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Analysis: The Threat Of Bioterrorism

A British soldier wearing a nuclear, biological, and chemical (NBC) warfare suit "To seek to possess weapons that could counter those of the infidels is a religious duty." -- Osama bin Laden, speaking in 1998.

Biological weapons (BW) have been called the poor man's atomic bomb. Experts readily concur. Biological agents, they say, are easy to obtain, are compact, and extremely deadly. They are "hundreds to thousands of times" more deadly than chemical agents, according to a 1993 report by the Office of Technology Assessment of the U.S. Congress. The report -- "Technologies Underlying Weapons of Mass Destruction" -- called biological agents the "true weapons of mass destruction with a potential for lethal mayhem that can exceed that of nuclear weapons."

Despite these frightful assertions, the question of the practicality of biological terrorism remains a valid one -- are biological agents a realistic weapon for terrorists? What are the chances for a group of terrorists to obtain or manufacture biological agents, successfully store them and find the means to effectively disseminate them?

Fortunately, numerous studies have shown that serious doubts exist about the effectiveness of biological weapons, which explains their rare appearance on the battlefield.

A report by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), "Biological Weapons Proliferation," prepared in June 2000 (, notes that while the 30 microbes that "directly or indirectly afflict humans" and have been considered likely Biological Warfare agents, are easy and cheap to produce, it is much more difficult to develop BW munitions that have a predictable effect. Furthermore, these pathogens and toxins are "susceptible to such environmental stresses as heat, oxidation and desiccation, to be effective they must maintain their potency during weapon storage, delivery and dissemination."

A March 2003 report by the Congressional Research Service (CRS) -- "Terrorist Motivations for Chemical and Biological Weapons Use: Placing the Threat in Context" -- found that terrorist groups face numerous problems with acquiring BW materials, maintaining them, transforming them into weapons, and disseminating them.

Dissemination of a biological agent is best done by dispersing a low-altitude aerosol cloud. For such purposes, weapons designers have designed spray-tanks, cluster bombs, and bomblet dispensers, but in turn are faced with the problem of storage. Even if refrigerated, most of the organisms have a limited lifetime.

Use of a bomb to disseminate the agent is unacceptable since an explosive charge is likely to kill the organisms.

Aum Shinrikyo

Many BW experts have singled out the 1995 Aum Shinrikyo sarin gas attack in the Tokyo metro which killed 12 people and injured up to 6,000, as an example of the technical difficulties involved in carrying out a successful attack.

Aum Shinrikyo is cited in the CRS report as a "good example of a group that had unusually favorable circumstances for producing chemical and biological weapons, including money, facilities, time and expertise, yet they were unable to do so effectively." The Aum Shinrikyo attack was more of a warning to other groups intent on a copycat attack of the difficulties involved then as an example of what to do.

In discussing this attack, a report by the Henry Stimson Center in Washington in October 2000 -- "Ataxia: The Chemical and Biological Terrorism Threat and the US Response" -- found that Aum Shinrikyo scientists "located the agent formulas readily, but no chemistry book gave them detailed instructions about how to work with these exceedingly volatile materials."

Doomsday Visions

A widespread fear is that terrorists will poison a community's water supply. Reservoirs are poorly guarded and a number of BW agents are stable in water. However, the enormous amounts of agent needed to be mixed into the water supply to effectively achieve a terrorist's goal makes this impractical.

The "Ataxia" report states, "Chemicals commonly used to purify water, such as gaseous chlorine and sodium hypochlorite, kill the microbes that cause glanders, plague, Q fever, epidemic typhus, encephalomyelitis, viral hemorrhagic fevers, smallpox, typhoid, and cholera, the most lethal water-borne agent. On its way to the spigot, some of the agent would also bind, nonspecifically, to the pipes."

Another popular scenario is that of a terrorist cell brewing biological agents in their bathtubs or garages. And while such attempts are possible, it is difficult to link them to a mass casualty attack. The "Ataxia" report notes that about a liter of nerve agent contains roughly a million lethal doses, "but in practice, over a ton of nerve agent would be needed to kill ten thousand people outdoors." It would take a terrorist roughly two years to make enough sarin in a basement-sized operation to kill five hundred and another eighteen years to produce the ton of gas required to kill ten thousand."

The conclusion reached in 1997 by the U.S. Defense Department confirms what many nongovernment experts believe. "Conventional terrorism was far more prevalent, far more harmful, and far more deadly than chemical or biological terrorism. Therefore, if the past is any predictor of the future, terrorist incidents involving chemical and biological substances will continue to be small in scale and far less harmful than conventional terrorist attacks." (U.S. Secretary of Defense, "Proliferation: Threat and Response," (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Defense, 1997).

The Dangerous Future

Terrorism is meant to terrorize and the perceived threat of a biological attack is often more frightening then the probability of such weapons being used. This, however, does not absolve law-enforcement organizations such as Interpol and intelligence services from maintaining a vigilant stance and enforcing nonproliferation agreements, as the Lyon conference intends to underscore.

Presently there are a number of countries suspected of maintaining an active biological warfare program. The CSIS report mentions Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, Syria, and Israel, among others. The concern is that these states will develop and stockpile agents and that new, genetically engineered agents might be more effective and difficult to detect.

The fear of such biological agents falling into the hands of terrorists willing to use them is bound to increase the popular notion of BW as a "super threat." Reliable research however, shows that while this is not an easy and viable option at present, it is theoretically capable of causing enormous damage.

As to the future use of BW weapons by terrorists, the December 2004 report "Mapping the Global Future" prepared by the U.S. National Intelligence Council contains a warning.

"As biotechnology information becomes more widely available, the number of people who can potentially misuse such information and wreak widespread loss of life will increase," the report said. "An attacker would appear to have an easier job -- because of the large array of possibilities available -- than the defender, who must prepare against them all."