Biological Weapons and Terrorism

Much has been said on the topic of Bioterrorism, but confusion still prevails in the wake of the recent attacks. This article aims to clear up some of the confusion.

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By Trevor StanleyOver the years, much has been made of the impending age of biological weapons terrorism. Images of pandemics caused by zealots and mass panic gripping whole countries have been conjured up, but until recently their impact was reduced by the absence of actual incidents. Now that Anthrax has been used by terrorists, full rein is being given to the full gamut of under-informed latent concerns. The journalistic fraternity is generally underequipped to correct misunderstandings about biological weapons, as so few have scientific training, particularly in the otherwise obscure area of biological warfare. This article seeks to bridge the gap between science and the humanities.
Biological weapons as toolsA weapon is a tool, and in the face of a rational opponent, it is possible to determine whether a particular tool might be used by reference to that opponent's purposes, and likewise to tell something about his motivations by examining what tool he uses, when, and how.
Biological weapons are tools fashioned from organisms. They may seem shocking, but they are best viewed in the light of the limitations applied to any tool. Biological weapons are highly diverse, and some of their many advantages and disadvantages follow.
  • Those which are not contagious are difficult to deliver, those which are contagious are uncontrollable and may eventually inflict 'friendly fire' casualties
  • Can be slow to act, but can also be lasting in their effects
  • More 'terrifying' than conventional destruction
  • Price of production and hazards of storage, transport and deployment
  • Accessibility
We are accustomed to thinking in terms of 'good bacteria and bad bacteria', but from the scientific point of view, bacteria, fungi and viruses are morally neutral - like all organisms, they in essence amount to an ad hoc constituent genetic code, a 'recipe book' containing instructions for the minimum requirements of life. The defining characteristic of life is reproduction, so of course all organisms contain instruction codes for reproduction. Reproduction requires matter and energy, so the constituent code will contain metabolic pathways. The outward effects of metabolism are the uptake of resources from the environment (which can be costly for a host organism, such as an infected human) and by-products and waste products (these depend on the particular metabolic process in use, as do their effects - any harm done by these substances is incidental to the microbe). Many organisms will also have 'recipes' for additional capabilities such as defences against harmful conditions, the exchange of genetic material, and so on.
Endospore forming bacteriaSome bacteria have the ability to form an 'endospore' in response to adverse conditions, such as heat, dryness, toxins or lack of nutrients. Basically, when conditions turn bad, the cell forms a coat around its genetic material, extracts all moisture, and ceases all metabolic processes. The endospore is effectively 'in stasis'. As it engages in no metabolic processes (and therefore produces no waste products), a bacterium in endospore form can not harm humans until it has 'germinated', reverting to its vegetative, metabolically active state. Some of the most harmful bacteria in existence are endospore forming, including two categories, the Clostridia and the Bacillus.
Bacillus anthracis: AnthraxAnthrax has characteristics which make it suitable as a weapon in certain circumstances.
As it forms endospores, it can be stored in a stable state, requiring no nutrients. It can be delivered to a specific target just like conventional weapons, and has a high fatality rate unless diagnosed immediately. It is not contagious.
There are three forms of Anthrax infection - cutaneous (infection of the skin, 20% fatality rate), pulmonary (infection of the respiratory tract caused by inhalation of Anthrax endospores, almost 100% fatality rate) and intestinal (resulting from ingestion of Anthrax, 80% fatality.1)
Treatment of Anthrax is by antibiotics - most antibiotics (such as penicillin) are effective against Anthrax, although antibiotic resistant strains have been engineered as part of biological warfare programmes, such as that in the Soviet Union. A lot of attention has been given to an antibiotic called Cipro, because it has been found to be more effective against antibiotic resistant Anthrax than other antibiotics. There is a preventative vaccine, but it has fairly strong side-effects - as expressed by one British SAS member vaccinated during the Gulf War:
While we were still at Victor, we were given jabs against Anthrax, which made everyone feel like shit for three or four days, with bad bruising in the arm that had been injected. One man's arm remained black and blue for six weeks, and some people had muscle around the puncture actually go rotten three or four weeks after the jab. Several guys from 'A' Squadron had to be dragged back out of the field for minor surgery. I was lucky, and got nothing worse than a cold and a burning throat; I kept waking up in the night, coughing up lumps of phlegm the size of golf balls.2
Given such strong side-effects, mass vaccination is obviously not wise.
