases,” Eleanor Beevor, “JNIM in Burkina Faso: A Strategic Criminal Actor,” Global Initiative Against Transitional Organized Crime, August 2022
- Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Guinea and Togo.
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