Biological Threats of Terrorism

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Biological Threatsof Terrorism

The Conflict

The anthrax mail attacks in the United States in the fall of 2001 alerted an already terrorism-sensitive world to the dangers of biological terrorist attack. A silent and deadly weapon, biological agents could potentially take a great toll on a population unprepared for and unaware that a biological attack was taking place. Several preparedness and training simulations in late 2001 and early 2002 revealed concerns about the ability of response teams and government and health officials to deal with such an attack. While the perpetrator of the U.S. anthrax attacks is unknown, the attacks themselves have raised consciousness of a population's vulnerability to biological terrorism and concerns that the mail attacks may just be a precursor to a new trend in terrorism.


  • While several international agreements have banned the production and use of biological weapons, monitoring compliance to these agreements has been difficult.
  • Several states suspected of being state sponsors of terrorism, such as Iraq and Iran, are suspected of pursuing biological weapons programs.


  • With the collapse of the Soviet Union, technicians and stockpiles from the world's largest biological weapons program have flooded the black market of terrorist resources.
  • The United States has sponsored economic development programs to employ some of the Soviet scientists, but the threat persists that raw materials from Soviet labs will show up on the black market.
  • While producing biological weapons is relatively inexpensive, creating relevant counterterrorist programs is expensive. In the United States, most public health systems do not have a comprehensive plan in place to deal with biological attacks, and vaccines against some of the more deadly biological agents, such as smallpox, are in chronically low supply.

Prior to the fall of 2001 it seemed that the only people concerned with keeping a wary eye on the threat of biological terrorism were the military, certain scientists and policy analysts, and perhaps a handful of foresighted politicians. By late October of that year, however, the world—and the United States in particular—had gained a whole new vocabulary, consisting of words such as Bacillus anthracis, Variola major, and ciprofloxacin. In the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States, as letters tainted with deadly anthrax began arriving in offices, homes, and postal facilities across the country, what had previously been dismissed as unlikely or farfetched was suddenly all too real: the country had been targeted by bioterrorists. As the government scrambled to control the situation, emergency response teams were overwhelmed with false alarms; hospitals saw greatly increased traffic; and pharmacies ran out of antibiotics as frightened people hoarded them like gold. By mid-November, five people had died from anthrax, but the worst was over. No new cases of anthrax were being reported, but a shaken populace was left with the unwanted knowledge that they were vulnerable, not just to anthrax, but to a whole host of deadly diseases.

What is Biological Terrorism?

While no definition of terrorism is universally agreed upon, it is generally understood to be violent acts such as bombings, shootings, and even the release of biological or chemical agents on an un-suspecting public, perpetrated to achieve political or ideological goals. More recently, some terrorist actions have had no specific aim other than to inflict mass casualty and fear on a populace. This seems to have been the purpose of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, in the United States, in which more than three thousand people were killed. Biological terrorism is the use of biological agents—living organisms that cause disease—in a terrorist attack. By their very nature—silent, unseen, odorless, and tasteless—biological agents make a powerfully frightening prospect if employed by terrorists. Unlike a bombing, which it blatant and quick, a biological attack can not be so easily identified. In the time it may take to identify and mobilize against such an attack, the number of those affected may increase greatly.

The biological agents most likely to be used in a terrorist attack are bacteria and viruses, which can multiply and spread infection to others. Anthrax is a disease caused by the bacteria Bacillus anthracis. The people who fell ill with anthrax in the United States in the fall of 2001 became so after handling mail contaminated with anthrax causing spores, which were present in a fine, white powder included in the mailed letters. Viruses such as smallpox and Ebola are highly infectious diseases. In the case of smallpox, the disease was eradicated from the world in 1980, so a large number of vaccines were not kept in stock. Ebola, a fast-moving hemorrhagic fever that causes the victim to bleed out internally, as yet has no known cure or vaccine.

There are no universal regulatory guidelines concerning the study, possession, and use of biological agents. Thus, they are readily accessible and could conceivably be easily obtained by terrorists. In trying to trace the source of the anthrax spores used in the U.S. mail attacks, scientists examined the spores against cultures from different laboratories. Several locations were eliminated as potential sources, but nothing definitive was determined.

