Is Bioterrorism a Likely Threat?

As we have read, with an appropriate bioagent and appropriate dispersal mechanism biological weapons have the potential to be very dangerous. We have also learned that the technology involved isn’t that complicated. Due to the dual use nature, these technologies are already within our reach. Yet, there have been very few examples of biological weapons use throughout history.

The 1993 Aum Shinrikyo sarin gas attacks in the Tokyo subway system was technically a chemical attack, but this case offers insight into the biological weapons question. This group spent a lot of effort and energy trying to produce a viable biological weapon, but they failed. This experience suggests many of the important challenges non-state actors face when they produce biological weapons.

First, there is a difference between explicit and tacit knowledge. The biological weapons “recipe” might look easy on a page, but it requires extensive expertise and know-how. Second, once you have an appropriate agent, you have to figure out how to effectively disseminate it. Third, resources must be efficiently allocated. This is especially challenging for a non-state actor with limited resources. These are just a few of the challenges bioweapons pose.

However, this example also shows the determination of some terrorist organizations. Aum Shinrikyo spent years on this project. And while they weren’t able to create a viable bioagent, they did manage to create a chemical weapon. This isn’t something that should be ignored. Plus they did have a whole biological weapons program in place. They just didn’t manage to create a viable pathogen. Chyba cites the fact that biological synthesis capabilities are increasing at least as fast if not faster than Moore’s Law. As biotechnologies become cheaper and more accessible there’s no saying that they will remain out of the hands of terrorists.

In a previous blog post we discussed the probability and the danger of a nuclear terrorist threat. How does the biological weapons case compare? Does the fast pace of scientific advancement make this something we should worry about? Or are bioweapons too difficult to produce and therefore terrorists will fail like Aum Shinrikyo/won’t even attempt them? — Liz

19 thoughts on “Is Bioterrorism a Likely Threat?

  1. There seems to be two possibilities for how biological weapons are produced. They can either come from those who have the expertise and access to dangerous materials, as with the 2001 anthrax letters when the assailant was a microbiologist with the Department of Defense, or those, like the Aum Shinrikyo who have some knowledge but are mostly amateurs. I think the Internet and technology makes it easier of amateurs to develop their own biological weapons, but as a way to kill mass numbers of people it still remains the less likely option especially if you are not a specialist in that field.

  2. I agree with the two possibilities, but I think the greater danger these days is the potential threat from a source who can gain access to bioweapons materials rather than developing the material themselves. As the article about Aum Shinrikyo mentions, biological weapons are generally more difficult to develop than chemical weapons. Yes, the Internet will allow any random person to learn the basics of biological weapons, but there’s still the difference between explicit and tacit knowledge mentioned in the article and by Liz above. Being able to obtain the dangerous materials (from, say, a private or government lab) eliminates a lot of the initial difficulties a terrorist group would face in trying to use biological weapons. Many of the problems Aum Shinrikyo encountered were self-imposed because they tried to do everything themselves. There are plenty of dangerous biological materials (deadly bacteria, viruses, etc.) being researched today that could be stolen and used in a terrorist attack. However, there would still be the problem of delivery/dissemination, which nuclear terrorist attacks do not have (a bomb is standard, while different bioweapons might have to be spread via aerosol, powder, misting, etc. depending on how resilient the bacteria, virus, etc. are) and which do make biological terrorist attacks less likely.

  3. Biological weapons seem like the least likely option for state and non-state actors. I agree with Liz that the most efficient way for a non-state actor to acquire a bio-weapon is to access materials that have already been created but given that most states are not (openly or widely) researching/developing biological weapons, it would be more likely for a non-state actor to seek a different method of mass-destruction. While, as Prof Glaser mentioned, states are certainly researching and developing biological weapons, it is done so securely and on such a small scale that they are much less accessible to non-state actors than nuclear or chemical weapons. I would be much more concerned with terrorist group gaining access to Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile than biological weapons.

    The payoff of a biological weapon is also much more unpredictable. Imagine that a group has successfully weaponized Avian Flu (something that was discussed when the CDC decided to keep samples of the flu in their lab)–there’s no way of predicting whether the disease will spread, die out, mutate, etc. The threat of a nuclear or chemical attack seems much more likely to produce the fear/chaos that a non-state actor seeks than the threat of a biological one. A biological attack is difficult, risky, unpredictable, and could result in 10 deaths, 100 deaths, or total anarchy. Whereas, a nuclear attack has a predictable area; it is quick and sends a much clearer message.

