Confronting Biological Terrorism

Harvard International Review, Spring 2001 | Go to article overview

Confronting Biological Terrorism


Global Epidemiological Monitoring

It is difficult for policymakers to assess the likelihood of a mass-casualty terrorist attack on their nations, but the consequences of such a possibility demand that governments pay serious attention to this issue. Several developments in the 1990s have increased public concern about the prospect that terrorists might employ weapons of mass destruction (WMD), especially nonnuclear ones.

The collapse of the Soviet Union was an especially ominous event in terms of the possibilities for terrorism: it left hundreds of tons of nuclear material potentially vulnerable to theft, and reports surfaced about former Soviet weapons experts sharing their knowledge with states known to sponsor terrorism. There have been indications that the unconventional arsenals of several states involved in carrying out terrorist attacks have also been significantly improved. Iraq, in particular, was discovered to have produced a wide variety of lethal biological agents, and the Soviet Union was discovered to have developed antibiotic-resistant pathogens for use as weapons. Perhaps most troubling were revelations that the Soviet Union had produced several tons of smallpox and indications that the virus may have been acquired by both Iraq and North Korea.

Several highly publicized incidents have made clear that terrorists are interested in acquiring and using unconventional WMD. The most significant of these was a Japanese cult's chemical attack on a Tokyo subway in 1995, which killed 12 and sent thousands to hospitals. It was later learned that the cult had also attempted, unsuccessfully, to acquire nuclear and biological weapons. Also troubling is the US government's claim that terrorist interest in WMD is growing. Osama bin Laden, the purported mastermind of a series of high casualty terrorist attacks, is reportedly attempting to acquire nuclear, chemical, and biological agents. The US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) reports that bin Laden's operatives have also been trained "to conduct attacks with toxic chemicals or biological toxins" and that Hamas is also "pursuing a capability to conduct attacks with toxic chemicals." Iraq, a sponsor of terrorism, reportedly threatened to smuggle anthrax and other WMD into Britain, in one instance threatening to put anthrax in duty-free bottles of alcohol, cosmetics, cigarette lighters, and perfume sprays. In other cases, several antigovernment individuals and groups were found to have acquired biological agents, revealing gaps in existing regulations regarding the sale or possession of lethal or incapacitating biological agents. Still, despite clear indications of eroding constraints, most terrorist attacks involving unconventional weapons thus far have involved crude agents and rudimentary equipment, resulting in relatively few casualties.

Partly in response to these threats, US government agencies have been holding exercises to test their preparedness to respond to WMD attacks. The exercises revealed that hospitals were likely to quickly exhaust their supply of antidotes and vaccines; "first responders" (police and firemen) were inadequately trained and likely to succumb themselves; and coordination among state, local, and federal officials was almost nonexistent. The public-health infrastructure is still unprepared for a timely response to outbreaks, and a number of public-health officials complain that there is too much focus on chemical attacks and too little on biological ones. Systems for ensuring that medication and personnel are disseminated appropriately are underdeveloped. And the lack of a global infectious-disease surveillance system will make it difficult to pinpoint the origin of a disease and to determine if it was introduced deliberately by terrorists. Analysts generally agree that although nuclear terrorism will remain a significant danger for the indefinite future, chemical, biological, and radiological (CBR) weapons are far easier and cheaper to produce, and CBR terrorism is therefore significantly more likely to occur. …

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