Historical Background

Biological Warfare from Ancient to Modern Times

While biological agents have been used most recently in terrorist attacks, the use of weapons derived from biological agents dates back to ancient times. Many historians suspect that, around 600BCE, Athenians poisoned the water supply of a besieged city with a biological agent to win a victory. Additionally, the practice of using arrows tipped with poison was common enough to merit mention in ancient codes of law. In one instance of disease-causing biological agents actually changing the course of world history, Tartar Mongol invaders catapulted the bodies of plague victims over the city walls of Kaffa, a Genoese trading post in the Crimea, in 1346 CE. While the precise source of the illness is debatable (from plague-ridden bodies or from plague-carrying rats) the disease quickly spread throughout Kaffa, and the Genoese traders hurried back to Italy to escape it, inadvertently taking the plague with them. The Black Death, as it was known, thus spread throughout Europe—killing half the population in some areas—and eventually heralded the end of the Middle Ages.

Because of the unpredictability of biological weaponry, however, such tactics were usually avoided in favor of conventional arms such as swords, spears, and later guns and cannons. At the same time, a greater distinction began to be drawn between military and civilian populations. With the latter being considered illegitimate targets of warfare, the indiscriminate nature of biological, as well as chemical, attacks was considered serious enough to merit condemnation at the 1899 and 1907 International Peace Conferences held in the Hague, Netherlands, which called for the prohibition of the use of poisons during war time.

The Hague Conventions soon became irrelevant with the German army's use of chemical and biological agents such as chlorine, mustard gas, glanders, and anthrax during World War I (1914-18). Revulsion over the use of chemical weapons helped contribute, in 1925, to twenty-nine nations signing the Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use in War of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or other Gases, and of Bacteriological Methods of Warfare. Like the Hague Conventions before it, however, the Geneva Protocol would almost immediately be disregarded by several signatory nations, who pursued research and testing of both chemical and biological weapons.

Modern Biological Warfare

One of the most devastating offensive biological weapons programs (1931-45) was developed by Japan as part of its strategy for domination over East Asia before and during World War II (1939-45). The crucial player in Japan's notorious agenda was Lieutenant General Shiro Ishii, who joined the military in 1920 after finishing his medical degree at Kyoto Imperial University. While in the military he focused his efforts on convincing Japan's military leadership to initiate a biological weapons program. In 1932 Ishii gained a prestigious post in occupied China with permission to inaugurate his long-anticipated biological weapons program.

Ishii's first major program began that same year. At the Zhong Ma Prison Camp in Beiyinhe, Manchuria, between 500 and 600 prisoners—typically captured communist rebels, convicts, and bandits—were routinely exposed to plague, poison gas, and frostbite to determine the effects and possible courses of treatment. While most of the subjects died in excruciating circumstances, all of the remaining prisoners were executed after the experiments. After a prison riot in 1934 the Zhong Ma facility was shut down. Word of Ishii's gruesome experiments leaked out after the riot, and he instituted even more ruthless security measures at his next biological weapons facility.

By 1939 Ishii had constructed the massive Unit 731 complex at Ping Fan near Harbin, Manchuria, where more than three thousand individuals were killed in biological experiments through 1945. In addition to weaponizing anthrax, cholera, typhoid, glanders, and the plague, Ishii's staff also conducted field experiments in nearby villages and cities. It is not known how many civilians died as a result of these tests—although thousands of such bombs were dropped—and most of the records at Ping Fan were destroyed in the closing days of World War II (1938-45). When questioned by U.S. officials after the war Ishii initially denied much of the work at Zhong Ma and Ping Fan. Later, however, he agreed to be debriefed in exchange for immunity from war crimes prosecution. Despite the horrific nature and scope of his deeds, Ishii was never punished for his experiments with biological agents.

While its Axis partners also engaged in some biological weapons studies during World War II, their programs were small in scale compared to Japan's program. Although Nazi Germany allowed numerous human experiments to be conducted in its concentration camps, the regime never officially sanctioned any coordinated offensive biological experiments. Great Britain experimented with anthrax spores by releasing them on Gruinard Island, off the northwest Scottish coast, in 1943; it took another fifty years to decontaminate the island. In the end, however, Japan was the only nation to use biological weapons on any significant scale during World War II.

In contrast, the United States was a relative latecomer to biological weapons programs. It was only in 1943, after learning details of Japan's program, that a center was established at Camp Detrick in western Maryland. While the facility produced some botulinum toxin for Great Britain in its first year, the war ended before any biological weapons were made. Although Camp Detrick's research projects were cut drastically in the aftermath of the war, Cold War tensions—including the awareness that the Soviet Union now led all other countries in biological weapons studies—ensured the facility's growth in the late 1940s and 1950s.

