It was revealed on Thursday that a laptop was found in an Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) hideout, which contained a number of issues that got the attention of National Security people in the United States.

Yersinia pestis bacteria, which was grown on a medium of sheep’s blood agar (SBA) Image/CDC

One file found on the laptop was a 19-page document in Arabic on how to develop biological weapons and how to weaponize the bubonic plague from infected animals. According to a Foreign Policy Blog post yesterday, it stated–“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.

Historically, several like-minded groups in the past have attempted to weaponize the dangerous bacteria, Yersinia pestis (the agent of plague).

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes that as far back as the 14th century, armies have used plague in various fashions. “When the Tartar Army laid siege to Caffa, a walled city along the Black Sea.  When an outbreak of bubonic plaque began to ravage the Tartars, they decided to catapult the plague-ridden corpses into the city, thereby helping to start an outbreak within the walls.”

There was also the “evil” Japanese imperial unit 731, which operated in the 1930s and 40s when Japan was mobilized and ready for war.  General Shiro Ishii masterminded this terrible program had a mission to turn illness into weapons of murder.  Ishii was particularly fascinated by plague because with plague, a biological warfare attack could present like a natural epidemic.  Person to person spread could then produce disease out of proportion to the original amount of agent used.

Fortunately, the Japanese were unable to disseminate plague by either aerosol or in the water supply, so they used nature’s vector for spreading the disease, the common flea. In another diabolical plot, plague infected fleas were then packed into ceramic bombs and dropped over populated areas of Manchuria, causing several plague outbreaks.

Although the US never weaponized plague, for a variety of reasons including not being able to keep the virulence and for safety reasons for the military forces. However, that didn’t stop the Soviets, who overcame the virulence problems experienced by the U.S.  

Primary pneumonic plague is the most likely form that would be seen if Y. pestis were used in a bioterrorism event. This is due to the high likelihood of aerosol delivery, and also because it can be transmissible person-to-person, making control more problematic.

In a Consensus statement published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in May 2000, a working group, which included 25 representatives from major academic medical centers and research, government, military, public health, and emergency management institutions and agencies concluded:

An aerosolized plague weapon could cause fever, cough, chest pain, and hemoptysis with signs consistent with severe pneumonia 1 to 6 days after exposure. Rapid evolution of disease would occur in the 2 to 4 days after symptom onset and would lead to septic shock with high mortality without early treatment.

It is not clear the details of the document found on the computer, but it is true it is generally difficult to weaponize any potential bioweapon. As Magnus Ranstorp, research director of the Center for Asymmetric Threat Studies at the Swedish National Defence College said, “The real difficulty in all of these weapons … [is] to actually have a workable distribution system that will kill a lot of people. But to produce quite scary weapons is certainly within [the Islamic State’s] capabilities.” For more infectious disease news and information, visit and “like” the Infectious Disease News Facebook page