The Complex

Is the ISIS Laptop of Doom an Operational Threat?

Weapons of mass destruction are the holy grail for terrorist groups, and over the years a number of organizations have announced their intentions to acquire chemical, biological, and radiological weapons. But the discovery of a laptop purportedly belonging to a member of the Islamic State is raising new questions about whether the terrorist group, which U.S. officials say is more dangerous than al Qaeda, is poised to launch a WMD attack.

U.S. officials and terrorism experts said that the discovery of the laptop raises troubling questions about the Islamic State's intentions and its ability to conduct a WMD strike. But they urged caution, noting that the presence of documents on building biological weapons does not necessarily add up to an actual capability to use them.

"I wouldn't dismiss the idea of a WMD attack by terrorists," said Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a senior fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. "It's something we should guard against. But in terms of something I worry about, it's far down the list."

Still, the laptop and its more than 35,000 files provide a rare and unsettling window into the Islamist State's inner workings. One U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss developing intelligence, said the files on the laptop offer some of the most precise information to date on the Islamic State's WMD aspirations. The information indicates that the Islamic State likely now has the ability to build at least some form of biological or chemical weapon, the official said.

The laptop, which was examined by correspondents for Foreign Policy, contains thousands of files related to planning and launching terrorist attacks. Most troubling is a document that discusses how to weaponize bubonic plague. But turning that knowledge into a working weapon requires particular expertise, and it's not clear that the Islamic State has it.

"That they have the capabilities and intentions [to build some WMD] is beyond dispute," Gartenstein-Ross said. But the Islamic State would still face considerable obstacles if it actually attempted to build a weapon with bubonic plague. "It's a very dangerous thing to try to harness as an offensive weapon, in part because you might kill all your own guys in the process," Gartenstein-Ross said.

But the risk of building WMD hasn't blunted terrorists' ambition. Only last year, Iraqi officials broke up an al Qaeda cell in Iraq that attempted to build chemical weapons for attacks in the West. Chemical weapons are potentially less dangerous than weaponized biological agents, which is what makes the files on the Islamic State's laptop so concerning.

The Complex

No NATO Action Against Russia or Islamic State

This story has been updated. 

A day after President Barack Obama said that the United States has no plan for countering the Islamic State, that it would not confront the Islamist militant group in Syria alone, and that it doesn't intend anything stronger than fiscal sanctions to punish Russia for invading Ukraine, sources within NATO said that the alliance is also unlikely to act directly.

Instead, European Union leaders, who are meeting in Brussels on Saturday, Aug. 30, are likely to issue a new round of sanctions in retaliation for Russia's most recent incursion into Ukraine. A NATO source familiar with discussions on the EU's response to Russia told Foreign Policy that the new sanctions could be levied as early as Saturday.

"It's obvious at this point that there are going to be new sanctions," the source said. "All of this was decided before what happened yesterday."

According to a British report obtained by Bloomberg, the United Kingdom will recommend banning Russia's access to the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication, or SWIFT, a key avenue through which Russia acccesses the international financial system.

The source was referring to comments Obama made Thursday, which included his plan to build a coalition of countries willing to take the fight to the Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL, in Syria.

Obama -- who will also attend the NATO summit in Wales next week -- tapped Secretary of State John Kerry to lead the diplomatic effort to get allies on board against the Sunni militant group that has seized wide swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria.

"The violence that's been taking place in Syria has obviously given ISIL a safe haven there in ungoverned spaces, and in order for us to degrade ISIL over the long term, we're going to have to build a regional strategy," Obama said during Thursday's White House news conference.

"As I've said, rooting out a cancer like ISIL will not be quick or easy, but I'm confident that we can and we will, working closely with our allies and our partners," the president added.

The source also reaffirmed Obama's assertion that there would be no immediate military response to Russia's opening of a third front in its incurious into eastern Ukraine, which came about six months after it first drew Western ire for annexing Crimea in March.

"We don't expect to have a major resolution coming from NATO. This is going to be the work of individual allies, very likely this weekend," the source said. "Where we're going to be a week from now is anyone's guess. We're going to be bound by the limitations built in the [NATO] treaty. We're not going to intervene militarily."