1 Robert Harris and Jeremy Paxman, A Higher Form of Killing: The Secret Story of Germ Warfare, Chatto & Windus, London, 1982, p. 88.
2 Chris Ryan, M.M., The One that Got Away, Century, London, 1995, p.21.
Weaponised Anthrax is cultured, freeze-dried and purified in a centrifuge3 then converted into an 'aerosol' on delivery to maximise its effectiveness in causing pulmonary Anthrax. As a weapon of mass destruction, Anthrax potentially rivals nerve agents and nuclear weapons,4 however that is not the end of the story. Great Britain embarked upon a germ warfare programme during the 1930s in response to Japanese use of plague in its war on China,5 and subsequently developed techniques for the mass production of powdered Anthrax embedded in 'cattle cakes' - 5 million were produced. The British seriously considered use of Anthrax against the Germans - by 1946 they would have had enough for saturation bombing of six German cities,6 and they had previously tested Anthrax on Gruinard Island, which was consequently uninhabitable until 1990.7 The Soviet Union stockpiled 'hundreds of tons' of Anthrax,8 including Anthrax bred for use as a weapon. In order to kill on a mass scale, Anthrax must be cultured, converted to powder form, and then disseminated as an aerosol, requiring not just small laboratories, but large scale processing plants. In the Soviet Union this involved large, multi-building complexes. It also requires a method of spreading the substance - the British hoped to use aerial bombardment involving hundreds of bombers, whereas the Soviets armed ballistic missiles with Anthrax warheads. It would be a trivial matter for terrorists, particularly if they were operating out of Central Asia,9 to obtain Anthrax spores, including processed, weapons-grade Anthrax. In fact, until recently it was a simple matter to obtain such samples from American laboratories. Bombers and ICBMs are a more difficult matter, which is why the 11th September terrorists were looking at crop dusters, and why the US has taken security measures to prevent terrorists from obtaining crop dusters. Even so, a load of Anthrax dispersed from a crop duster would cut a narrow swathe through a suburb, killing perhaps thousands of people, but not millions.
On the other hand, assuming that Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda network is responsible for the current Anthrax attacks, it is an efficient, reliable way of locking up US resources and keeping Americans interested in the war. A single vaccinated terrorist with a kilogram of freeze-dried Anthrax spores and a pile of envelopes and stamps can shut down a whole organisation each day, occupying thousands of people and wasting millions of dollars in lost productivity, at negligible cost.
It should also be noted that the attacks on the World Trade Centre and Pentagon could not have been used to disperse Anthrax, because such intense temperatures would easily incinerate Anthrax spores.
The advantage of mailing Anthrax is that it utilises a pre-existing, anonymous, cost-effective delivery system to spread terror.
3 A centrifuge is a scientific device which spins a sample at high speed, separating different components.
4 Wendy Barnaby, The Plague Makers: The Secret World of Biological Warfare, Vision Paperbacks, London, 1999, p.19.
5 Harris and Paxman op cit, pp.80-81.
6 Ibid, notes to plates 19-22.
7 Barnaby, op cit, p.75-76.
8 Ken Alibek with Stephen Handelmann, Biohazard, Hutchinson, London, 1999, page x.
9 Much of the Soviet biological weapons programme was concentrated in or near the Central Asian SSRs.
Viral weapons - Smallpox and EbolaOne potential solution to the problem of mass deployment is contagion - letting the agent deploy itself. Both Ebola and smallpox are highly deadly and highly contagious. However, partially because they are viruses, they are difficult to breed, store and deploy - they require living cells to live for extended periods of time.
