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