Bioterror in the Age of Biotechnology

By Gerstein, Daniel M. | Joint Force Quarterly, April 2010 | Go to article overview

Bioterror in the Age of Biotechnology


Gerstein, Daniel M., Joint Force Quarterly


The Commission believes that unless the world community acts decisively and with great urgency, it is more likely than not that a weapon of mass destruction will be used in a terrorist attack somewhere in the world by the end of 2013.

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The Commission further believes that terrorists are more likely to be able to obtain and use a biological weapon than a nuclear weapon. The Commission believes that the U.S. government needs to move more aggressively to limit the proliferation of biological weapons and reduce the prospect of a bioterror attack. (1)

This powerful statement from the most recent Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) Proliferation and Terrorism serves as ample warning of the dire threats faced by the United States and indeed the world from a bioweapon successfully deployed by a determined and knowledgeable terrorist. In thinking about the potential for such a bioterror attack, several important questions serve to frame the discussion. Do terrorists have the desire to employ WMD, and in particular biological weapons? Under what conditions might biological weapons be an attractive choice for use by terrorists? Would they have the requisite knowledge, equipment, and organizational capacity to mount a biological warfare (BW) attack? Would they be successful in such an attack? What could we do to mitigate the effects of a bioterror attack?

This article provides a framework for understanding the potential for a BW attack now and in the future by a terrorist or terrorist organization. In developing this framework, the findings hinge less on the technical capabilities than on the intentions of the potential perpetrator. State use of biological weapons in either large-scale strategic scenarios or as tools of assassination is not examined directly, although the framework could have equal application to a state BW program.

The Potential Perpetrator

Terrorism is a term that evokes strong emotions. Events of 9/11 brought terrorism to the forefront of the national security debate in the United States and arguably throughout the rest of the world. Despite this increased attention during the intervening period, the debate has seen little increased clarity.

No agreed definition of terrorist has been developed, and the word has been used seemingly interchangeably with other terms such as insurgent, illegal combatant, and freedom fighter. The result is a politicization of the term that hinders global cooperation and confuses the issue. This can be seen in a discussion of the rationality of the terrorist. Many believe that terrorists are pathologically damaged, violent sociopaths who employ violence for their own perverted outcomes. Others believe that terrorists are calculating and highly rational actors with real or perceived grievances, employing a range of strategies from political actions to violence in order to achieve desired outcomes. Some have gone as far as to suggest that it is possible to reach a negotiated settlement with terrorists, in the same way that one might reach a postconflict settlement following a state-to-state conflict. (2)

Regardless of the exact definition or the rationality of the terrorist, several important trends serve as the foundation for this analysis. First, terrorism is not a new phenomenon and has a long historical precedence. The direct origin of the term can be traced to the time of the French Revolution, although the period beginning in the 1970s is of the most interest for our discussion. It is during this period--with emphasis on the post-9/11 period--where we see the confluence of the use of high violence strategies, the rise of global terrorist organizations fueled by globalization, and increasing religious radicalization. (3)

Second, terrorists are continually searching for new means to facilitate increasingly violent and spectacular attacks that will gain visibility for and further their causes. …

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