The Soviet Union genetically engineered a version of smallpox which would also produce the disease symptoms of Ebola. Both are extremely contagious. Smallpox has around a 30% mortality rate and Ebola over 90%. Incidentally, this fact seems to be the source of an apparently erroneous claim made in a recent newspaper article10 that Anthrax had been combined with Ebola by the Russians.
The alarming mortality rates and communicability of these diseases has led to great alarm amongst the general public. However, there are drawbacks for the terrorist using such agents. Aside from being very difficult to handle and store, their spread can't be controlled. If Osama bin Laden was to order the release of Ebolapox, he could well die from it himself by the end of the year, as could many of his followers. Although we can't claim absolute knowledge of his precise goals, it is hard to imagine how they would be served by releasing diseases which would be hardest to eliminate in places with poor sanitation, such as Afghanistan and Chechnya.
There is a vaccine to smallpox, with at least 300 million doses in existence, and the West is far better equipped to mass produce more doses, as bin Laden is no doubt aware.
Furthermore, it is likely that if smallpox was released in New York, America would waste no time in demonstrating its vast superiority in terms of stockpiled weapons of mass destruction. Again, it is hard to see how Osama's goals would be served by America razing the Hindu Kush with him on it.
10 Greg Sheridan, In a Time of Plague, The Weekend Australian, 4-5 August 2001, p26.
ConclusionsWe can assume from the repeated attacks on American interests, culminating in the WTC-Pentagon plane bombings, that Osama bin Laden wants to be at war with America. He has certainly succeeded in establishing himself as America's number one enemy, the most prestigious title amongst those who seek to attract disaffected would-be terrorists amongst the fringes of the Muslim community. Aside from being costly in terms of both resources and manpower, the Anthrax attacks keep the American public and therefore the American Government interested in the war.
The cost-benefit ratio of these attacks, in terms of both psychological and logistical impact, is phenomenal. When placed beside Clinton's multi-million dollar cruise missile attacks on al-Qaeda encampments, it is clear that we should not be misled by the otherwise piffling casualties inflicted by Anthrax so far (as against the casualties caused on the 11th September); this is a signal demonstration of the advantages of asymmetrical warfare.
Provided we are aware of the risks however, there is little chance of massive casualties from biological warfare. Even truly insane terrorists such as Aum Shinriko failed to inflict any casualties as they repeatedly sprayed Anthrax spores and botulism toxin around the streets of Tokyo, resorting eventually to releasing a chemical weapon (sarin) in Tokyo subways.11
It is perfectly believable and logical that bin Laden should use Anthrax in the way it is currently being used.12 If Osama's goals are those described above, the concentration on media outlets is ideal - as other observers have already pointed out, the media are guaranteed to publicise anything involving their own industry. Mailing Anthrax to the Leader of the Senate also pokes a stick in the cogs of the American machinery. As an 'added bonus', the attacks threaten to weaken the mail system, a part of the communications infrastructure so fundamental it is taken for granted. Looking back over past wars, America left Saddam Hussein in power, and Milosevic was eventually defeated not by direct military intervention, but by election and popular protest. Add to that America's retreat from Somalia and the great difficulty entailed by the task of finding one very well resourced man in Afghanistan, and Osama seems justified in thinking he might not only survive, but even benefit from, the American action in Afghanistan. Osama is well aware that to inflict truly massive casualties (in the millions) would dramatically decrease the probability of his success.
11 Alibek, op cit, p.278.
12 See Al Qaeda, Anthrax and Ayman, a detailed study on the evidence pointing to the conclusion that Al Qaeda was responsible for the 2001 Anthrax mail attacks.

Trevor Stanley studied biology, specialising in microbiology, before moving to the field of international politics.

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