The specter of biological warfare has led the Defense Department to inoculate 2 million U.S. soldiers against anthrax. Civilians, however, will remain at risk.
Just as the ice was beginning to crack under the strain of the April sun in 1979, scores of residents in the Russian town of Sverdlovsk were struck down by a deadly virus. An explosion at a nearby illegal germwarfare station belched a cloud of anthrax over the Ural Mountain city. Spores rained down on the residents, sending thousands to hospitals complaining of flulike symptoms; within five days most were dead. The Soviet Union had promised not to develop, produce or stockpile bacteriological agents and weapons with its signature on the Biological Weapons Convention, or BWC, treaty of 1975. Since then other rogue states and roving terrorists have managed to weaponize and produce several biological agents, including anthrax and human plague.
"The threat is now out there, front and center, and we have to prepare for a new and more dangerous era of terrorism" as we enter the new century, says Jeffrey Simon, director of the Political Risk Assessment Co., a consulting firm specializing in security and terrorism research, in Santa Monica, Calif.
Armed with the advantage of efficient, economical, mass-killing capabilities, any nation or terrorist can raise the stakes considerably in a world in which little preparation has been taken against such attacks. Any group with access to reasonably advanced pharmaceutical and medical facilities has the capacity to build biological weapons. The disadvantages they face are few: limited life spans of the organisms, loss of a percentage of the agent in an explosion and a stigma much worse than that experienced by Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh.
Says Simon: "We are having to start from scratch in terms of anticipating terrorist targets or groups who may use biological or chemical terrorism because the tactics and the targets will not necessarily be the same as we have seen in conventional terrorism."
But, for groups that have a doomsday mentality and little need to develop or satisfy a supportive constituency, these weapons are choice. The Aum Shinrikyo, or Sacred Truth, cult in Japan killed 12 passengers in the Tokyo subway system with sarin nerve gas in 1995. But unconfirmed reports suggest that the cult attempted to produce and disseminate both botulinum toxin and anthrax before they launched the sarin attack.
"They [the cult] had experts and unlimited funds and laboratories, yet they failed," says Raymond Zilinskas of the University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute. This, he says, is indicative of a significant problem for terrorists: how to transmit the agent and hit the target.
Closer to home, in Antelope, Ore., in 1986, followers of Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh contaminated salad bars with salmonella -- infecting 750 people -- in an effort to influence a local election.
Biological weapons in one form or another can be traced back to 600 B.C. when drinking waters were infected by warring factions. During the 1300s Tartarians catapulted plague-infested bodies over the city walls of Kaffa -- which some say may have initiated the Black Death that raged across Europe. In this century, Japan led a program known as Unit 731 that experimented on humans, including Chinese villagers, with anthrax, cholera, typhoid, plague and typhus. The United States, Canada and the United Kingdom initiated a mini-Manhattan Project working to develop offensive biological weapons, but the development of the atomic bomb nullified the project.
"Most of the scenarios talked about deal with the aerosol dissemination of anthrax: a crop duster, put on a spray tank, made in various laboratories," says Simon, who describes anthrax as inexpensive. Botulism also is fairly easy to produce, but the problem is "how to disperse it," says Simon. A disturbing …