  4. In my opinion, one of the fundamental differences between nuclear weapons and biological weapons is that when we think about a terrorist group acquiring a nuclear weapon, we’re thinking about just that – they are acquiring a single weapon. With biological weapons, we’re talking about terrorists acquiring the ability to produce the weapons. Once you can produce 10 grams of anthrax, you can probably produce 10 tons of it as well. The concern is not so much a one-shot attack but rather a terror campaign. Moreover, what’s so terrifying about the prospect of bioterrorism is that even the most mundane objects – a handshake, a doorknob, a kiss – can become lethal, weapons of mass destruction. How do you defend against that? On the other hand, it is true that natural disease outbreaks are not only more likely but also, on average, more deadly than bioterrorist attacks. Even though a biological attack could potentially be much more catastrophic, whether such an attack could ever materialize is uncertain, posing the challenge of how to create a policy framework that balances the improbable but terrifying prospect of bioterrorism with the more realistic advance of natural disease.

  5. I think Sebastian (below) brings up a good point about the difference in acquiring a single weapon, and the difference in acquiring the knowledge to produce a weapon. I personally do not think that biological terrorism is very likely. While the process may be easier to recreate as the technology is developed, I believe there are limited uses for terrorist groups. Many terrorist groups (as labeled by the US) fight for a region within a country that wants autonomy from the government or to topple that government. Bioweapons used within those countries would be extremely difficult to control, and could cost the group much needed support if the civilian population is devastated. These groups would be much more interested in the ALREADY easy to produce and control methods (car bombings, suicide bombings, infiltrating police ranks and attack police stations) that are used in these conflicts. I believe that only those groups that have the desire and the means to attack a foreign country, or a nation who they do not intend to take over, should even be interested in the use of bioweapons. This may cause more alarm for a nation such as Israel or the US, but even then I still believe it would be difficult to get the weapons to the nation and release them. In fact, all arrests or attacks related to biological terrorism have occurred in the US or Japan, and were either lone wolf terrorists or apocalyptic cults. I think a nation would do well to prepare itself for biological attacks, and to always seek out intelligence regarding the intentions and technological capabilities of terrorist groups. In general though, I believe most of these organizations have their interests best served by using other methods and attacks, and are unlikely to attempt acquiring biological weapons as the difficulty with targeting continues to make the weapons ineffective tools for their needs.

  6. I agree with the statements below that bioterrorism is a very unlikely event, especially compared to nuclear terrorism. One of the major reasons that biological weapons have not been used historically is their uncontrollable nature. Unlike conventional or nuclear weapons, the damage done is normally contained to a specific location, and thus these weapons can be used against specific targets. On the other hand, biological weapons create difficulties in containing their effect, as the pathogen can spread well beyond the intended target population, even infecting the individuals who launch the weapon, or the populations that they live with. We normally are conditioned to see terrorists as irrational actors, motivated by some devotion to a belief or organization to take violent action against innocent individuals. Therefore, it seems like a logical step to say that their only goal is to cause destruction, with little regard for their own well being, or any sense of attempting to cause any significant changes in the policy of their target. However, it is also possible to view terrorists as rational actors, who have been so marginalized within their society that using such force is actually a logical action to take. In doing so, the terrorist organization works to destabilize the government they are targeting and to generate publicity for the set of beliefs they espouse. If the organization were to use a biological weapon within the country they live (ie, domestic terrorism), this capability clearly could significantly destabilize the target government. However, there is also significant risk that the terrorists themselves would become infected, or, alternatively, measures that would be taken to ensure that they would not become infected, such as isolation, would make executing any other attacks impossible. Therefore, it is unlikely that even if a terrorist organization were to obtain biological weapons, it would not be a rational decision to use it, as the likelihood that it would destabilize the organization itself is too high.

  7. I second the skepticism over bioterrorism’s effectiveness. The risk of self-harm is considerable, although, as we saw in the case with Aum Shinriko, did little to deter the cult from pursuing biological weapons. Other methods both convenient and tried-and-tested are easily available, and pathogens, while technically easy to produce in a lab, are very difficult to effectively weaponize without extensive resources and information. As we recall, Aum Shinriko switched to sarin instead of anthrax, despite it being less deadly, because it was far easier to produce. I disagree, however, about the likelihood of using biological weapons if acquired. If the purpose is to destabilize a government and spread fear in the population, using exotic weapons is an excellent way to do so. If someone is willing to strap on a suicide vest, they likely don’t fear dying of a disease. Again, a fair number of Aum Shinriko members were killed/sickened during the process, but it did not stop them from pursuing their goal.
    I also doubt that states would provide biological resources to non-state actors, given the potential for self-harm (a state is far more likely to act rationally.) To use an extreme example, Russia would not give smallpox to Al-Qaida as it might potentially start a global pandemic. However, a doomsday cult such as Aum Shinriko would probably not hesitate if given the opportunity, as it furthers their goals. Fortunately, given the amount of security for plagues of old, it’s unlikely that any non-state actor would be able to obtain anything by use of force. Any pandemic would have to be created de novo. Localized attacks such as spreading anthrax spores or botulinium toxin, without the potential for spreading beyond the area of intended effect, would be closest to the abilities/goals of a terrorist group, and it’s much cheaper and effective to simply use men with conventional weaponry rather than go to the trouble of developing pathogens and a complex dispersal system.

