Protecting Israel from Chemical & Biological Terrorism

Worldwide exclusive: A first-ever visit to the Israel Institute for Biological Research and an interview with its director, Col. (res.) Prof. Shmuel Shapira, who sheds some light on the secrets and operations of the mysterious institute

Photo: IIBR

Nothing at the Israel Institute for Biological Research in Ness-Ziona resembles a sensitive, high-security compound. The place is neither dark nor sinister. The doors are made of wood – not heavy metal. The walkways are covered with the fallen leaves of the many trees all around and the scientists, in their white robes, are of both genders and represent a broad range of ages, as in other research institutes.

One irregular thing catches the eye, though: the institute has an unusual concentration of archaeological finds, collected from sites all around the country by the Israel Antiquities Authority. The mosaic floors, coins and earthenware pots were concentrated – of all places – at a facility that appears to be a particularly tranquil university campus, as it is one of the most heavily guarded installations in Israel. No thief who's after antiquities will dare trying to intrude into this compound.

The Israel Institute for Biological Research is subordinated directly to the Prime Minister, like the Nuclear Research Center Negev (NRCN), for example. My visit was a rare case where the gates of this institute were opened to a representative of the media. IIBR Director, Col. (res.) Professor Shmuel Shapira, gave his first-ever interview in the context of my visit. As expected, not everything could be discussed, but a fascinating conversation that lasted a few good hours uncovered a considerable portion of the processes that take place at this mystery-shrouded facility.

So what is actually happening behind the fences of the Israel Institute for Biological Research?

A countless number of speculations have been published around the world over the years regarding the institute where the State of Israel concentrates its efforts in the chemical and biological fields. The former deputy director of the institute, Professor Marcus Klingberg, became the star of a Soviet espionage scandal that was extensively covered by the media, and when in 1997 Mossad agents attempted to assassinate senior Hamas official Khaled Mashal in Amman, Jordan, media reports claimed that the substance injected into his body had been provided by specialists from this institute. The same was reported with regard to a serum he later received that allegedly saved his life, after the assassins had been captured. King Hussein of Jordan demanded that Mashal's life be saved in exchange for the return of the Mossad agents to Israel.

What was the role the Institute had played in the Mashal affair?

Professor Shapira will not address this subject even remotely. "I do not know," he answers, without smiling or blinking. But very keenly he tells me that the Institute is at the forefront of global science and cooperates with various organizations in many countries. He intends to continue opening it to the world more and more. Shapira also spoke about the threats of chemical, biological and radioactive terrorism and about the Israeli efforts to provide defenses against those threats. We'll get to that.

Using Chlorine as a Weapon

The Institute was established in 1952, Professor Shapira recounts, as a successor to the IDF Science Corps. Statutorily, it constitutes an "Independent Jurisdiction Unit" within the Prime Minister's Office. That means that the bulk of its activity is financed by the state budget, but it also generates revenue from technology and services it sells to various organizations – notably to the Ministry of Defense, but there is no government ministry, from the Ministry of Agriculture to the Ministry of the Environment – that does not cooperate with the Institution.

According to open source publications (even Wikipedia), in addition to its defense-related activity, IIBR is also engaged in an extensive range of civilian activities, such as the development of means for diagnosing contagious diseases, development of solutions for environmental problems, development of drugs, various activities associated with chemical synthesis and analysis, development of sensors and so forth. Life Science Research Israel (LSRI), a subsidiary of the Institute operating out of the same compound, handles the commercial distribution of the Institute's products and most of its revenue comes from exports.

The Institute has a workforce of about 350 employees, of whom not less than 160 are scientists possessing doctoral degrees in biology, biochemistry, biotechnology, analytical chemistry, organic chemistry, physical chemistry, pharmacology, mathematics, physics and environmental science, plus about 160 technicians.

According to Professor Shapira: "We are long-distance runners, not just solvers of ad-hoc problems. We have our development programs and what guides us is a list of threats. We place a major emphasis on solutions to unconventional terrorism threats – mainly chemical and biological."

In response to my question, Shapira said that the Institute is engaged "to some extent" in a quest for a solution for radioactive terrorism (a "dirty bomb" that contains radioactive substances in addition to standard explosives). He would not elaborate, but the radioactive threat is mainly the responsibility of other organizations. Generally, Professor Shapira regards the chemical and biological terrorism threat as a very tangible issue.

Has the chemical and biological threat by enemy states not disappeared after Syria had allegedly eliminated their chemical weapon inventory a few years ago?

"Definitely not," answers Shapira. "In the civil war in Syria, chlorine is being used extensively, just like it was during World War 1. You can find out about it even through clips on YouTube. The most troubling thing, as far as I am concerned, is that the barrier that had existed for years regarding the use of weapons considered as chemical weapons, as basic as they may be, was breached.

"With regard to the question of whether the (chemical) weapon arsenal of Syria was eliminated," continues Shapira, "I do not care whether they currently have 30 tons of chemical warfare agents or only one kilogram. In any case, some of those hazardous substances are definitely available."

