The greatest threat confronting the US and Israel may be swarms of drones armed with chemical weapons released by Iran or ISIS, an ex-CIA official has told The Jerusalem Post.
The warning takes on greater meaning following a call on January 28 by ISIS’s new leader, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Quraishi, to direct greater attention to attacking Israel and Jews, including using chemical weapons.
Some dangerous countries and terrorist groups may already have their hands on chemical weapons – ISIS and multiple other groups used them in Syria in recent years – and anyone who does not, may be able to get them from North Korea, former CIA agent Tracy Walder told the Post.
Regarding ISIS, there are “a couple of different prongs” to their interest in chemical weapons, she said.
Part of what eventually became ISIS came out of groups run by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi – “someone I followed a lot” while at the CIA, Walder said.
Zarqawi was very interested in “acquiring small-scale chemical weapons,” she said. “We are talking about anthrax, which contains spores, [and] even ricin.” Deploying the chemical weapons “is a very easy thing to do if you have access to a drone.”
Walder said she was personally involved in tracking Zarqawi and those associated with him in the post-9/11 era, as well as thwarting some of their planned poison attacks in European countries. CIA secrecy rules prevent her from revealing exactly where, she said.
Regarding Iran, Walder said: “You won’t see a head of state such as from Iran [openly] say, ‘I want to acquire’ [chemical weapons], but we know Iran has been working to destabilize [the region] through proxies, the Houthis, Hezbollah. It’s less about Iran as a state, but more about Iran as a state actor” which can activate proxy groups on its behalf.
Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force chief Qasem Soleimani, who was killed by the US in January, had been ingeniously using proxy groups to spread terrorism in the Middle East, she said, and Iran could use these groups to deliver devastating chemical-weapons attacks.
Regarding the acquisition of chemical weapons by ISIS, Iran, its proxies, Syria or al-Qaeda, Walder said that North Korea is the greatest threat as a no-holds-barred seller.
Pyongyang has stockpiled chemical weaponry and materials, and would be more than ready to sell them to any bidder, she said, adding that besides North Korea, small-scale chemical weapons and drones can all be assembled using information online.
Walder said she was particularly concerned that even the best counterterrorism efforts “wouldn’t see any signs of alarm if [the weapons] were acquired using a piecemeal approach” of purchasing low-cost and seemingly unrelated parts.
Chemical weaponry could emerge in the form of a sort of dirty bomb rather than being used directly on the battlefield, as in World War I, she said.
A NEW widening threat was Iranian drone swarms, and they could be modified to carry chemical weapons, Walder said.
The US is even more concerned about Iran’s development of sophisticated, technologically advanced drones than about its current nuclear capabilities, she said.
Part of what makes drone swarms carrying chemical weapons so dangerous is that they are uniquely capable of evading detection by radar.
Last September, Iran launched a devastating swarm of drone strikes on Saudi oil fields. The Saudis had significant air-defense capabilities against an attempted strike by Iranian aircraft, but they were not ready for low-flying drones coming in under their radar.
Regarding intelligence sharing, Walder told the Post that such sharing between the US and Israel was very strong. She declined to go into detail.
Walder singled out certain African intelligence agencies as being particularly helpful in tracking down individual terrorists.
“I spent so much time there,” she said. “I know a lot about them. For many of the African countries, they are just coming out of civil war and unrest.”
“Look at the [Osama] bin Laden history,” Walder said. “He made a lot of inroads in Africa… he was responsible entirely for a lot of the infrastructure and roads in Sudan… But after the countries’ civil wars, some have scores to settle with al-Qaeda. Some couldn’t wait to help the US.”
African countries “can help us infiltrate [terrorist] networks in their country, she said. “They are much more familiar with the inner workings, so they can help us rid their countries of a nuisance.”
Terrorist groups were sometimes less careful covering their tracks in Africa because they believed no one was paying attention to that forgotten continent, Walder said.
She endorsed recent reports about US-Netherlands intelligence cooperation leading to a successful cyber attack on Iran’s nuclear program. But she had left the CIA before the operation.
After complimenting the cooperation of some foreign agencies with the US, Walder said there were chronic inefficiencies regarding US intelligence cooperation with Europe.
The relationship with Britain always was particularly close, and Brexit would not affect that, she said.
The US has to manage lines of intelligence communications with 27 different European nations to get a full picture, something that is highly inefficient, Walder said.
Noting that the EU already has a foreign minister who coordinates policy, she said having one central hub for intelligence coordination could be even more important. This is because thwarting threats to national security can sometimes be a question of whether information is relayed a few days or even minutes before an attack, she explained.
The 27-nation split in the EU heavily dampens the ability to share information fast enough to keep up with attackers who may be operating using a cross-border strategy to make themselves hard to track, Walder said.
The US would greatly welcome greater coordination of counterterrorism activities within the EU, she concluded.