  8. I think Reed makes an important point here. The risk of self harm and uncertainty of propagation make biological weapons an unlikely choice for a potential terrorist attack by a large scale organization. On the contrary, as was the case with the Aum Shinriko attack, there seems to be a higher risk of their use in smaller isolated incidents. If this trend holds moving forward, it will be increasingly difficult to monitor and mitigate possible biological attacks. If monitoring potential biological attackers is essentially impossible, then the only way to limit the likelihood of biological attack is by limiting access to developments in biotechnology. As others have pointed out in the comments to each of these blog post, restricting access to technological development poses its own logistical risks as well as the risk of a negative effect on well-inteded research. The other implication of the possible trend of biological attacks being restricted to isolated incidents will be their reduced geographic scope. This bodes well for the public response in the event of an attack, as it would often be easier to contain than a more elaborate and widespread attack.

  9. What some have commented before, and what I too believe, is that bioterrorism is a relatively unlikely option for non-state actors, due at least in part to their unpredictability as weapons. An important facet of this issue that has not been discussed is that in order to ensure the “success” of a bioweapon, the research/development team must strike an important balance, one that we ourselves had to deal with when playing Plague, Inc. The pathogen must be the right amount of communicable and the right amount of lethal. If we consider something like Ebola, discussed in the Watts reading, we see that it’s difficult to spread on a large scale because it is so quickly and visibly incapacitating that close interaction with the sick becomes unlikely. It only once has reached a larger city; all other cases have been isolated and contained after some time. This, in a way, mirrors what a chemical weapon does, which is why the sarin attacks by Aum Shinrikyo were not quite “bioterrorism.” People were infected immediately, and were hospitalized and treated the same day. Almost all of the hundreds of surviving victims were released from the hospital within a week. 8 of the deaths occurred on the very first day. The point here is that striking this crucial balance in a pathogen requires intense, detailed work on a biotechnological level, which proves to be extremely difficult. This obvious difficulty, whose direct result is a plausibly “unsuccessful” biological weapon, suggests that the use of biological weapons as a form of terrorism is much less likely than that of other terrorist options.

  10. It seems to me that on the whole the risks of effective bioterrorist attacks on any kind of significant scale are simply not likely, at least not in the same “hold your breath” tense way that a terrorist organization with access to a nuclear weapon would instill fear in people. The fact that these weapons are so difficult to deal with in terms of logistics and safety regulations would, in my opinion, disincentivize terrorist groups in fear that they would harm themselves. Some posts below me would disagree with this point citing the fact that suicide bombers are willing to sacrifice their health entirely for the cause of their group. While this is true, I seriously doubt that the group would be willing to risk some sort of bioagent getting out of control within their own facilities or finding its way back to their bases. On an individual level I can definitely see a small group of people like the Aum Shinrikyo cult attempting this, but not a large terrorist organization as a whole, who would be precisely the kind of non-state actors who could actually afford to produce them on a large enough scale. These terrorist organizations have an agenda and, contrary to what western media seems to suggest when they cover these stories, do not simply want to destroy the entire world.
    I also believe that a state would not supply non-state terrorist groups with deadly pathogens or things of this nature – they just wouldn’t. The risk of harming their own population and even starting a serious global threat (as in Contagion, if the virus had been developed in a lab by some country and then been released) is too great. There are plenty of technologies that governments possess that would be dangerous in the hands of terrorists, and there are many security precautions in place to prevent this from happening. Overall, while I would not dismiss it entirely since it is still important to keep these substances under control so that productive research can continue in this “dual use” complication that often comes up in the literature, I don’t believe they pose a serious global risk in the form of terrorist attacks.