Superpower Biological Weapons Programs

Like Japan, the biological weapons program of the Soviet Union dated back to the 1920s and continued on through the international crises of the 1930s and 1940s. After World War II the Soviet Union constructed its first smallpox production plant using Variola major, or the virus causing smallpox, just one of many biological organisms it weaponized over the years. The list of biological agents weaponized by the Soviets for possible use as biological weapons included Coxiella burnetii, or Q fever, a debilitating, but usually non-lethal sickness; Bacillus anthracis, or anthrax, typically fatal when inhaled; Yersinia pestis, the bacteria that causes plague; and the Marburg virus, first observed in Germany in 1967, which causes death by inducing massive internal bleeding.

While the Soviet program was well funded and attracted the elite of the country's medical and scientific corps, numerous accidents demonstrated the lethal potential of their work. The city of Kirov was contaminated by a sewer leak from a nearby anthrax facility in 1953; within a few years the city's rats had produced a new, more virulent strain of the bacterium and the area remained contaminated with Bacillus anthracis. Tragically, after Soviet scientists used the Kirov anthrax strain as the basis for a subsequent weapons program, another accident released the bacterium into the air in Sverdlovsk in late March or early April 1979. The incident resulted in an estimated 65 deaths and a total of close to one hundred infections. An intensive vaccination program helped stem the spread of the disease, and the government subsequently blamed the outbreak on infected meat sold on the black market.

In addition to the accidents at Kirov and Sverdlovsk, several Soviet scientists died after being exposed to toxic agents in their research labs. Yet the belief that the United States was also undertaking a biological arms race left most Soviet scientists convinced of the merit of their work. As Ken Alibek, a leading deputy chief of the Soviet's main biological weapons organization, Biopreparat, from 1988-92, explained in his memoir Bio-hazard, "We had been taught as schoolchildren and it was drummed into us as young military officers that the capitalist world was united in only one aim: to destroy the Soviet Union. It was not difficult for me to believe that the United States would use any conceivable weapon against us, and that our own survival depended on matching their duplicity."

This suspicion was not allayed by the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on Their Destruction, signed in 1972 by the United States, Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and 76 other nations. The convention banned all biological weapons that had no justification for prophylactic, protective, or other peaceful purposes; in other words, it banned offensive biological weapons while permitting research for defensive purposes. Additionally, it did not provide verification and monitoring provisions to ensure that states were not engaging in illegal activity. In light of the serious weaknesses of the Convention, the Soviet Union continued its biological weapons program unabated, while the United States, which had earlier decided to end its biological warfare program in 1969, complied with the agreement. Despite evidence to the contrary, Soviet officials refused to believe that the Americans had actually honored the agreement.

Indeed, the Soviets could point to numerous secret programs that the Americans had carried out over the years. In addition to a release of what they believed to be harmless organisms in San Francisco, which resulted in eleven infections caused by Serratia marcescens and one death, the army had also conducted numerous spraying tests of biological agents over Minneapolis and St. Louis from 1952-53 onward and released the Bacillus subtilis variant niger, another harmless but easily traced bacterium, in the New York City subway system in June 1966. There were an undetermined number of other similar tests that the army conducted during the height of the Cold War, but it refused to release information on them. While the United States complied with the mandates of the 1972 Convention, the Soviets remained convinced that their adversary was not above secretly violating the spirit of the agreement. In the two decades after the 1972 Convention the Soviet Union continued its aggressive production of offensive biological weapons. In 1992 Russian president Boris Yeltsin confirmed suspicions that the Soviet Union had participated in an offensive biological weapons program contrary to the 1972 Convention. After his admission in 1992 Yeltsin ordered the dismantling of the Soviet program, however, it is possible that some type of illegal activity continues in Russia.

The Turn to Terrorism

The lack of oversight concerning biological agents and the production of biological weapons is one of the contributing factors that allows terrorists such accessibility to the material. The dissolution of the Soviet Union presented the possibility that a formerly state-run program would become vulnerable to terrorist interests. Even through the final days of the Soviet Union, Biopreparat and a host of other agencies employed approximately sixty thousand workers, many recruited from the cream of the Soviet scientific community. With an annual budget that approached US$1 billion in the late 1980s, over one hundred research and production sites dotted the nation's landscape. Once the country collapsed into political and economic chaos, however, the biological weapons program fell apart as well. As the facilities decayed seemingly overnight, some senior scientists attempted to earn a living in the private sector before going abroad. Others found a more lucrative pursuit when they were recruited by Iraq to bring their knowledge to that country, which is considered by the United States to be a state sponsor of terrorism. Even before 1990 Iraq had produced botulinum toxin, ricin, anthrax, and aflatoxin bombs, and it appeared the country was now poised to take over Russia's place as the leading site of biological weapons production.

