Anthrax. The very name of this biological agent sounds
menacing - which should not be surprising, as it is derived from an
ancient Greek word meaning "burning coal."
It is indeed one of the most dangerous mass-destruction
weapons of the post-cold-war era. Many security officials believe
that the US may now need to fight the spread of anthrax and other
biological threats as intensely as it has long opposed the
proliferation of nuclear warheads.
But anthrax is far from a perfect terrorist tool, and it is
not yet clear that even Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein has acquired
more than crude biological weapons, say experts. To call anthrax
the "poor man's atom bomb" may be to overstate the case - for now.
"The thing about it is that it is very easy to produce, but
it is very difficult to deliver effectively," says Jonathan Tucker,
director of the chemical and biological weapons nonproliferation
project at the Monterey Institute of International Studies in
Last week's arrest of two men in Las Vegas thought to be
carrying anthrax could be seen as a wake-up call for domestic
law-enforcement agencies. The substance in question turned out to
be a harmless version of the anthrax bacteria used as a vaccine,
but many experts worry that the next Timothy McVeigh may use
biological substances instead of explosives - since raw materials
of such agents are not that difficult to obtain.
Iraq, for instance, has admitted producing huge amounts of
the anthrax agent. Of the three categories of weapons of mass
destruction - nuclear, chemical, and biological - many experts now
judge biological to be the greatest threat to the world. That's
because they have greater potential than chemical weapons for
widespread destruction, and they also represent a technology more
widespread than nuclear science.
When it comes to terror weapons, "biological weapons should
now be the most serious concern," writes Columbia University
political science professor Richard Betts in a recent article in
the journal Foreign Affairs. He points out that one plane spraying
100 kilograms of anthrax over Washington on a clear, calm night
could produce between 1 million and 3 million casualties, according
to a Congressional Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) report.
That's 300 times the damage that a similar attack with sarin nerve
gas would cause.
But "availability" in this case is a relative term. While the
raw materials of biological weapons can be easy to get, it is not
so easy to turn that material into a usable, dangerous weapon.
Consider the case of the Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo, which
carried out a deadly chemical nerve gas attack on a Tokyo subway in