Buried in a Dell computer captured in Syria are lessons for making bubonic plague bombs and missives on using weapons of mass destruction.
ANTAKYA, Turkey — Abu Ali, a commander of a moderate Syrian rebel group in northern Syria, proudly shows a black laptop partly covered in dust. "We took it this year from an ISIS hideout," he says.
Abu Ali says the fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), which have since rebranded themselves as the Islamic State, all fled before he and his men attacked the building. The attack occurred in January in a village in the Syrian province of Idlib, close to the border with Turkey, as part of a larger anti-ISIS offensive occurring at the time. "We found the laptop and the power cord in a room," he continued, "I took it with me. But I have no clue if it still works or if it contains anything interesting."
Read more from FP on the Islamic State
As we switched on the Dell laptop, it indeed still worked. Nor was it password-protected. But then came a huge disappointment: After we clicked on "My Computer," all the drives appeared empty.
Appearances, however, can be deceiving. Upon closer inspection, the ISIS laptop wasn't empty at all: Buried in the "hidden files" section of the computer were 146 gigabytes of material, containing a total of 35,347 files in 2,367 folders. Abu Ali allowed us to copy all these files -- which included documents in French, English, and Arabic -- onto an external hard drive.
A screenshot of material found on the computer. The files appear to be videos of speeches by jihadist clerics. (Click to enlarge.)
The laptop's contents turn out to be a treasure trove of documents that provide ideological justifications for jihadi organizations -- and practical training on how to carry out the Islamic State's deadly campaigns. They include videos of Osama bin Laden, manuals on how to make bombs, instructions for stealing cars, and lessons on how to use disguises in order to avoid getting arrested while traveling from one jihadi hot spot to another.
But after hours upon hours of scrolling through the documents, it became clear that the ISIS laptop contains more than the typical propaganda and instruction manuals used by jihadists. The documents also suggest that the laptop's owner was teaching himself about the use of biological weaponry, in preparation for a potential attack that would have shocked the world.
The information on the laptop makes clear that its owner is a Tunisian national named Muhammed S. who joined ISIS in Syria and who studied chemistry and physics at two universities in Tunisia's northeast. Even more disturbing is how he planned to use that education: The ISIS laptop contains a 19-page document in Arabic on how to develop biological weapons and how to weaponize the bubonic plague from infected animals.
"The advantage of biological weapons is that they do not cost a lot of money, while the human casualties can be huge," the document states.
The document includes instructions for how to test the weaponized disease safely, before it is used in a terrorist attack. "When the microbe is injected in small mice, the symptoms of the disease should start to appear within 24 hours," the document says.
The laptop also includes a 26-page fatwa, or Islamic ruling, on the usage of weapons of mass destruction. "If Muslims cannot defeat the kafir [unbelievers] in a different way, it is permissible to use weapons of mass destruction," states the fatwa by Saudi jihadi cleric Nasir al-Fahd, who is currently imprisoned in Saudi Arabia. "Even if it kills all of them and wipes them and their descendants off the face of the Earth."
When contacted by phone, a staff member at a Tunisian university listed on Muhammed's exam papers confirmed that he indeed studied chemistry and physics there. She said the university lost track of him after 2011, however.
Out of the blue, she asked: "Did you find his papers inside Syria?" Asked why she would think that Muhammed's belongings would have ended up in Syria, she answered, "For further questions about him, you better ask state security."
A photo of Muhammed S. found on his laptop. This image has been digitally altered.
Out of the blue, she asked: “Did you find his papers inside Syria?” Asked why she would think that Muhammed’s belongings would have ended up in Syria, she answered, “For further questions about him, you better ask state security.”
An astonishing number of Tunisians have flocked to the Syrian battlefield since the revolt began. In June, Tunisia’s interior minister estimated that at least 2,400 Tunisians were fighting in the country, mostly as members of the Islamic State.
This isn't the first time that jihadists have attempted to acquire weapons of mass destruction. Even before the 9/11 attacks, al Qaeda had experimented with a chemical weapons program in Afghanistan. In 2002, CNN obtained a tape showing al Qaeda members testing poison gas on three dogs, all of which died.
Nothing on the ISIS laptop, of course, suggests that the jihadists already possess these dangerous weapons. And any jihadi organization contemplating a bioterrorist attack will face many difficulties: Al Qaeda tried unsuccessfully for years to get its hands on such weapons, and the United States has devoted massive resources to preventing terrorists from making just this sort of breakthrough. The material on this laptop, however, is a reminder that jihadists are also hard at work at acquiring the weapons that could allow them to kill thousands of people with one blow.
"The real difficulty in all of these weapons ... [is] to actually have a workable distribution system that will kill a lot of people," said Magnus Ranstorp, research director of the Center for Asymmetric Threat Studies at the Swedish National Defence College. "But to produce quite scary weapons is certainly within [the Islamic State's] capabilities."
The Islamic State's sweeping gains in recent months may have provided it with the capacity to develop such new and dangerous weapons. Members of the jihadi group are not solely fighting on the front lines these days -- they also control substantial parts of Syria and Iraq. The fear now is that men like Muhammed could be quietly working behind the front lines -- for instance, in the Islamic State-controlled University of Mosul or in some laboratory in the Syrian city of Raqqa, the group's de facto capital -- to develop chemical or biological weapons.
In short, the longer the caliphate exists, the more likely it is that members with a science background will come up with something horrible. The documents found on the laptop of the Tunisian jihadist, meanwhile, leave no room for doubt about the group's deadly ambitions.
"Use small grenades with the virus, and throw them in closed areas like metros, soccer stadiums, or entertainment centers," the 19-page document on biological weapons advises. "Best to do it next to the air-conditioning. It also can be used during suicide operations."
Photoillustration by FP/Image by Jenan Moussa and Harald Doornbos