  11. I disagree with many of the comments below that insist bioterrorism is not a likely threat. I believe that impression is shaped by the absence of a large scale bio-attack in modern times. Instead let’s look at the facts. Firstly, acquisition is knowledge, not resource, based. Nuclear weapons require both the scientific expertise, as well as fissile material, whose sale is under heavy international quarantine. A new bioweapon could be made from an assortment of unknown materials, and, with proper time and research, could be mass produced. The international community cannot simply quarantine everything that could ever be used to make a bioweapon; that would spell the end of biological research labs and medical advancement. Now there is the argument that a non-state actor seeking such a weapon might not have the resources to set up a biological lab, but you only need one defecting specialist to undermine the whole system. It’s a whole lot more complex than simply “giving” someone an existing sample of smallpox.
    Now what about motivation? People below say that it would be far easier for a terrorist organization to inflict casualties via conventional weapons. I don’t dispute that. However, that is based entirely on a supposition of objectives. What if the goal isn’t to kill en masse, but to sow mass fear? Or to eat up valuable resources in preventative vaccination research? Or, as in the case of the Aum Shinriyko cult, entirely irrational and apocalyptic? I think there is a failure of imagination here. It’s like saying that suicide bombers as a concept is unlikely because it would be so much easier to use conventional weapons. That’s not the point of the attack. The fear effect in particular is severely underestimated. What if you knew about a deadly disease that had been going around NYC, infecting and killing a small number of people, but extremely rapidly? There would be mass panic. Even here, people would confine themselves to their rooms and avoid the Dinky like the plague (literally). The uncertainty can be just a destructive as lives lost.

  12. I agree with you. Uncertainty definitely can be just as destructive as lives lost. We saw this in the Contagion movie when people were trying to get the Forsythia medication and their looted the drug store. But in an even more real setting, we can see how this could plausibly happen at Princeton. The meningitis outbreak has definitely caused some uncertainty. Just speaking from my own experiences, I had an interviewer refuse to shake my hand because of meningitis and a friend who was afraid to visit campus because of it. But we can also see how the administration has had uncertainties too, based on their decision to shorten Princeton Preview. I think it would be very easy to imagine how these uncertainties could escalate in a more threatening situation.

  13. I have to agree with ahanna below in that bioterrorism is underestimate as a threat potential, and that it is much more likely compared to nuclear attacks. There is a resource constraint on nuclear material, and the production sites and transportation are under surveillance. Furthermore, we can detect nuclear material with existing security technology, so getting a “dirty bomb” through an airport is definitely a challenge.

    However, bioterrorism is different. Yes, we need human resource and intelligence to create an impactful virus, but who are we to assume all intelligent, capable individuals are all on the side of public safety? The technology is profuse and accessible — hospitals, research institutions, academia. They span across almost all developed countries, and the regulation, protocol, and security within them are minimal compared to nuclear security.

    Who contributes to the medical frontier is also important – our medical knowledge has expanded to what it is today in part due to undergraduate and graduate students, not just the most elite researchers. Not only that, our knowledge is also full of holes and unexpected discoveries. As such, we may not even need a super-genius to engineer the “perfect” virus; we just need one person to stumble across something new or different that existing literature cannot cure or easily solve, and an efficient distribution strategy.

  14. I think the plausibility of such a threat has been well discussed by the commentators below and Liz, so I want to touch on the other lessons from the Aum incident, namely the role of the police in preventing such an attack. Although reports tend to overstate what could have been done because they have the benefit of hindsight, I do think that there are compelling reasons to think that if the police are looking to disrupt the production of biological or chemical weapons, they have the means to do so. Before Aum, it was mostly inconceivable that such a tragedy could be propagated, so just the simple change that police forces around the world can now anticipate such activity is a huge step. As the report writes, “terrorists need time” and police can work to interrupt the development of such weapons.

  15. In the beginning of the semester, the class voted that a biological attack was a low impact risk with a low probability of occurring. After these readings, lectures, and discussions, I think we underestimated the danger and threat of biological attacks. I agree with the two posts below when they stat biological attacks are more likely than nuclear attacks. It is possible that the detection and safety technology in protecting against biological weapons is lesser than that of biological weapon technology It is unknown because, as stated below, biological weapons are knowledge based, not resource. So if the knowledge is in the appropriate hands, that individual has just the same amount of potential for harm or aid as others with the knowledge. Obviously, resourcefulness can greatly alter the ability for this knowledge to be realized but that does not alter the potential threat.

    To answer Liz’s question, I do think that our rapidly growing society does heighten the risk of biological weapons. Knowledge is spread more easily then ever, for the better or worst. Knowledge of biological technology can be spread like never before. On the other hand, I can agree there is a strong difference between tacit and explicit knowledge are different and the spread of knowledge does not necessarily translate to the spread of the ability to build a bomb. Nonetheless, the potential to spread is there and brings the question of regulation to the table, a topic of equal proportions.

