Bioterrorism: Neither Likely Nor Practical

Bioterrorism: Neither Likely Nor Practical

The threat from bioterrorism is overestimated, but the United States should maintain its defenses


Just one week after 9/11, a different kind of terrorist attack occurred. A lone terrorist mailed an invisible weapon to US Congressmen and journalists. The weapon of choice was dried anthrax—a deadly bacterium that can become inactive when it forms spores. When these spores make contact with the human body—especially when they are inhaled—they trigger a deadly disease. The anthrax attacks of 2001 left five people dead and seventeen more ill.1 In the wake of these attacks, fears mounted that terrorist groups like al Qaeda could weaponize biological agents. With the 2014 Ebola epidemic and the growth of ISIS, these fears were once again brought to public attention. The threat of bioterrorism remains a constant concern of US health programs. Yet how dangerous is the use of bioterrorism as a weapon of mass destruction? Recent research has led many to believe that the threat is largely overhyped. In response, the United States should conserve resources by adopting a risk-based approach to biodefense research.

ISIS and Bioterrorism

Concerns have risen that ISIS could weaponize a disease like Ebola. Retired Captain Al Shimkus, a Professor of National Security Affairs at the US Naval War College, warned that ISIS could infect human carriers with the Ebola virus in an attempt to spread the disease. “In the context of terrorist activity, it doesn’t take much sophistication to go to that next step to use a human being as a carrier,” Shimkus told Forbes in October 2014.2 In August 2014, moderate Syrian rebels found an ISIS laptop in Syria. Foreign Policy magazine reported that the laptop contained a 19-page document on how to develop biological weapons. It belonged to a Tunisian national who had studied chemistry and physics at a university.3 A few experts in a home laboratory with equipment bought online can now create a bio-manufactured weapon that used to require the resources of a nation-state to produce.4 The possibility of independent groups using biological agents is much more tangible than it was in the past.

Yet, according to the Department of Homeland Security, no credible evidence can prove that the Islamic State is actively building biological weapons capabilities.5 Dr. Fillippa Lentzos, an expert on bioterrorism, pointed out problems with ISIS’s potential use of Ebola: “Could terrorists go to West Africa, get infected, then come back and sit on the [subway]? Sure, but they’re not likely to be functional for very long. They’re going to be very sick and you’ll see that. So they would have only a very small window in which to operate. And in a country with a developed public health system…there would be plenty of chances to clamp down on an outbreak.”5 But the use of biological agents is not limited to Ebola. Authorities are worried that terrorist groups like ISIS or al Qaeda could also use anthrax, botulism, tularemia, or pneumonic plague as bioweapons.6

Past Bioterrorism Attempts

The record of attempted use of biological weapons is very limited. Most nations ended their offensive biological weapons programs with the ratification of the Biological Weapons Convention in 1972. The United States ceased its programs in 1970, but continued biological weapons research for defensive purposes. In April 1979, 68 people died in Sverdlovsk, Russia, as a result of an anthrax leak from a Soviet bioweapons facility. In 1995, the Iraqi government admitted that it had a program to research and produce weaponized anthrax.7 The anthrax attacks of 2001, dubbed “Amerithrax”, are the most famous example of a biological weapons attack.1 Letters sent through the mail laden with dried anthrax spores killed five people and sickened seventeen.1 The genetic strain used in the attack was specially engineered, demonstrating that the perpetrator had access to US bioweapons research facilities.7 The investigation eventually centered on Bruce Ivans, a US scientist. Ivans took his own life before federal investigators could bring formal charges.8

Perhaps even more relevant are the failed bioterror attacks by the Japanese cultist group, Aum Sinrikyo. In the late 1980s, Aum spent millions of dollars and employed a team of trained scientists to engineer advanced biological agents. They experimented with botulinum toxin, anthrax, cholera, and even Q fever in hopes of producing enough biological agent to trigger a global Armageddon.9 Aum had access to far more scientific resources than any modern Islamist terror group. In April 1990, the group used a fleet of trucks equipped with aerosol sprayers to disperse liquid botulinum on the Imperial Palace, the National Diet of Japan, the US Embassy in Tokyo, and two US naval bases in Narita. No casualties resulted; no one outside the cult even knew that the terrorist attacks had taken place.9 Three years later, in June and August of 1993, Aum decided to switch to anthrax as its biological agent. This time, in addition to its fleet of trucks, the group used aerosol sprayers mounted on its headquarters building to create a cloud of anthrax over Tokyo. Again, the attacks were unsuccessful and went unnoticed. It was only after a successful 1995 subway attack using Sarin nerve gas (a chemical agent) that investigations discovered the 1990 and 1993 attacks.9

Hollywood Has it Wrong

The historical record demonstrates that weaponized biological agents have been used infrequently and ineffectually. Terrorists want to spread destruction by any means they can. If bioterrorism really was effective, more terrorist groups likely would have used pathogens as weapons by now. The absence of widespread bioterrorism helps to show the gap between current misconceptions and reality. One gram of anthrax contained within one of the letters in 2001 had enough spores to kill thousands of people. Combined, the amount of anthrax used in the attacks could have killed millions.10 Yet the attacks only killed five. Even though the anthrax terrorist had enough biological agent to kill millions, he did not have the capability to distribute his weapon effectively. As the Aum Shinrikyo biological attacks demonstrated, even a sophisticated group of scientists working to incite global Armageddon can find it difficult to actually execute biological attacks.

