Prague, 1 March 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The specter of terrorists getting their hands on nuclear or biological weapons took on new dimensions with the 11 September attacks on the United States more than three years ago.
The argument is simple. The terrorists who struck the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington were armed with no more than knives and box cutters. Experts warn of the damage that could be inflicted if the weapons used in any new attack were the deadly poison ricin or the smallpox virus, for instance.
The conference in Lyon -- which is hosted by Interpol, the world’s largest police organization -- brings together leading experts on bioterrorism to share knowledge and improve the international coordination that is seen as vital to combating terrorism.
Concerns over a possible chemical or biological attack are based on more than just idle speculation.
Saddam Hussein's top scientists are known to have been pursuing an active chemical- and biological-research program before Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait and subsequent UN sanctions. Several countries today, including Iran and North Korea, are suspected by the United States of conducting similar research. Attacks on the Tokyo subway with the nerve agent sarin killed 12 people and injured 6,000 in 1995, demonstrating that individual terrorist groups could acquire such agents and use them against civilian populations.
Interpol Secretary-General Ronald Noble told conference attendees today that there is, in his words, "no criminal threat with greater potential danger to all countries, regions, and people in the world than the threat of bioterrorism." He added that there is also no area of crime fighting in which police have so little training in preventing -- or responding to -- attacks.
On the medical front, the news is arguably more optimistic. However, such advances appear to be largely limited to wealthy industrialized countries.
Walter Biederbick, a scientist at the Robert Koch Institute of public health in Berlin, spoke to RFE/RL on his way to the bioterrorism conference.
"A lot of preparations in regard to countermeasures have been taken and these countermeasures are mainly medical. And there, we are for sure not perfect, but in some areas much better prepared than we were three years ago," Biederbick said.
Many European countries have stockpiled smallpox vaccines, for example, for emergency use in case of an attack. Work is also under way to set up a centralized, infectious-disease monitoring center, patterned on the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.
Biederbick contrasts this with the lack of preparation in many other parts of the world.
"In certain Asian countries and especially in a lot of African countries, you don't have a sufficient public health system and medical support for the population. In some very poor countries, it's not as good as it should be and transmissible diseases already have devastating effects," Biederbick said.
Experts are still debating the true extent of the threat posed by biological and chemical weapons. In order to carry out a successful attack, a terrorist group would need the necessary resources to both develop an agent and disperse it.
The Aum Shinrikyo cult, which was responsible for the deadly Tokyo gas attack, apparently tried for years to develop far more deadly weapons of mass destruction. But despite abundant funding and scientific expertise, the group was not able to develop more sophisticated methods.
Panic could be the terrorists' most potent weapon, says Biederbick, and that is where better police work, communication, and coordination are key.
"That is exactly the point terrorists want to achieve. They are looking to show that the government, that the state, is not capable of countering their attack. They want to show the vulnerability of society more than to create real damage," Biederbick said.Related:
Is Bioterrorism A Realistic And Effective Option For Terrorists?