Since its defeat in the Gulf War in 1991 Iraq had delayed and obstructed inspection visits by the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM). Yet what little information UNSCOM had been able to glean was troubling enough. As recounted in UNSCOM chief inspector Scott Ritter's 1999 book Endgame: Solving the Iraq Problem—Once and for All, Iraqi capabilities included the production and weaponization of biological agents in both mobile and permanent facilities. The country had also initiated experiments with its weapons on captives at the Abu Ghraib prison, which resulted in the deaths of all fifty of the human subjects.

Even during UNSCOM's attempts at monitoring Iraq's biological weapons capability, Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's regime pressed forward with its expansion plans for producing biological agents. In June 1995 the country arranged to purchase a factory from Biopreparat to make biological products and to pay the Russians for research and technical assistance in setting up the plant. While Iraq insisted that the facility was going to be used to make animal feed, UNSCOM officials learned that all of the Iraqis involved in the deal were part of the country's biological weapons program, and that the factory itself had been specifically designed for biological weapons production. By the time UNSCOM was ejected from Iraq in 1998 it had verified the presence of hundreds of bombs filled with anthrax and other agents, about forty separate facilities for production and storage, and about six key production facilities that were suspected of turning out weaponized biological agents.

After learning about the scope of its biological weapons program, the United States could no longer ignore the potential danger of allowing Soviet-trained scientists to work for Iraq or for any of a number of terrorist groups, most notably Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda network. The U.S. State Department had initiated a program in 1994 to retool Soviet weapons facilities for commercial products and paid to re-train Soviet scientists as well. The U.S. Department of Defense subsequently spent tens of millions of dollars—$17 million in fiscal year 2001 alone, an amount that jumped to $55 million in the early part of 2002—to convert Soviet biological weapons facilities to nonmilitary uses. For many Soviets, however, the aid was too little and too late. As Alibek testified before a Senate Subcommittee on Funding for Bio-terrorism Preparedness on November 29, 2001, "We fear that in order to feed their families, others may offer their technical skills on the open market, which could provide our enemies with technical expertise or ready-made, engineered organisms. Some Russian microbiologists are reportedly teaching students from rogue states that are interested in this expertise. Other prominent scientists have simply dropped out of sight."

While the whereabouts of many Soviet scientists were in doubt, there was ample evidence that the products from their labs had spread throughout the black market for terrorism. A 60 Minutes II report in late 2001 showed that biological and chemical agents formerly produced in Soviet facilities were up for sale in the chaotic North-West Frontier region of Pakistan. As the Taliban and al-Qaeda leaders were ousted from Afghanistan, they also left behind a paper trail documenting their attempts to purchase and utilize biological weapons in their war of terror. More revealing was the discovery in December 2001 of what was believed to be a rudimentary biological weapons production facility at a camp that had been under the direct control of Osama bin Laden. As Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was quoted on 60 Minutes II in an appearance at NATO headquarters on December 18, 2001, "The nexus, between states with weapons of mass destruction and terrorist networks, raises the danger that September 11 could be a preview of what could come."

Religious Cult Attacks

The discovery of Osama bin Laden's biological weapons laboratory and Defense Secretary Rumsfeld's dire warning highlighted the growing uncertainty that characterized the United States' experience with biological terrorism. The largest biological attack on U.S. soil, in September 1984, had in fact gone undetected for more than a year. Members of the Rajneeshee cult had released Salmonella typhimurium bacteria in restaurants around The Dalles, Oregon, which sickened at least 750 residents. It was only after some of the participants in the attack fled the commune that public health officials were alerted to the true nature of the incident. Authorities believe that the restaurant contaminations may have been a test run for a planned follow-up attack involving the town's water supply, aimed at making residents sick in order to prevent them from going to the polls to vote in a hotly contested election with cult-endorsed candidates on the ballot.