Is the biological threat evolving?

"Absolutely. Bacteria are becoming immune. In the past we had two types of antibiotics for treating every possible contamination. Today everything is much more complex. Bacteria are developing immunity and new diseases emerge."

Let's get back to the chemical terrorism threat. Can an event like the terrorist attack using Sarin gas in the Japanese underground system take place in our region, too?

"We have the knowledge required in order to cope with similar threats, to carry out a risk analysis and respond accordingly."

Smallpox & Anthrax

The Institute invests considerable efforts in an attempt to develop an antidote for the Ricin toxins that may be produced relatively easily from natural ingredients. "Ricin is produced from the castor plant," says Professor Shapira. "It is a common and readily available natural plant and we regard it as a terrorist threat factor."

According to the Director of IIBR, "The Institute manufactures vaccines for Smallpox, which is lethal to all of the inhabitants of the State of Israel, and an antitoxin for the Botulinum toxin, secreted by certain bacteria and occurring in nature as well. Regarding the toxin, the Institute developed a new, original and fast test that makes it possible to identify the toxin within a few hours. This test replaces an established method, used worldwide to identify the Botulinum toxin using laboratory animals.

"The original test is conducted on 40 mice, and the time required in order to obtain a definite answer is not less than 48 hours. This is too long. Treatment must be administered very early in order to effectively protect against this toxin. The test we developed makes it possible to identify the protein secreted by the bacterium. Two years ago, this development helped save the life of a baby who had been afflicted by the toxin, which in some rare cases occurs in dangerous concentrations in nature. Owing to the prompt identification, the baby was treated at a hospital where they saved its life.

"Our knowledge regarding Smallpox also has civilian applications, which could be surprising. For example, we have recently assisted in diagnosing the first case of Smallpox in a camel in the Negev. Camel Smallpox is a well-known disease in the Middle East, and in this case it was discovered in Israel for the first time. We cooperated with the veterinarian services, and today they vaccinate the camels in order to prevent an outbreak of an epidemic."

What about those postal envelopes containing a white powder suspected as transmitting Anthrax? Do you deal with threats of this type, too?

"Every year, we receive a substantial number of envelopes suspected of containing Anthrax. These are operational situations, as we treat each and every envelope as if it actually contains Anthrax. I am glad to say that the suspicion is normally excluded after the tests we conduct."

Professor Shapira told us that the specialists of the Institute are occasionally called upon to examine unusual cases of poisoning that take place out of any defense/security context. He told us: "A few years ago, several people felt sick in an elevator, which raised the suspicion that some chemical substance had been spread there maliciously. Following a test, it was realized that a pest control contractor had sprayed an excessive amount of pesticide, without any intention of harming human beings."

A few years ago, IMOD also led the effort against the avian influenza epidemic that had spread throughout the poultry industry. Why, actually? After all, this epidemic was a civilian problem to all intents and purposes…

"It was because of the scope of the epidemic. Sometimes, like during the time of the massive snow storm two years ago, when the normal civilian systems collapse, the State would naturally turn to the more substantial systems for assistance, and the defense establishment is probably the most substantial and most efficient organ as far as dealing with national-level emergency situations is concerned."

Are you also concerned about the possibility of a terrorist attack in the form of an attempt to poison the water sources?

"When we are asked specifically about this subject, we provide an answer," says Professor Shapira, without providing any further details.

A Medical Background

Two of the primary defense/security organizations with which IIBR cooperates are the IDF Home Front Command and IMOD's National Emergency Authority. In the summer of 2016, the Institute was a full-fledged partner in a national training exercise that examined the preparedness for emergencies in wartime, terrorism and natural disaster situations. During the exercise, the Institute's laboratories operated around the clock. As Institute Director, Shapira takes part in situation appraisals and decision-making processes.

Fate has provided Professor Shapira with countless opportunities for dealing with severe terrorist attacks. He grew up in Jerusalem, in a home with no "medical background" (his mother was a waitress and his father was a clerk with the Israel Electrical Corporation). As a boy, he would get up in the early hours of the frozen Jerusalem mornings to deliver bread rolls, wine or flowers. He was informed that he had been accepted to medical school as a military reserve ("Atudah") student on that fateful week in October 1973 when the Yom-Kippur War broke out.

Under the circumstances of the harshest winter in Israeli history, Shapira went through a summary IDF basic training course. During the year of the war, the medical study program started after a delay of several months. He subsequently specialized in anesthesia and medical administration, and had his first few meaningful appointments in the IDF Medical Corps, where he served as Head of Trauma & Emergency Medicine at the rank of Lt. Col. He continues to contribute from his experience and expertise to the Medical Corps serving as a Colonel in reserve.

After his discharge from military service, Shapira headed the Public Administration School at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem. He established the "Tzameret" program for training military physicians possessing specialized knowledge in accordance with the needs of IDF and served as deputy director general of Hadassah Hospi