Dec 21, 2007 | 18:07 GMT

7 mins read

Bioterrorism: Sudden Death Overtime?

Biological agents — contrary to their portrayal in movies and television shows — are difficult to manufacture and deploy effectively. In spite of the fear such substances engender, even in cases in which they have been somewhat effective they have proven to be less effective and far more costly than more conventional attacks using firearms and explosives.
Earlier in December, Interpol hosted a bioterrorism tabletop exercise at its headquarters in Lyon, France, that was code named "Black Death." The scenario for the exercise involved militants unleashing a biological agent at a large sporting event, using air horns to disperse the agent into the unwitting crowd. According to the opening statement given by Interpol Secretary-General Ronald Noble, "Using disease, terrorists can substantially multiply the devastation and societal disruption that they cause, and they can do it without sophisticated infrastructure or state support. For this very reason, we would be mistaken to treat a worst-case scenario as a remote possibility. Instead, we must deal with this as an eventuality for which we need to be prepared." In this season of large college bowl games and the National Football League playoffs in the United States, and large nonsporting events such as the New Year's Eve celebration in New York's Times Square — not to mention the upcoming Olympic Games in Beijing — a discussion of bioterrorism and the threat it poses might be of interest. First, it must be recognized that during the past several decades of the modern terrorist era, biological weapons have been used very infrequently — and there are some very good reasons for this. Contrary to their portrayal in movies and television shows, biological agents are difficult to manufacture and deploy effectively in the real world. In spite of the fear such substances engender, even in cases in which they have been somewhat effective they have proven to be less effective and more costly than more conventional attacks using firearms and explosives. In fact, nobody even noticed what was perhaps the largest malevolent deployment of biological agents in history, in which thousands of gallons of liquid anthrax and botulinum toxin were released during several attacks in a major metropolitan area over a three-year period. This use of biological agents was perpetrated by the Japanese apocalyptic cult Aum Shinrikyo. An examination of the group's chemical and biological weapons (CBW) program provides some important insight into biological weapons, their costs — and their limitations. In the late 1980s, Aum's team of trained scientists spent millions of dollars to develop a series of state-of-the-art biological weapons research and production laboratories. The group experimented with botulinum toxin, anthrax, cholera and Q fever and even tried to acquire the Ebola virus. The group hoped to produce enough biological agent to trigger a global Armageddon. Between April of 1990 and August of 1993, Aum conducted seven large-scale attacks involving the use of thousands of gallons of biological agents — four with anthrax and three with botulinum toxin. The group's first attempts at unleashing mega-death on the world involved the use of botulinum toxin. In April of 1990, Aum used a fleet of three trucks equipped with aerosol sprayers to release liquid botulinum toxin on targets that included the Imperial Palace, the Diet and the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo, two U.S. naval bases and the airport in Narita. In spite of the massive quantities of agent released, there were no mass casualties and, in fact, nobody outside of the cult was even aware the attacks had taken place. When the botulinum operations failed to produce results, Aum's scientists went back to the drawing board and retooled their biological weapons facilities to produce anthrax. By mid-1993, they were ready to launch attacks involving anthrax, and between June and August of 1993 the group sprayed thousands of gallons of aerosolized liquid anthrax in Tokyo. This time Aum not only employed its fleet of sprayer trucks, but also use sprayers mounted on the roof of their headquarters to disperse a cloud of aerosolized anthrax over the city. Again, the attacks produced no results and were not even noticed. It was only after the group's successful 1995 subway attacks using sarin nerve agent that a Japanese government investigation discovered that the 1990 and 1993 biological attacks had occurred. Aum Shinrikyo's team of highly trained scientists worked under ideal conditions in a first-world country with a virtually unlimited budget. The team worked in large, modern facilities to produce substantial quantities of biological weapons. Despite the millions of dollars the group spent on its bioweapons program, it still faced problems in creating virulent biological agents, and it also found it difficult to dispense those agents effectively. Even when the group switched to employing a nerve agent, it only succeeded in killing a handful of people. A comparison between the Aum Shinrikyo Tokyo subway attack and the jihadist attack against the Madrid trains in 2004 shows that chemical/biological attacks are more expensive to produce and yield fewer results than attacks using conventional explosives. In the March 1995 Tokyo subway attack — Aum's most successful — the group placed 11 sarin-filled plastic bags on five different subway trains and killed 12 people. In the 2004 Madrid attack, jihadists detonated 10 improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and killed 191 people. Aum's CBW program cost millions and took years of research and effort; the Madrid bombings only cost a few thousand dollars, and the IEDs were assembled in a few days. The most deadly biological terrorism attack to date was the case involving a series of letters containing anthrax in the weeks following the Sept. 11 attacks — a case the FBI calls Amerithrax. While the Amerithrax letters did cause panic and result in companies all across the country temporarily shutting down if a panicked employee spotted a bit of drywall dust or powdered sugar from doughnuts eaten by someone on the last shift, in practical terms, the attacks were very ineffective. The Amerithrax letters resulted in five deaths; another 22 victims were infected but recovered after receiving medical treatment. The letters did not succeed in infecting senior officials at the media companies targeted by the first wave of letters, or Sens. Tom Daschle and Patrick Leahy, who were targeted by a second wave of letters. By way of comparison, John Mohammed, the so-called "D.C. Sniper," was able to cause mass panic and kill twice as many people (10) by simply purchasing and using one assault rifle. This required far less time, effort and expense than producing the anthrax spores used in the Amerithrax case. It is this cost-benefit ratio that, from a militant's perspective, makes firearms and explosives more attractive weapons for an attack. This then is the primary reason that more attacks using biological weapons have not been executed: The cost is higher than the benefit. Certainly, history has shown that militant organizations and homegrown militants are interested in large sporting events as venues for terror; one needs to look no further than the 1972 Munich Massacre, the 1996 Olympic Park bombing or even the 2005 incident in which University of Oklahoma student Joel Hinrichs died after a TATP-filled backpack he was wearing exploded outside a football game at Oklahoma Memorial Stadium, to see this. Because of this, vigilance is needed. However, militants planning such attacks will be far more likely to use firearms or IEDs in their attacks than they will biological agents. Unfortunately, in the real world guns and suicide bombs are far more common — and more deadly — than air horns filled with creepy bioterror.

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