WMD Commission

Title: Bioterrorism And Threat Assessment
Date: March 2011

During the last week of October 2004, newspapers, wire services and Internet sites around the globeran stories concerning the release of a new British Medical Association report on biological weapons.Many of these stories led with lines such as, “Biological weapons that target selected ethnic groupscould become part of the terrorists'  arsenal…”  and, “The threat from biological weapons  has outstripped that from chemical and nuclear arms because of the ‘riotous’ progress of biotechnology.”Such media provides an interesting perspective on the unique challenges associated with efforts toaddress the threat of bioterrorism.   

On the one hand, much of the media’s recent coverage successfully captured the BMA report’s twofundamental theses that: 1) developments in science – and biotechnology, in particular – are makingpossible disturbing, new opportunities for the weaponization of biological agents and bioterrorism; and 2) without greater focus and commitment by governments around the world, such developments havethe potential to rapidly outpace the international  community’s  ability to respond to and manageassociated dangers.  On the other hand, the coverage tended to focus on the report’s discussion ofworst case bio-attack scenarios and highlight the report’s most dramatic – but least immediately realistic – examples of possible bioterrorism (such as attacks that make use of genetically engineeredagents capable of selectively targeting specific ethnic groups).  The result of such coverage is that many in the public are left with the correct impression that bioterrorism is a real danger, but also withan incorrect impression concerning the actual scope and nature of the existing threat.    

The widespread attention that bioterrorism receives today is both significant and new.  Up until thepast decade, the prospect of someone other than a state using biological weapons was largelyconfined to the realm of fiction and a small cadre of biowarfare experts. The use of the toxic chemicalsarin by the Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo in the Tokyo subway system in 1995 drew the attention ofboth policymakers and counterterrorism experts to the possibility that at least some terrorists and othernon-state actors may indeed  be  willing and able to engage in mass-casualty attacks  using unconventional weapons. However, it was only in late 2001, when an as yet unidentified perpetrator sent weapons-grade preparations of Bacillus anthracis – the organism that causes anthrax – through the mail, that the world’s citizens became keenly aware of the notion that violent non-state actors
might seek to use harmful biological agents in terrorist acts. 

The 2001 “anthrax attacks” (as they are widely known) were not by any means the first bioterrorismincidents.  In 1984, for instance, the Rajneeshees – a religious cult located in Oregon in the UnitedStates –  contaminated salad bars with the non-lethal pathogen Salmonella enterotica serotype Typhimurium causing more than 750 people to fall ill.  Occurring as close as they did to the attacks onSeptember 11, however, the anthrax attacks solidified in a dramatic fashion many of the fears that hadaccompanied earlier revelations  about the advanced level of the secret Soviet biological weaponsprogram and the Aum cult’s attempts to develop biological weapons. 

The intense media and public interest surrounding the 2001 anthrax attacks had predictable effects.What was already a major security issue in the United States quickly achieved the status of a globalthreat as policymakers worldwide were galvanized to address the possibility of bioterrorism. Amidst the hype, bioterrorism simulations were run, research quickly funded and vaccine production commenced. One would  assume that a thorough  understanding of the threat underlies the difficult policy decisions associated with such preventive and response-related measures, which often involveresource limitations and tradeoffs between programs.  Yet this has repeatedly been shown not to bethe case. At every level  – from the local to the national to the international – the approach tocountering bioterrorism has often been  partial,  piecemeal and distorted by political or parochial
institutional concerns. 

Previous Commission papers have dealt well with  general, high-level issues  surrounding  biologicalweapons; here we focus on a specific subset of those issues – that relating to non-state actors and biological weapons – and look at the specific policy questions that arise in this context.  This paperargues that an accurate  and  comprehensive assessment of the threat posed by bioterrorism isessential for policymakers working to identify and prioritize opportunities for reducing the global risk ofsuch attacks.  The first  section  of the document  seeks to ground the discussion empirically byreviewing the specific nature of bioterrorism, highlighting recognizable trends in its modern history, and2identifying key lessons and developments from the historical record that might signal how bioterrorismwill likely manifest itself in the 21st century.  The second section of the document begins by considering how threat assessment may be applied practically to bioterrorism, and broadly evaluating the current set of constraints and incentives for bioterrorism, according to this threat assessmentframework. The paper concludes by identifying a number of specific “opportunities” policymakers haveto reduce the threat of bioterrorism by strengthening the constraints and  weakening the incentives identified earlier (WMDC, 2011)