More troubling than the Rajneeshee's plan to take control of local government, however, was the fact that it had conducted a number of other smaller-scale biological experiments in the region to prepare for the election-eve poisoning. After federal investigators finally entered the cult's compound, they discovered an invoice for agents ranging from Francisella tularensis to Salmonella paratyphi. The director of the cult's labs, Ma Anand Puja (also known as Diane Onang), was also said to have experimented with growing the AIDS virus as a new biological weapon in the cult's efforts. Despite the nature of the Rajneeshee attack, however, Puja and one other cult leader served less than four years in federal prison after pleading no contest to a series of murder, wiretapping, and poisoning charges. The leader of the cult, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh himself, served no prison time and fled the United States after paying a $400,000 fine.

U.S. officials were not alone in their initial ignorance when faced with a biological attack on civilians. Like the Rajneeshees, the Aum Shin-rikyo cult was ruled by a charismatic leader, Shoko Asahara, who built his organization into a billion dollar empire, much of it from mandatory donations by cult members. Asahara also warned his followers to take action against the group's enemies and ordered a series of tests involving anthrax, Q fever, and botulinum in the cult's laboratories. Eventually, the cult began to test its weapons on the public, including a 1993 anthrax test in downtown Tokyo, which failed. A chemical attack with sarin gas in Matsumoto, Japan, was part of a plan to kill three judges who were sitting in on a case involving cult members. While the attack did not achieve its desired goal, it nonetheless illustrated Aum Shinrikyo's growing and lethal capabilities.

Once the scope of Aum Shinrikyo's chemical and biological weapons capabilities were made apparent, particularly after a 1995 sarin attack on the Tokyo subway system, U.S. authorities took steps to prepare for such a potential tragedy in the United States. Even as the threats by Aum Shinrikyo, Osama bin Laden, and Saddam Hussein became clear, however, federal efforts were still piecemeal. The Defense Against Weapons of Mass Destruction Act, passed by Congress in 1996, authorized the Department of Defense to train local-and state-level emergency response crews for biological attacks. Another 1996 federal law, the Anti-terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, allowed the U.S. Attorney General's office to implement training and purchase equipment for emergency units. As the legislation demonstrated, counterterrorism efforts at the federal level remained fragmented and sometimes duplicated already existing programs.

Anthrax Scares

The rash of anthrax exposures beginning in September 2001 demonstrated both the progress and shortcomings of the United States' preparedness for biological assaults. Sometime around September 17, 2001, the staff at tabloid publisher American Media in Boca Raton, Florida, passed around a strange, yet seemingly harmless, fan letter written to Jennifer Lopez and sent to the publisher. The following week, photo editor Robert Stevens, who had held up the letter to take a closer look at it, came down with flu-like symptoms. By October 2, when he was admitted to the hospital, Stevens was suffering a high fever and periods of confusion. Within hours, Stevens lost consciousness and passed away on October 5. Florida authorities, working with the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, announced that Stevens had died from inhalation anthrax.

The success in diagnosing Stevens's fatal illness was a direct result of the 1996 legislation that increased funding for counterterrorism training. While very few doctors had ever encountered an anthrax exposure—the last inhalation anthrax case dated back to 1976 in California—Florida medical technicians had just taken courses to identify and treat biological weapons. Despite their initial success, however, officials mismanaged the case in the days after Stevens's death. In order to allay public fears, the Florida Department of Health initially suggested that Stevens had contracted the virus from nature while vacationing in rural North Carolina, even though such an exposure was extremely unlikely. Health and Human Services Director Tommy G. Thompson also maintained that Stevens was the only victim of anthrax. Unfortunately, a second anthrax victim from American Media, mail-room employee named Ernesto Blanco, was already in the hospital with symptoms that mirrored Stevens's decline. On October 7 Blanco was diagnosed with inhalation anthrax; another employee tested positive for anthrax exposure a few days later. Both recovered, yet there was little comfort in the realization that the offices of American Media had been subjected to an anthrax attack.

Part of the slow response by government officials could be explained by the sheer surprise that anthrax could be used as a biological weapon in such a manner. Conventional wisdom held that even at a few millionths of a meter (or less than one-twentieth the diameter of a human hair), anthrax spores were too large to pass through sealed envelopes, and that at least eight thousand spores would have to be inhaled to result in an infection. Tragically, both assumptions proved wrong when two employees at a Washington, DC, postal facility died from the disease after inhaling the anthrax laden spores. Even after U.S. Postal Service administrators learned that the exposures occurred when the facility had processed anthrax-contaminated letters, they insisted that there was no cause for greater concern. After processing centers in New Jersey, New York City, and Indianapolis were found to be contaminated, and eight employees were diagnosed with anthrax exposure, however, it became obvious that the there was much to learn about the disease-causing bacteria.

