Bioterrorism - Myth or real Danger?

The threat of the Cold War was hardly over when concerns arose in the Western world that terrorist groups would be able to acquire weapons of mass destruction and use them for vicious attacks. The use of biological weapons by such ‘super terrorists’ seemed to be a particularly grave danger. In a 1998 article in Foreign Affairs, US-American peace researcher Richard Betts assessed “Nuclear arms have great killing capacity but are hard to get; chemical weapons are easy to get but lack such killing capacity; biological agents have both qualities. (…) (They) combine maximum destructiveness and easy availability”.

A bioterrorist attack could either be mounted directly against the population or the economic and ecological structure of a society. The foot and mouth disease, for instance, is not harmful to people. However, its outbreak in Great Britain in 2001 and 2007 has shown that the virus can hit agricultural production where it hurts.

Depending on which goals a terrorist group may pursue, such pathogens, too, could represent an attractive weapon. Not all terrorist groups necessarily share the view held by the military that the use of biological weapons is a disadvantage. When armies release pathogens, they often cannot guarantee that these will not spread in an uncontrolled manner and infect their troops. For a fanatic terrorist group, such as the Japanese ‘doomsday cult’ Aum Shinrikyo that, in 1995, gained international notoriety when it carried out the attack on the Tokyo subway with poisonous gas (sarin), such deliberations are likely to be less relevant.

Multiple bestsellers, films and television series in the 1990s, which took up the widespread fear of bioterrorism, also fuelled that fear. One example is the US-American series “Bio War” that was broadcast in 1999 on ABC, and that imitated an anthrax attack of a terrorist group on a fictive US-American large city in real time. The fact that the viewer, by watching this series, learned how to behave ‘correctly’ should such an attack with biological weapons occur in reality, was indeed part of the producer’s intention.

The terrorist attacks of 9/11 2001 showed that the fear of massive terrorist acts was not unjustified. But they were not carried out with biological weapons, as had previously been suspected by many. So, was the spectre of bioterrorism just a chimaera? The fact remains that in the past, many terrorist groups planned an attack with biological weapons. Most of the known examples, however, also show that they either failed to acquire and process the necessary substances or that the attack did not have the desired effect.

The 1984 terror attack by members of the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh sect in The Dalles, Oregon State, was the first bioterror attack of recent history. They contaminated the salad bars at ten local restaurants and the shop window displays of several greengrocers’ with salmonella. As a result, 751 people contracted food poisoning; but no-one died. The outbreak was first ascribed to natural causes and was only discovered much later as a bioterror attack. Before Aum Shinrikyo finally decided on a poisonous gas attack in 1995, the group attempted unsuccessfully to acquire the Ebola virus. The sect also experimented with anthrax, but spores released in Tokyo did not have any effect, possibly because the pathogen itself was too weak or did not spread quickly enough.

Shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the so-called Amerithrax attacks fuelled fears of follow-up attacks with biological agents of war in the United States. Until the end of that year, letters laced with anthrax were sent to five news media offices and two Democratic US Senators, Tom Daschle and Patrick Leahy. 22 Americans were infected, five of them died of the infection. The perpetrator of these attacks was never identified. A report of the US Federal Bureau of Investigation of 2008 came to the conclusion that most likely, the attack was not carried out by radical Islamists, as had initially been assumed. Instead, one train of thought is that the perpetrator may well have had connections to the US-American bioweapons research programme itself. The intention may have been to fuel the fears of bioterrorism to increase investments in countermeasures.

In 2002, US-American soldiers in Afghanistan discovered that al-Qaeda was pursuing a research network for biological weapons. It had allegedly acquired the pathogens, mostly anthrax, from former Soviet bioweapons research holdings.

Still, the bioterrorist attack with tens of thousands of fatalities, which so many feared in the 1990s has so far not taken place, despite the efforts of some groups. Experiences so far suggest that the much-invoked fears of a bioterrorist attack are often exaggerated.

Sources and further information:

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