|By Dr. Dany Shoham|
Bioterrorism is regarded as the calculated, deliberate use of germs, viruses or toxins (or threat of using them) against civilian populations or economic/logistical infrastructures, in order to attain goals that are political, social, religious, financial, ideological or personal in nature. This is done through intimidation or coercion or instilling fear. Bio-crimes, bio-sabotage and bio-warfare are terms appreciably dovetailing with bioterrorism, in different manners. While biological crimes accentuate the illegal dimension of bioterrorism, they pertain, as well, to a variety of acts, such as the very holding or transferring of a certain microorganism, which are in violation of national or international rules and conventions. Biological sabotage is the in effect employment of biological agents for whatever operational sabotage purpose, whether or not terrorism-oriented, usually by means of guerilla. Biological warfare basically reflects a military confrontation in which biological weaponry is used; yet broadly, it may be wagged against civilian target populations, thus explicitly having the quality of bioterrorism.
Pathogens of farm animals and plants form an additional dimension of bioterrorism – agricultural bioterrorism (agroterrorism). Also, the increasing availability of recreational drugs – mostly a sort of plant toxins, in their essence – propels another terrorism variant – narcoterrorism.
The apparent resemblance between natural epidemics and induced ones mostly leads to recognizing the relevance of bioterrorism-patterned natural epidemics as prime demonstrative occurrences. Let alone, that various infectious diseases, chiefly viral, are emerging or reemerging in an unpredictable, often overwhelming, manner. It would therefore be advisable to diligently observe some prominent natural epidemics that took place during the recent decade worldwide: Ebola hemorrhagic fever; AIDS; SARS; West-Nile encephalitis; avian influenza; cholera. In Europe, colossal epidemics of plague and smallpox marked the Middle-Ages. Devastating epidemics of foot and mouth disease, avian influenza and bluetongue afflicted farm animals in Europe during recent years.
Bioterrorism may take place as state-sponsored or non-state sponsored. State-sponsored bioterrorism may be carried out by saboteurs either affiliated with the concerned state, or acting on their own but institutionally assisted by some country specifically aware of the ultimate outcome. Bio-sabotage programs and projects, in part realized, have been identified mainly in Germany, Japan, USSR, USA, South Africa and Iraq.
Persisting terror organizations, temporary communes, or sporadic individuals may initiate and conduct bioterrorism acts, without there being any institutionalized assistance from any country. Al-Qaeda is well known for its efforts to obtain various pathogens and toxins intended for bioterrorism purposes.
The September 2001 anthrax letter attack in the USA marked an outstanding, most significant milestone in the course of bioterrorism. It was a quantum-leap, scarcely expected in practical terms, albeit a lot of indicative intelligence preceding the event. Overall, this bioterrorism campaign has been, operationally, quit complicated, assuming that the spore powder has been produced outside the US. For the time being, the culmination of bioterrorism worldwide has been this act of distributing mail envelopes containing anthrax spore powder. It reflected noticeable supremacy of a simple act of bioterrorism (irrespective of preparing the anthrax powder in itself, which was very sophisticated), in several senses:
a. uncontrollable preparing of the postal envelopes containing the anthrax powder.
b. Uncontrollable, repeated mailings
c. Undetectable conveying of the mailed envelopes until reaching their various destinies
d. Untraceable footprints of the perpetrators
e. Inability to even postulate whether the sabotage was state- or non-state sponsored.
At any rate, the colossal impact of the 2001 anthrax attacks propelled a very extensive effort in the USA, aiming to become fully competent of handling bioterrorism events. And consequently, the awareness and preparedness towards bioterrorism is increasing worldwide during recent years.
A month ago, Deputy Chairman of the National Security Commission of the British Institute for Public Policy Research - an institute regarded as the UK’s leading progressive think tank, producing cutting edge research and innovative policy ideas - expressed serious concerns regarding diversion of pathogens for terrorism purposes. “We need to be resilient to biological terrorism and to the potential use of biological agents. This is going to be a century-long thing”. Notably, the British government recognized the threat of bioterrorism in a 2008 national security strategy.
In Europe at large, much progress has been achieved since 2004-2005, owing to the New Dedence Agenda (NDA) (later on renamed as Security and Defence Agenda – SDA) - a regular professional discussion forum involving NATO, the EU, the World Health Organization plus national ministries, industry figures, and journalists, to debate safety and defense issues. It aims to raise awareness in Europe of the bioterrorism threat and to define a set of recommendations for EU policy-makers to prevent and protect against attacks.