The anthrax attacks continued with contaminated letters sent to the offices of NBC anchor Tom Brokaw, CBS anchor Dan Rather, and U.S. senators Tom Daschle and Patrick Leahy. The letter sent to Senator Daschle, which was received in the Hart Office Building on October 15, closed the building for six weeks; the decontamination process, which had to be repeated when initial attempts to kill the anthrax failed, cost an estimated $14 million. Even more puzzling were the two anthrax deaths that seemed unrelated to the other cases. Kathy Nguyen, a New York City hospital worker, and Ottilie Lundgren, a 94-year-old widow who lived alone and rarely ventured outside her Connecticut home, were not known to have come in any direct contact with the bacteria. The letters used in each exposure were similar enough that officials decided that they had almost certainly come from the same source. In all, 23 people in the United States were confirmed with anthrax exposure during the September and October attacks, including five that resulted in death.

The United States was not alone in its fear of anthrax. Other countries were also on the alert as they experienced several scares. Spores were thought to be on a travel brochure mailed from Florida to a home in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and on a letter mailed from Atlanta, Georgia, to a doctor in Kenya, but both cases turned out to be false alarms. Similar false alarms spanned the globe from Malaysia to Brazil. In Melbourne, Australia, the passengers of a Virgin Blue flight were temporarily quarantined after a powdery substance was discovered onboard. The offices of Croatia's leading newspaper were evacuated after receiving a letter containing a white powder. Dunedin, New Zealand, mail-sorting centers reported backups after a suspicious substance spilled from a postal bag. All of these incidents were declared hoaxes, but they proved that people around the world felt vulnerable to the threat of biological terrorism.

As the anthrax exposures continued in the United States, some voiced fears that the attacks were perpetrated by the same group responsible for the September 11 terrorist attacks. U.S. president George W. Bush (2001-) himself speculated in mid-October that the two events may have been planned by Osama bin Laden, although he was careful to add that no such proof had been found. Others, such as Dr. Richard O. Spertzel, a former researcher at Camp Detrick and member of an UNSCOM inspection team, suggested that Iraq may have engineered the attacks. Testifying before the U.S. House Committee on International Relations in December 2001, Spertzel noted that the anthrax spores found in the letter sent to Senator Daschle were of higher purity and concentration than UNSCOM had found in Iraq; however, Spertzel added, "The quality [of anthrax] appeared to be such that it could be produced only by some group that was involved with a current or former state program in recent years.

The level of knowledge, expertise, and experience required and the types of special equipment required to make such quality product takes time and experimentation to develop."

In light of the poisonings by the Rajneeshee and Aum Shinrikyo cults, there was also the possibility that a well organized and militant religious or nationalist group was behind the attacks. Hate groups such as the Aryan Nations, Underground Skinhead Action, and Christian Israelite Church all advocated the use of biological weapons against their enemies. Typical of the rhetoric was one Christian Israelite Church publication (quoted in Ely Karmon's essay The Anthrax Campaign: An Interim Analysis) that declared, "Morality has absolutely nothing to do with the deployment of biological weaponry. The time for morality was back before the current immorality made civil war inevitable." In addition to the tension from extremist groups, 71 people were arrested between September 2001 and January 2002 for making false threats of anthrax exposure. The hoaxes were part of more than fifteen thousand anthrax scares reported across the nation.

In January 2002 the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and U.S. Postal Service indicated that they had narrowed their search for the anthrax terrorist. Creating a profile based on the anthrax letters, their intended targets, the locations where they were mailed, and other factors, officials said that the culprit was likely a single man who had extensive scientific training and possibly some military training. The suspect probably had access to a lab where anthrax was stored, possibly at a pharmaceutical company or university laboratory. Finally, given the location of the mailings, the suspect may have lived and worked in New Jersey or northeastern Pennsylvania. In the hope that an intense focus on the region would yield more clues, the U.S. Postal Service mailed out over half a million informational flyers to homes around Trenton, New Jersey. It also announced that the reward for information leading to the capture of the terrorist had been increased to $2.5 million.

