Anyone who deals with sensitive documents — from spies to journalists to bureaucrats — is often lectured on the importance of password-protecting and encrypting those documents. However, that's apparently not the case for members of the Islamic State.
Journalists Harald Doornbos and Jenan Moussa write in Foreign Policy that they were able to access files from a black Dell laptop belonging to a Tunisian man and Islamic State fighter named Muhammed S. Abu Ali, the commander of "a moderate Syrian rebel group" told the journalists that his group recovered the laptop after Islamic State fighters fled a battle in the Northwestern region of Idlib. That was in January, when the Islamic State was still known as ISIS.
Though the computer appeared empty at first, a deeper dive revealed more than 35,000 folders. Files included videos of Osama bin Laden, thoughts on the justifications for jihad, training procedures, bomb-making manuals, and instructions on how to use disguises.
The most worrisome discovery, however, were files that indicate the owner of the laptop was researching ways to utilize biological weapons, including a "19-page document in Arabic on how to develop biological weapons and how to weaponize the bubonic plague from infected animals."
Muhammed S. appeared to have studied chemistry and physics at universities in Tunisia before traveling to Syria and joining the Islamic State, and a staff member at one of the universities listed on an exam found on the computer confirmed to the journalists that Muhammed S. had studied chemistry and physics there.
Also on the laptop was a fatwa, or Islamic decree, from a Saudi cleric giving permission for the use of weapons of mass destruction.
Doornbos and Moussa write that nothing on the computer indicated that the Islamic State possesses the capabilities to make biological weapons. Additionally, experts stressed that it's incredibly hard to develop and put biological weapons to use.
Before the freakout starts..it's what was found in the laptop, it doesn't mean they already figured out how to pull it off..
— Nada Bakos (@nadabakos)August 29, 2014
Deploying effective biological weapons is a tough task even for state programs. Even developing them safely is a huge challenge.
— Dan Trombly (@stcolumbia)August 29, 2014
Dan Trombly, an analyst at Caerus Associates specializing in illicit organizations and armed conflict, told VICE News that biological weapons are often "more trouble than they're worth," and that it's remarkably challenging to develop and deploy them.
"Even state-sponsored programs generally require a high level of technical sophistication and skilled personnel to develop usable quantities of an effective agent without accidentally killing their own research teams or the nearby populace," said Trombly, who pointed out that the biggest threat is probably to people who live under the Islamic State, who face the possibility of accidental — or intentional — local deployment.
Amid questions about what kind of capacity the Islamic State has to manufacture and deploy biological weapons, Doornbos also took to Twitter to provide an answer to another inevitable question:
Follow Danny Gold on Twitter: @DGisSERIOUS