The utilization of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) by terrorist groups is one of the largest international security concerns of the 21st century. If terrorists were able to carry out an attack on a major city using biological weapons the casualties could number in the thousands. The delayed effects of these weapons and the fact that such modes of attack are easy to conceal make them even more dangerous.
History of Bio-Terrorism
Biological weapons have been in use since at least the sixth century B.C. From the poisoning of wells with fungi by the ancient Assyrians to the smallpox infected blankets given to Native Americans by the British, biological warfare has long been a weapon in the human arsenal.
In the 20th century this form of weaponry was taken to new heights. In World War I German agents infected Allied livestock with glanders, a disease caused by bacteria. Nations began to further weaponize biological agents during World War II. The infamous Japanese Unit 731 experimented on prisoners of war and Chinese citizens, as well as dropped bombs filled with plague-infected fleas on Manchuria. During the Cold War the U.S. and U.S.S.R. both created massive biological weapons programs. However, this biological arms race soon receded. By the mid-1980s most of the world’s nations had signed onto the Biological Weapons Convention banning the development, production, and stockpiling of biological weapons.
In 1984 the first true biological terrorist attack occurred when members of The Rajneeshee cult attempted to influence a local election in an Oregon town by contaminating salad bars with salmonella. The attack sickened 750 people. Similarly, after their deadly 1995 sarin gas attack in Japan’s subways, the cult Aum Shinrikyo was discovered to have previously attempted to use other biological weapons on targets in Japan. In as many as ten attempts the cult sprayed biological agents on business or cultural targets and even an American naval base. Fortunately these attacks failed to produce any casualties since they used strains of anthrax that were of poor offensive quality.
The most destructive case of biological terrorism in the U.S., in terms of casualties, came in the months after 9/11. Only a few days after the attacks on New York and Washington, letters were mailed to various offices and individuals containing strains of the anthrax virus. Over the course of the next few months, fifteen people were infected and five died of anthrax poisoning. The investigation, which was only concluded in late 2010, found that an Army scientist had carried out the attacks. However, the case was never tried in court as the suspect claimed his own life in 2008. These attacks serve to highlight not only the deadly potential of biological attacks but also the disruption and panic they can cause.
The Threat of Bio-Terrorism
Biological weapons are easy to use covertly and take time to detect after use. They can be deployed though the mail, by just about any device designed to spray, through air-conditioning systems, or by contaminating food and water supplies. One Homeland Security Department scenario involving the use of concealed spray cans on a truck theorized that it would take at least a day for pathogen sensors in major cities to alert authorities. As well, the early symptoms of infection for many bio-weapon agents are similar to those of other common diseases and could be mistaken for the cold or flu, leading to initial mistreatment that would cost further lives. Biological weapons also have the ability to spread from victim to victim, making the potential for contagion immense.
The capacity for harm due to loss of life and adverse effects on society is massive. This makes biological weapons a tantalizing option for terrorists to try and obtain. Indeed, if the Aum Shinrikyo attacks had been successful, casualty numbers could have been in the tens of thousands. Al Qaeda has also been among the organizations that have tried to develop bio-weapon capabilities. The group had been paying various experts from Pakistan and Malaysia to develop anthrax for the group in the late 1990s with little success. In early 2009 it was reported that an Al Qaeda base in Algeria had been abandoned by the fighters there after an outbreak of bubonic plague, possibly from working to weaponize it (though this was never confirmed and could have been a natural outbreak).
Policy Responses of Bio-Terrorism
There are several pieces of both domestic legislation in the U.S. and international agreements that help address the issue of biological weapons and terrorism. The Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) of 1972 is a piece of international law in which signatories agree not to develop, produce, seek, or stockpile biological weapons. The treaty currently includes 163 states. Domestically, the U.S.’s Project Bioshield Act of 2004 encouraged the development, production, and stockpiling of vaccines for diseases used in biological weapons, while the Bioterrorism Act of 2001 provided measures aimed at preparing for and streamlining responses to a biological attack. Even though there are strong measures in place aimed at responding to this form of attack and mitigating its effects, serious shortcomings remain as to the prevention of biological weapon acquisition by terrorists.
The BWC lacks mechanisms to ensure compliance and indeed there have been numerous cases of blatant disregard of the treaty by signatory states. The states that do abide by the treaty need to take a harder approach and press for more concrete measures towards implementing compliance. Currently the treaty only mandates that states “consult with one another to solve compliance concerns.” Better mechanisms, such as investigative bodies, need to be developed in order to ensure states are held responsible for any breach of the BWC. The agreements of the BWC are essential to preventing stockpiles of biological weapons that could be acquired by extremist groups.
Next, current supplies of infectious diseases need to be better secured. There are currently hundreds of “germ banks” around the world that keep cultures of infectious diseases on hand so that scientists can have access to them for research in order to create better vaccines or medicines. These cultures are shipped around the world to those that request them. However, in the past, poor oversight as to whom these germs were shipped and their intended use resulted in supplying unscrupulous parties with deadly microbes. It was from American germ banks that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq received the cultures used to develop its biological weapons program. While security has increased over the past couple decades, particularly at U.S. germ banks, efforts should continue to make sure that facilities around the world are careful in determining the parties to whom these cultures are sent.
As the intentional export of microbes remains a concern, the overall security of laboratories is an even bigger problem. Many facilities around the world that house deadly diseases have poor security and remain vulnerable to theft. Last year the U.S. sent a team of experts and officials to advise Kenyan and Ugandan governments on the threat of bioterrorism and how to better secure facilities within their own borders. Similar actions should be taken to assist and advise governments around the world on how to better secure germ holding facilities.
As the biotechnology field continues to grow and advance, ensuring that new technology does not fall into the wrong hands will become more crucial. Preventing terrorists from obtaining biological weapons or the means to produce them will continue to be one of the 21st century’s premier security concerns. Governments will need to cooperate more and hold each other accountable internationally in order to ensure that biological attacks, which can potentially cause casualties in the thousands and economic damage in the billions, never come to pass.
About the Author: