Global Security: Non-Proliferation - Foreign Affairs Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 53-59)


19 NOVEMBER 2008

  Q53 Chairman: I apologise for the delay, gentlemen, which was due to the House having two votes. I am afraid there is a danger that there will be further votes. If so, we will have to break and come back. Before we begin, I ask members of the public to ensure that their mobile phones are either switched off or on silent mode.

  In this sitting, we will focus on chemical and biological weapons as part of a wider inquiry on proliferation that we have just begun. We are grateful to the three of you for coming along and giving us your expertise. Will you please introduce yourselves for the record?

  Nicholas Sims: I am a reader in international relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

  Daniel Feakes: I am a research fellow at SPRU—science and technology policy research at the University of Sussex.

  Dr. Jones: I am a retired civil servant, latterly on the Defence Intelligence Staff, and a visiting research fellow at the University of Southampton.

  Q54 Chairman: Let me begin by asking why far less attention is given to biological and chemical weapons in the public debate than to nuclear weapons. Does anyone have a view on why we perceive them as being a lesser threat?

  Dr. Jones: The main reason is probably the familiarity that the public at large have with nuclear weapons, having seen or heard and read about the effect of their use in the dramatic way that occurred in Japan at the end of the second world war. A great number of atmospheric nuclear weapons tests have been filmed, so it has been very visual. Whilst chemical weapons have obviously been used, especially in world war one, their effects are not nearly as great in terms of the number of casualties and potential casualties from a single use. To all intents and purposes, biological weapons have never actually been applied, although my view is that they are possibly the most worrying of the three.

  Daniel Feakes: I would go along with what Brian has said. It is partly a visual thing. With nuclear weapons, the image of the mushroom cloud has stayed in people's imagination for a long time. Chemical weapons have been used, as Brian said. I think it is also to do with complexity. Nuclear weapons are very complex. An area such as biological weapons, which have never been used in warfare, as Brian said, is very abstract, sometimes. I have listened to people in government and those who fund our academic research, such as foundations and research councils, and it is hard for them to understand the concept of disease being used as a weapon, and that with biological weapons there would rarely be an identifiable event. You might have people being infected and presenting with symptoms a week or so later, but it would be less obvious. It would be more of a public health event, rather than an explosion and the attendant effects. There are various reasons for it. It is true that both chemical and biological weapons have a lesser profile than nuclear weapons.

  Q55 Chairman: What is the likelihood that terrorist groups or even states will be using biological and chemical weapons in the 21st century?

  Nicholas Sims: I do not have any scientific or technological expertise, but my feeling is that, because of the very uncertainty about whether the greater threat comes from states or terrorists, we need to make sure that our treaty structures are in as good a state of repair as possible. That is why I feel very devoted to the nurture of the Biological Weapons Convention and the Chemical Weapons Convention, because I have this conviction that they must be made as strong as possible against a very uncertain threat.

  Q56 Chairman: How effective is this treaty regime when you are dealing with terrorist groups or people who might acquire these weapons from criminal organisations by subterfuge, or even be sold them or supplied with them by rogue states?

  Nicholas Sims: My feeling is that you have to start from treaties, but a great deal depends on the national implementation of treaties. On the day that the Chemical Weapons Convention entered into force—29 April 1997—I was interviewed by Tokyo television and they said, "Well, what use is this against Aum Shinrikyo?" My answer was, "At least now, with the Chemical Weapons Convention in force, every state is obliged, under article 7 of that convention, to enact penal legislation to take administrative measures to do lots of surveillance and prevention." That was already required under article 4 of the Biological Weapons Convention, so you need a treaty structure, but then you need an enormous amount of national implementation.

  I am very glad that over time, increasing attention has been given to that side—partly because of perceived terrorist threats, but also because of the understandable irritation of countries such as the United Kingdom, which legislated the Biological Weapons Act 1974 and the Chemical Weapons Act 1996 before ratifying the treaties, to find that not all states have been that meticulous. Some have gone into the treaty obligation before making sure that it can be implemented domestically, with proper legislative authority.

  Daniel Feakes: Again, like Nicholas, I do not have the scientific or technological expertise, or much expertise in terms of terrorism, either. This sort of debate has arisen over the past 10 years or so. There are two extremes to the debate and I would be somewhere in the middle. One extreme has been particularly apparent in the US, for example, where people talk about bioterrorism as an existential threat, which we need something as big as the Manhattan project to combat. Quite a lot of expensive facilities were built in the US, following that tangent. Then you have other people saying that the threat has been over-hyped and overblown—we have the example of Aum Shinrikyo in Japan that Nicholas mentioned.

  That was a religious cult group which had very large resources and well-trained people. They were not very well monitored by the Japanese security forces, so they had a really good environment for being able to do what they wanted to do. Still, they struggled. They tried biological weapons first and did not have very much success. They moved to chemical weapons, with the sarin that they used twice—once in Matsumoto in 1994 and then in Tokyo in 1995. Again, it was not as effective as they had hoped it would be, even though 12 people died and quite a few were injured. But a group such as that, with all its resources, still could not make much of an impact.