Terrorists have to overcome a number of challenges in order to effectively convert biological agents into weapons of mass destruction. The use of a pathogen as a biological agent depends on the group’s ability to isolate a virulent strain, weaponize it, and then distribute it. If the group could successfully isolate a dangerous genetic strain, it would then turn to two possible methods of distribution: aerosolized spray and human carriers.11 Most non-state actors do not possess the technology necessary to refine the aerosol method. Wind patterns and humidity can render such an attack ineffective. The human carrier method is less expensive but also has a number of problems. It requires the pathogen to be a contagion. Once the carrier is infected, he must be mobile while contagious and cannot be visibly ill—a situation that is unlikely with serious diseases like Ebola.11 All other possible means of delivering a biological agent are fraught with even more problems.

Each potential biological agent also has individual reasons why it would not make an effective weapon of terror. Ebola is only transmitted through direct contact with the bodily fluids of someone infected with the disease.12 Anthrax is not easily transmitted across individuals and is unlikely to spark an epidemic. Anthrax can also be treated by readily available antibiotics if noticed in time.9 Even incredibly deadly biological agents like ricin and botulinum are hard to use in mass attacks due to the difficulty in converting them into a weaponized form that can be readily dispersed.

Implications for US Policy

The United States has developed an intensive bio-preparedness program. According to a Scientific American scorecard in 2014, the United States ranked first out of 55 nations in biotechnology by a very large margin.13 The United States has 14 discrete biodefense R&D programs, less than half of which exist under the DoD. The other programs reside under the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Department of Agriculture, and the Department of Homeland Security. During the 2011 to 2014 period, Department of Homeland Security’s biodefense funding increased by around 40% while combined funding for human health programs under Department of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Disease Control have increased by 18%.13 Different agencies also have bio-threat detection systems. For instance, Department of Homeland Security subjects travelers who have recently been in Ebola-infected areas to intensive screening.14

Studies show that government programs over-emphasize the threat of biological attacks. A study conducted by the RAND Corporation from 1997 to 2010 examined a mix of 1,593 federally-funded national health security research projects—including those by the Centers for Disease Control and Department of Homeland Security. The researchers found that over 1,000 of the initiatives, or 66 percent, were dedicated to biological threats, including bioterrorism. 10 percent of the projects focused on natural disasters, 8 percent addressed chemical threats, 5 percent examined radiological issues, 4 percent addressed nuclear threats, and the remaining 4 percent focused on explosives.15 Dr. Art Kellermann,  chief analyst at RAND, commented, “The current mix of federally-funded national health security research projects may not be ideally configured for achieving the broad preparedness goals that face our nation.”15 To resolve this problem, US agencies should implement two reforms. First, each of the agencies studied determines its own research priorities with little effort to coordinate with other agencies. Biodefense programs should increase their cooperation and information-sharing methods. Second, current priorities do not accurately reflect the likelihood of possible threats. Agencies should move toward implementing a risk-based system that allocates priorities based on threat probability and magnitude.15

Whenever an outbreak occurs or a dangerous disease breaks loose, public panic and paranoia ensue. This response is somewhat understandable; the potential consequences of an invisible, weaponized super-disease are indeed frightening. Yet these perceptions are flawed. The media—and to some extent government agencies—over-hypes the threat of pandemics and bioterrorism. To be sure, governments should always be prepared to prevent and combat such threats. However, recent research suggests that the US government focuses too much attention on the threat of biological warfare and not enough on other pressing issues. Both a proper understanding of the threat posed by bioterrorism and a proper balance of priorities are necessary if the United States wants to prepare itself for all potential dangers to the nation’s security. ■

  1. Federal Bureau of Investigation. “Amerithrax or Anthrax Investigation.” Accessed September 29, 2015.
  2. Dorminey, Bruce. “Ebola As ISIS Bio-Weapon?” Forbes. October 5, 2014. Accessed September 29, 2015.
  3. Doornbos, Herald, and Jenan Moussa. “Found: The Islamic State’s Terror Laptop of Doom.” Foreign Policy. August 28, 2014. Accessed September 29, 2015.
  4. Gerstein, Daniel M. “To Know the Future of Biological Weapons, Look to the Past.” RAND Coporation. April 10, 2015. Accessed September 29, 2015.
  5. Doward, Jamie. “Top-Secret Military Warning On Ebola Biological Weapon Terror Threat.” The Guardian. February 21, 2015. Accessed September 29, 2015.
  6. Global Security. “Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response.” Accessed September 29, 2015.
  7. Johnston, Robert. “Review of Fall 2001 Anthrax Bioattacks.” Center for Disease Control. March 17, 2005. Accessed September 29, 2015.
  8. National Public Radio. “Timeline: How the Anthrax Terror Unfolded.” February 15, 2011. Accessed September 29, 2015.
  9. Burton, Fred, and Scott Stewart. “Busting the Anthrax Myth.” Stratfor Global Intelligence. July 30, 2008. Accessed September 29, 2015.
  10. Committee on Homeland Security. “Statement of Subcommittee Chairman Susan W. Brooks (R-IN) Subcommittee On Emergency Preparedness, Response, and Communications Committee On Homeland Security: Bioterrorism – Assessing the Risk.” February 11, 2014. Accessed September 29, 2015.
  11. Keller, Rebecca. “Bioterrorism and the Pandemic Potential.” Stratfor Global Intelligence. March 7, 2013. Accessed September 29, 2015.
  12. Center for Disease Control. “About Ebola Virus Disease.” Accessed September 29, 2015.
  13. BioWeapons Prevention Project. “Bioweapons Monitor.” November, 2014. Accessed September 29, 2015.
  14. Department of Homeland Security. “DHS’s Coordinated Response to Ebola.” September 18, 2015. Accessed September 29, 2015.
  15. RAND Corporation. “Nation’s Health Security Research Is Not Balanced Enough to Meet Broad Safety Goals.” December 3, 2012. Accessed September 29, 2015.

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