Disease, insecurity and warfare are a chilling combination, especially when considered in the context of the scientific and technological advances of the 21st Century.
Today, there is evidence that terrorist groups have shown interest in developing the capability to use biological agents.
Biological pathogens can be deployed not only against military forces, but also against civilians. This means that pathogens themselves, rather than military operations, can be a core security concern. The use of bio-agents is an effective way to increase anxiety and terror, together with significant numbers of casualties. Fear, anxiety and panic are part of the suite of outcomes desired by terrorists because they contribute towards a heightened sense of insecurity and fear. Therefore, the impact of biological agents as weapons cannot and should not be underestimated and this raises real concerns about who has access to them.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has identified several categories of biological agents that could be used to initiate a terrorist attack. Biological agents include bacteria, viruses, and toxins that are readily commercially available, have the potential to cause major public health impacts; cause widespread panic and/or social disruption; and have high mortality rates. The CDC lists 18 agents considered to be potential bio-terrorism threats with anthrax, botulism, plague, smallpox, tularemia and viral hemorrhagic fevers (for example Ebola and, Marburg) identified as ‘Category A’ which have the highest potential lethal impact. The CDC notes that these high-priority agents pose a risk to national security because they can be easily disseminated or transmitted from person to person, they result in high mortality rates and have the potential for major public health impact. They might lead to public panic and social disruption. They also require special action for public health preparedness.
Biological Warfare Is Not New
The use of biological warfare has been in existence for centuries. In the fourth century BC, Scythian archers tipped their arrows with blood and tissue from decomposing bodies and in the sixth century BC it was reported that Assyrians poisoned enemy wells with a fungus. In 1763, the British army deliberately gave smallpox contaminated blankets to Native American Indians and in World War I, packhorses used by the Allies were targeted with disease-causing organisms by the German military to disrupt supply lines. When the French signed the 1925 Geneva Protocol, they were also developing a biological warfare program to complement the chemical weapons program established in the World War I. Similarly, the former Soviet Union commenced its biological weapons program in the 1920s, although it too was a signatory to the 1925 Convention.
In World War II, in addition to human biological experimentation carried out in Nazi Germany, the United States launched its biological warfare program to produce a number of biological agents such as anthrax, botulism and plague. In Britain, programs were underway to develop anthrax spores and their viability and dissemination when delivered with a conventional bomb. During the same period, Hungary conducted an offensive biological weapons program between 1936 and 1944.
Outside Europe, a major offensive biological warfare program began in Japan and ran from 1931 to 1945. The Japanese tested biological agents on humans as well as employing biological agents in military field operations. They developed capabilities to produce kilogram quantities of bacteria for plague, anthrax, typhoid, cholera, dysentery and other diseases.
Issues-motivated Groups Use Of Bioweapons
But it is not just countries that have been and continue to be interested in biological agents. There is well founded concern that terrorist and other groups have an interest in developing or gaining access to biological agents to further their cause. In the 1980s and 1990s, issues-motivated groups developed or gained access to biological agents with the intention of doing harm. In 1984, there was an attempt by a religious cult located in Oregon in the United States, known as the Rajneeshees, to influence local election results. They used salmonella to contaminate doorknobs and food at the local supermarket, as well as salad bars in 11 restaurants, with the intention of incapacitating voters in Oregon. Their actions caused more than 750 people to fall ill.
In the 1990s, the Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo successfully produced botulinum toxin which attacks the nervous system, as well as anthrax spores, and the group showed interest in pathogens such as cholera bacteria. However, because the group lacked the technical expertise to develop an adequate delivery system, it resorted to dispersing the chemical sarin gas in the Tokyo subway, killing 13 people, severely injuring 50 and causing temporary vision problems for nearly 1,000 others.
The 21st Century opened with terrorist attacks and anthrax letters sent through the US postal service. While the letters resulted in only five deaths and 17 cases of inhalation, the action generated a high level of anxiety and insecurity. More than 750 hoax letters claiming to contain anthrax were sent worldwide in October and November 2001. In addition to widespread concern throughout the US, the letters had the effect of causing the US Congressional sessions to be suspended and the US Supreme Court to be evacuated. Globally, countries implemented bio-security measures, including precautionary mail-room handling practices.