  16. I lean more towards the belief that bioterrorism is a potential threat that shouldn’t be underestimated. I agree with many of the comments below that bioterrorism is not as eminent of a threat as nuclear attack because of several reasons. First, many of bioterrorism attempts were led by states, not independent terrorist groups. If this trend continues, we can safely believe that they are rational groups and would go for most efficient means of attack. Since it is really hard to produce lethal biological weapons that are going to produce mass infection with high probability – and history has shown us that many of the attempts produced very minimal casualties – compared to nuclear weapons or other conventional weapons that will pretty much guarantee destruction, rational states are unlikely to spend large sum of money to develop biological weapons. Secondly, the case of Aum Shinrikyo shows that developing biological weapons is not an easy task. As Liz has mentioned, the “recipe” is not as easy as it looks. It would be hard for independent groups with limited resources to successfully produce these weapons. Thirdly, I believe that even for non-state groups, it would be rational to produce other weapons such as chemical weapons than to attempt to produce biological weapons given their limitations.

    Under these assumptions, bioterrorism seems less likely than other forms of attacks. However, as other comments have mentioned, they are not good enough to allow us to remain complacent and not create regulations. One of the trickiest aspect of bioterrorism is that it can be developed anywhere in the world and does not require huge facilities and therefore easier to hide. If the pathogen is successfully developed and launched, has potential to spread beyond the target zone and quickly spread all over the world. This lure of bioterrorism still remains and we cannot disregard the possibilities that some may want to pursue biological weapons for other ulterior reasons which may or may not be rational. On top of this, growing improvements in biological technology and increased access to high level research by the public makes bioterrorism more likely to happen than before. And the trickiest aspect of bioterrorism is that it is extremely hard to regulate and monitor it. Given these reasons, possibility and magnitude of bio-attack continues to grow. In this sense, bioterrorism is a serious threat unless we set up extensive verification methods to reduce its probability.

  17. As other posters have mentioned, the most deadly and infectious diseases are kept in very secure facilities by nation states around the world. It is highly unlikely that terrorist groups will gain access to these supplies and will instead have to craft their own. Yet bio-weapons — especially highly effective ones with the potential to wreck global havoc — are not easy to manufacture. Thus using bio weapons imposes a dilemma. Without access to technology, expertise, and key ingredients, it is difficult for terrorist organizations to develop diseases that pose a major threat to the globe. Yet seeking out any of these items — as Aum Shinrikyo feared — leads to greater risk of discovery by law enforcement bodies.

    I think this dilemma between operational security and efficacy of an attack has kept the lid on bio-attacks in the past, and I think it has the potential to keep us safe in the future. If nations require detailed record keeping for the movement of substances/technologies that can be used to in bio attacks — similar to the way the U.S. does for amphetamines and some fertilizers — then intelligence agencies and law enforcement bodies could more effectively identify plots before they became critical threats.

  18. I think the failure of Aum Shinrikyo to develop effective biological agents and dispersal technologies hints that current risks of bioterrorism are relatively low. Aum focused much of its resources on biological weapons, pouring millions of dollars into the project, but was still unable to successfully utilize the materials they had. Part of this failure may be due to the decision to produce the agents and the dispersal mechanisms entirely within the group, but utilizing materials from external sources would have made it easier for authorities to detect the acting group. It would be difficult for any group to access useful technologies without pointing fingers at themselves. Aum’s failure is also largely due to the need for, in addition to the “blueprints” of the technology, general tacit biological knowledge, which Aum was unable to possess in Endo. The Aum case suggests that it is difficult for terrorists, even large
    groups with sufficient monetary and structural resources, to develop and
    use biotechnology.

    That being said, while bioterrorism is currently at a low likelihood for impact, the intensity of a successful attack could be extreme. A rogue researcher with the necessary tacit knowledge and access to biological resources has the potential to develop unprecedented biotechnology with unforeseeable consequences. A particularly powerful pathogen could ravage the human population before anyone is prepared for it, therefore these resources need to be properly maintained and isolated in a secure location with minimal access.

  19. I agree completely, and wish to raise another point. So far, you talk about the feasibility of creating a new disease as a bioweapon. Is it not also possible to weaponize already existing diseases? Remember, the earliest biological warfare was poisoning wells, smallpox blankets, etc. The meningitis outbreak here at Princeton shows how quickly a pre-existing disease can spread if we are not prepared. It is true that in this age of vaccines it is less likely, but imagine if H1N1 was weaponized. One doesn’t even have to go as far as to create their own weapon, but merely steal from Mother Nature. If a terrorist group were to attempt to weaponize disease, a preexisting one may seem like a logical choice.

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