Enemies and Biological Weapons

Article excerpt


If the Nigerian Christmas crotch bomber had been infected with a deadly biological disease rather than wearing an explosive diaper, he likely would have caused a pandemic of worldwide proportions. Every person on the ground in Amsterdam and Detroit would have in turn become an unknowing terrorist weapon. Passengers leaving the plane in Detroit and changing planes likely would have infected people in a wide variety locations through the United States and Canada.

This is the inadvertent impact of globalization on the potential use of biological warfare by international terrorists described by Daniel M. Gerstein in his book Bioterror in the 21st Century. He points to a chilling autobiography by one of Osama bin Laden's sons, in which the son notes the anguish he and his brothers and sisters felt at watching their pets used for biological weapons experiments. This is a very real threat.

There are three elements of weapons of mass destruction. Chemical warfare is the easiest for terrorists to employ but has the least potential to inflict terror on the grand scale desired by the likes of bin Laden. Nuclear weapons are very hard to do for terrorists, although they have the greatest potential for horror. Biological weapons have a high potential to create large-scale casualties while being somewhat easier to turn into weapons than nuclear material. The operative word here is somewhat. Effective biological warfare is extremely difficult to conduct, as Mr. Gerstein points out.

Mr. Gerstein begins with a history of biological warfare and takes us through the tangled world that finally led to the anthrax attacks of 2001. Along the way, we come to understand why biological agents have not been used in conventional warfare more often. Targeting has been difficult, and they usually are slow-acting in taking effect. However, they historically have been nondiscriminatory. Infectious diseases pose a threat to one's own troops, reducing their tactical value, and noninfectious ones have limited strategic value.

The book points out that much of this potentially can change in the near future. Nanotechnology has the potential to make biological weapons much more selective of their targets, and globalization makes distribution much easier and faster. These, combined with the tendency of emerging biological agents to have dual uses, for both benign and hostile purposes, make them much more attractive as weapons of terror than as conventional weapons of war by nation-states.

In one scenario that Mr. …