The 2004 NDA conference outlined that security awareness at epidemiology research laboratories across the industrialized world is lagging behind the growing threat of bioterrorism. The 2005 NDA conference was an example of excellent EU-US collaboration with the context of bioterrorism. If there was one conclusion that could be drawn from the conference itself, it was that such teamwork had to be duplicated in the actual fight against bioterrorism. Not that the event lacked ideas, as these were ever present. But there were few signs of real co-operation and the specter of different "threat perceptions" was forever hovering in the background. This line strengthened in the 2006 SDA conference.
The Interpol and the European Homeland Security Association pay much attention to bioterrorism threats. Interpol President Jackie Selebi recently observed that “Major panic, temporary paralysis of government functions and private businesses and even civil disorder are all likely outcomes of a bioterrorism attack. In fact, bioterrorism appears particularly well suited to the small, well-informed groups. A bioterrorist’s lab could well be the size of a household kitchen and the weapon built there could be smaller than a toaster, and the range of options available to terrorists will continue to grow”. Further, he warned of bioterror attacks on livestock or the food chain.
Interpol Secretary General Ronald Noble added that “There is no criminal threat with greater potential danger to all countries, regions and people in the world than the threat of bioterrorism. There is no crime area where police have as little training than in preventing — or responding to — bioterrorist attacks. Terrorists do want to use biological weapons. The threat is worthy of immediate preparation”.
French Interior Minister Dominique de Villepin called for creation of a U.N.-affiliated organization to track potential biowarfare agents and keep them away from terrorists. He did not propose giving inspection powers to such an agency, but said that biotechnology companies, laboratories, hospitals and universities need to better monitor themselves on issues of hiring, pathogen work and access to sensitive areas.
In Israel, The Director-General of the Ministry of Health nominated a Supreme Steering Committee to fill in the gaps and upgrade the preparedness of the health system for an unusual disease outbreak. This committee and its seven subcommittees established appropriate guidelines, communication routes among different organizations, and training programs for medical personnel. Various aspect of the threat of bioterrorism are studied and dealt within the Israel Center for Disease Control of the Ministry of Health, in Tel Hashomer Medical Center and the Center for the Study of Bioterrorism at Tel Aviv University.
Apparently, an outstanding conjunction marked the recent decade, bringing about the prominence of bioterrorism as a colossal issue, including:
Internet-contained unclassified and declassified information;
The outcomes of the birth of the formerly Soviet republics - particularly the Moslem and semi-Moslem ones – with their Soviet BW inheritance, namely highly qualified, equipped facilities, culture collections, and many unemployed experts, plus partial Islamic orientation;
The accelerated augmentation of international terrorism, at large;
The rise and persistence of Al-Qaeda with its radical philosophy and unlimited financial resources;
The global strengthening of Islam and its fundamentalistic inclination;
Extremely meaningful breakthroughs made in life sciences and apparatus engineering;
The increasing emergence and reemergence of infectious diseases worldwide.
Altogether, the ongoing integration of those various, interacting factors will probably shape, both conceptually and practically, the future of bioterrorism, one way or another. If a new breed of anarchistic multinational terrorists – not necessarily connected with Al-Qaeda - is currently sprouting up, as at times claimed, the outcome may be unforeseeably catastrophic.
The outlining – let alone structuring - of a defensive alignment that would fully address the bioterrorism threat is, objectively, an impossible mission. Even while referring, primarily, to natural (non-engineered) pathogens and toxins, and assuming a consensus prioritizing anthrax, smallpox, plague, influenza, ricin and botulinum, one can hardly face the two main resultant questions:
a. How to be best prepared towards each of those agents?
b. Should other potential bioterrorism agents be totally ignored, and if not – what ought to be the respecting mode of preparedness?
It appears, as if in order to expediently handle those difficulties, the vital conjunction of three major elements may be useful: methodical intelligence monitoring, systematic biosecurity globalization and creative scientific research. Otherwise, as Henry Crumpton, the US State Department Coordinator for Counter-Terrorism, described a biological attack on West “simply a matter of time”, adding that such an attack could pose an even greater menace to security that nuclear strike.