  I place myself somewhere in between the two extremes. It is something that you have to be prepared for—you have to entertain the possibility—but there is the end of the spectrum where it has been over-hyped and sensationalised in some ways, and basing policy on over-hyping can lead you down a path where that has repercussions for your own policy and your own security as well.

  Dr. Jones: My years in intelligence, and the disciplines there, make me hesitate to use the word "threat" because it has a very specific meaning. I think of these as potential threats. I have a gut feeling that the use of one of these weapon systems by a terrorist organisation is probably more likely than its use in a major conflict between states that has a very direct influence on Great Britain.

  There is something worth saying and making clear, whichever of these weapon systems you are thinking about. Daniel has mentioned the case of Aum Shinrikyo and there was a case of terrorist use of anthrax in the United States not many years ago. Neither of those was particularly successful, but perhaps they are indicative of the sort of problems that terrorists are much more likely to have in using these systems than a state, if that state has developed a capability using all its resources. So a potential threat coming from terrorism is not quite the same as a potential threat coming from a nation. This is probably quite an important diference to have in mind. I am not trying to defuse a very serious threat from a terrorist with any of these systems, but the sort of potential threat that we are talking about is probably of a different, lower order, compared to the threat a state would pose, and that applies to nuclear, biological and chemical weapons.

  Q57 Sir John Stanley: Dr. Jones, in paragraph 56 of your paper, you say that al-Qaeda "continues to threaten major attacks against the West and its determination to acquire biological weapons was confirmed by the discovery of a dedicated laboratory near Kandahar in Afghanistan in 2001."[4] Can you tell us, from your background in government, what factors were driving al-Qaeda to believe that their laboratory work might end up with a usable biological weapon, which they could use against those parts of the world and individual countries of whose culture and behaviour they disapproved? From which sources were they able to get the basic expertise that they presumably required to get their laboratory going in the first place?

  Dr. Jones: I suspect that I would have to clear some of the details that you are asking for, but I can try to give you a good general answer. I think the indications were that al-Qaeda were trying to achieve in the Kandahar laboratory the sort of capability that they were pursuing on the chemical weapons side—that is, to establish a facility where they could train some of the foot soldiers—the operating terrorists—to do those things. From the reports that I heard about Kandahar, the strong suggestion from those who looked at the facility was that that was the sort of facility that they were seeking. There were some individuals—I can think of one in particular—who my staff members in the Defence Intelligence Staff identified. Again, I would rather not go into the detail of that, but that individual was pursuing other capabilities, in particular with anthrax, which is by far the most robust and easiest BW agent to pursue, albeit not one that nations might move to, because it has certain limitations. Does that help?

  Sir John Stanley: Thank you. If you are able to get the clearance to give us anything further in writing, that would be helpful to the Committee.

  Q58 Andrew Mackinlay: I listened to Mr. Feakes, but all of you going through the little history there of the 20th century seemed to overlook that chemical and biological weapons were used in a conflict situation by the South African authorities in Angola and/or Mozambique—I think I am correct in that. You might want to comment on that. We know from the record, through the evidence given in the trial of Dr. Wouter Basson in South Africa and the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, that it was used. I would like to hear your views.

  Also, after listening to you, Dr. Jones, has that capacity—that intellectual capability—migrated, been sold or moved on into the kind of things that Sir John was exploring with you? The Roodeplaat laboratory was deep into this, was it not? Can all three or any of you comment?

  Dr. Jones: From what I understood of the situation in South Africa, Basson seemed to be primarily interested in fairly selective and directed use of infectious materials and poisons, to target—according to the evidence—individuals and small groups, rather than a widespread use. That was the main thrust, from what I recall. I am a bit hazy there. I might check that and look back, but it seems to me that those were the sort of approaches he made.

  That Basson's activities were covert and targeted in this way illustrates something relevant to any terrorist-type activity. (I hasten to add that I am not an expert on terrorism. This is just thinking about the issues that I have followed and, if you like, transferring that thinking.) The illustration applies, to a certain extent, to nations as well. There are key ideas and individuals, rather than a broad-brush acquisition of simply the technical capability. The technical capability, particularly with biological and chemical, is not that hard to come by to develop the agents and the materials. It is the ideas of how you use them and how you can disseminate them that will be useful at the terrorist level—that is the key. It is very difficult to predict when individuals with such expertise and ideas will suddenly surface and be available to a group of terrorists, I think.

  Q59 Andrew Mackinlay: Have your colleagues got anything to say?

  Daniel Feakes: I have colleagues and people I know in South Africa who have worked closely with and followed the TRC—they followed the Basson trial and things like that—so they know a lot more about it than I do. My understanding, as Brian said, is that those uses were fairly targeted. There was a lot of work on so-called non-lethal weapons by the South Africans, also very targeted, such as assassination weapons. I am not that sure myself on the full scope and nature of their programmes.

  That illustrates something else about chemical and biological weapons—through history they have largely been used as weapons of sabotage and assassination. In some ways what we have seen during the 20th century is an aberration from the history of chemical and biological weapons through the centuries. With the South African programme, as I understand it, either the UK and the US went to South Africa or there was some kind of involvement in the early 1990s, on an official level, to make sure that the programme had been closed down and that whatever it was that the South Africans did have had been disposed of. As I understand it, that did happen. It is an interesting question: where do the knowledge and the people with the know-how go?

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