This source also said that NATO is not likely to act as an umbrella for any coordinated action against the Islamic State in Syria or Iraq.

"There's going to be a lot of discussion about what allies can do," the source said. "What NATO can do is more of a question. There is no intention of having a NATO multinational operation in Iraq or Syria."

The source indicated that NATO could be involved in training or supplying Iraqi troops. However, "for anything large scale, you would need to have boots on the ground, which we're not going to have."

In an interview with Foreign Policy, NATO Deputy Secretary-General Alexander Vershbow confirmed that the alliance wouldn't undertake coordinated action in Ukraine. He said that the alliance would continue "capacity building, but it's not direct security assistance. NATO simply doesn't do that. This is a question for each of the nations to decide what they can do."

On the threat posed by the Islamic State, Vershbow said that NATO could assist Iraqi forces through a training program that has been shelved since the end of the Iraq war. But he added, "There's reluctance to make a commitment [to the program] before [Iraqi politicians] get their act together."

"We have been paying more and more attention and stepping up intelligence sharing on the threat," he added. "But at this point, no one is proposing any direct military action by NATO."

These comments reinforce what Obama said Thursday. Throughout the week, multiple reports of imminent airstrikes in Syria ratcheted up expectations of impending action. However, Obama said that any action in Syria would be done only in consultation with allies. He said that he and Kerry would meet with NATO allies next week and that then Kerry would meet with cooperative leaders in the Middle East to develop a strategy to confront the group.

All this comes as Ukraine is making a new push to join NATO. Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk announced Friday that he would introduce a bill canceling his country's status as a nonaligned country and restoring "its aspirations to become a NATO member."

"This law will prohibit the Ukrainian state to become part of any other economic, political or military alliances that would hinder the main goal of accession to the EU," Yatsenyuk later wrote on Facebook.

Vershbow noted that Ukraine began the formal process of gaining NATO membership in 2008. He said it is up to Kiev to meet the standards needed to join the alliance.

"It's their choice. It's sort of the principle that every nation has the right to secure its security arrangements," he said. "Clearly, this is a very sensitive issue with the Russians."

"Ukraine's potential membership in NATO, in light of [Russia's] aggression -- many people in NATO wouldn't be surprised that they started to talk up the … option again."

New sanctions against Russia by the European Union would be a significant escalation. Since the Ukraine crisis began, Europe, led by Germany, had been reluctant to punish Russia severely, fearing collateral damage to European economies. But after pro-Russian separatists shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, the severity of European sanctions were increased, and countersanctions targeting European and American agricultural products were issued by Moscow.

Now, with Russian troops fighting along three fronts in Ukraine, it appears as if harsher sanctions are on the way. Speaking ahead of the summit, and without specifying what the new punishments would be, European foreign ministers said that they have no choice but to levy new penalties.

"The European Union should be ready to move forward with possible new measures against Russia because the situation is still getting worse," the Associated Press quoted Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Paet as saying.

Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin remained defiant, comparing Ukraine to Nazi Germany.

"Sad as it might seem, this reminds me of the events of World War II, when the German Nazi occupants surrounded our cities, like Leningrad, and directly shelled those cities and their inhabitants," Putin said, according to state-controlled RT.

He also called on Russian-backed separatists to create a "humanitarian corridor for Ukrainian service members who have been surrounded, so as to avoid any needless loss of life, giving them the opportunity to leave the combat area unimpeded and reunite with their families, to return them to their mothers, wives, and children, and to quickly provide medical assistance to those who were injured in the course of the military operation."

Any new sanctions would have to be approved by the entire European Union. When the crisis began, the German public and business community, as well as some in the German political establishment, were reluctant to punish Putin. However, according to Ulrich Speck, visiting scholar at the Carnegie Europe think tank in Brussels, Putin's latest incursion gives German Chancellor Angela Merkel no choice but to impose harsher penalties.

"There is no other game; there is no plan B," Speck told Foreign Policy. "Neither the EU nor the U.S. is going to go to war. The only hope now is to really increase the pressure so that Putin at least will limit his recent incursion.

"This is the failure of more than half a year of really tough efforts, especially on the German side," Ulrich added. "All these meetings, all this diplomacy has really been exhausted and it failed. There is no other way to stop Putin."

Photo by Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images News