More recently, coalition forces uncovered evidence that the Islamic militant group, al-Qaeda, had more than a passing interest in using biological agents. Evidence of the group’s research and development of bioweapons was found, including trace amounts of ricin and anthrax at five or six sites, as well as evidence of an interest in plague, cyanide, and botulinum toxin. Chillingly, in 2010, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula made a call to arms for “brothers with degrees in microbiology or chemistry to develop a weapon of mass destruction”.
Bioweapons Destructive Capacity
Biological weapons tend to be characterised as weapons of mass destruction alongside chemical and nuclear weapons, but bio-weapons operate on fundamentally different scientific principles and this holds unique security implications. The effects of a chemical or nuclear attack would be felt immediately but because of the time biological agents take to incubate in human bodies, they might not be noticed for days, or possibly weeks. By that time, the perpetrators would be safely away.
In certain circumstances, biological weapons can be as devastating as nuclear ones – a few kilograms of anthrax can kill as many people as a Hiroshima-size nuclear weapon. A one megaton hydrogen bomb could kill anywhere between 500,000 to nearly 1,000,000 people. This can be contrasted with aerial delivery of 100kg of anthrax which may kill between over 100,000 to nearly 3,000,000 people.
Scientific Progress Or Security Concern
The skills, knowledge and technology to create new viruses and, therefore, potential bio-weapons, are available in almost any biotechnology laboratory. And public concern about scientific experiments has been raised on more than one occasion. For example, in response to a mouse plague in 2001, Australian scientists set out to create a strain of mousepox virus that would cause sterility in female mice. However, they accidently found a way to genetically engineer the one hundred per cent lethal mousepox virus, which is related to smallpox and is highly contagious. Even with the best intentions, a dangerous and highly contagious virus can be created unintentionally.
Then in 2011, the US National Institute of Health funded two groups of scientists to examine the mammalian transmissibility of highly pathogenic avian influenza H5N1 (bird flu) viruses. The groups based in the US and the Netherlands separately created mutant forms of bird flu that could be transmitted between ferrets, and viruses that are easily transmissible between ferrets are often also easily transmissible between humans. And in October 2013, Chinese scientists announced they had created new strains of the influenza virus in a bid to develop vaccines.
These types of research and experiments by well meaning scientists add an extra layer of complexity to existing security challenges in the 21st Century. Scientists generally have argued that the benefits of such experiments, and the resulting knowledge, outweigh the risks. This has been countered by many outside the scientific and health sectors who have expressed deep concern. Although the goal of these research studies was benign, they had the potential to alert would-be terrorists to new ways of making biological weapons.
As groups and countries gain biological capability, the overall level of risk and threat to nations and communities increases. The combination of developments in biotechnology and genetic engineering has added a further level of complexity about the security challenges of biological agents and their use in the 21st Century. Gene-designed organisms can be used to produce potential bio-weapons.
While the 1975 Biological and Toxic Weapons Convention has some leverage over those who are signatories, it has also been described as a ‘toothless tiger’ because it has no provisions for verification or for monitoring compliance. And the Convention has no influence or control over those operating outside the Convention, such as terrorist or other groups. This is of particular concern given the availability of open-source information and material, developments in biotechnology sciences, and inexpensive equipment. There is little difference between the manufacturing process for a bio-weapon or a vaccine.
The skills, knowledge, and equipment are available to create bio-weapons. This makes their production an attractive option for terrorists or rogue states. So far the only real and tangible obstacle seems to be the development of effective delivery systems, and groups continue to explore delivery methods. All this means that the complex security challenges surrounding biological agents and who has access to them are set to remain with us well into the future.
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Rita Parker is a Visiting Fellow at the University of New South Wales, Canberra, Australia and a Distinguished Fellow at the Center for Infrastructure Protection, George Mason University, Virginia. She is a former senior policy advisor to Australian Federal and State governments, and has a well established background in security and resilience issues. Her research focus is on transnational non-traditional security issues and national resilience. Rita’s work has been published in the US, Australia, Malaysia and Singapore, and she works with organisations to develop appropriate response capabilities.
Tularemia is a disease of animals and humans caused by the bacterium Francisella tularensis. Rabbits, hares, and rodents are especially susceptible and often die in large numbers during outbreaks. Humans can be infected and it can prove fatal.
Salmonellosis is an infection of the digestive system caused by the bacteria salmonella. There are thousands of salmonella types and they occur in many domestic and wild animals.
Botulinum toxin, one of the most poisonous biological substances known.
Cholera is an infection of the small intestine and causes between 100,000–130,000 deaths each year.
 The number of dead from aerial dispersal would depend on environmental conditions.