Recent History and the Future

Testing the United States' Response

The anthrax exposures did set off some public panic and they demonstrated that there was no comprehensive response plan in place for a potential public health crisis. Such a shortcoming should not have come as a surprise. In May 2000 federal officials had staged Operation Top Off, a seven-day, $10 million mock exercise to see how a large city would respond to a biological attack. On May 20, 2000, the first phase of Operation TopOff began with a staged chemical gas attack at an event in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. While officials were disappointed with the response time of emergency medical crews, the exercise was deemed relatively reassuring. The results of the second phase of Operation TopOff, however, were less encouraging. Simulating a biological attack of the release of the pneumonic plague virus in Denver, it took just two days after the victims started showing symptoms of the disease for the public health system to become crippled. Basic supplies needed to treat the disease ran out on the third day, and attempts to replenish the stocks utterly failed as the state's transportation system shut down. While the crisis was staged, it showed that the existing lack of coordination between the health care system and government officials would provide a crucial roadblock to dealing with any real mass emergency.

Similar conclusions were drawn from the Dark Winter exercise, a simulated smallpox attack on the United States conducted by several security and defense firms in June 2001. The study concluded that medical personnel, not the National Guard, were the vital response team to any biological attack and should be sent to the site of such an attack first—contrary to most emergency response plans. More disturbing, the health care system was found to be utterly incapable of handling the number of casualties that would occur during a mass biological attack. As a result of competition among hospitals, most had eliminated their excess capacity; as researcher Amy Smithson of the Henry L. Stimson Center told the Economist in October 2001, "In most of the cities that I surveyed, the central game plan for hospitals in the event of a major catastrophe was to … shut their doors to incoming patients."

Safeguarding Civilians

The September 11 and anthrax attacks gave renewed impetus to the government to improve upon the performances observed in Operations Top Off and Dark Winter. In February 2002 President Bush announced that the anticipated federal budget for the following year would more than quadruple spending on biological counterterrorist measures—an increase from $1.4 billion to $5.9 billion. Committing $1.6 billion of the new spending to the state and local levels, the president emphasized the need to improve regional public health systems by enhancing their ability to deal with mass disasters, creating regional planning associations, and paying for better emergency medical response training. At the federal level, Bush pledged $650 million to increase the National Pharmaceutical Stockpile and ensure sufficient antibiotics to treat twenty million people for biological attacks from anthrax, plague, and other biological agents. The National Institutes of Health was also assigned $1.75 million in the new budget to continue its research on bioterrorism and to encourage the private sector to develop vaccines for use against biological agents.

Bush's 2003 budget demonstrated that U.S. officials had recognized the crucial danger that biological weapons could present to the nation's well being. While many unanswered questions lingered—from the identity of the United States' anthrax terrorist to the capabilities of rogue groups such as al-Qaeda and states such as Iraq—the threat of biological warfare and terrorism had at least begun to be realized. In the post-September 11 world, preparedness and defense against such worst-case scenarios had become the hallmark of the United States' counterterrorist efforts.


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Timothy G. Borden


June 17, 1925 Twenty-nine nations sign the Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use in War of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or other Gases, and of Bacteriological Methods of Warfare in Geneva, Switzerland.

January 17, 1972 Two college students, Allen Schwandner and Stephen Pera, are apprehended while plotting to release typhoid, botulism, meningitis, bubonic plague, anthrax, choras, and diptheria into the water supplies of Chicago and other cities. The pair had formed an extremist group, RISE, to carry out the attacks and subsequently repopulate the earth with RISE members. While on bail, the two suspects flee to Jamaica and then fly on a hijacked plane to Cuba; Schwandner dies in Cuba in 1974 and Pera returns to the United States in 1995.

April 10, 1972 The Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on Their Destruction is signed by the United States, Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and seventy-six other nations.

March-April 1979 A major anthrax outbreak inSverdlovsk, Soviet Union, occurs after the accidental release of the bacterium from a secret biological weapons facility.

September 1984 Rajneeshee cult members release Salmonella typhimurium in restaurants around The Dalles, Oregon. Approximately 750 residents are taken ill by the poisoning.

1990-91 After its invasion of Kuwait, Iraq uses its biological weapons program to assemble hundreds of biological warheads for potential use against the Gulf War Allies.mid-September 2001 In the United States, tabloid publisher American Media receives a letter containing anthrax. Photo editor Robert Stevens later dies from the exposure.

October 15, 2001 U.S. senator Tom Daschle's office receives a letter containing anthrax; the Hart Office Building in Washington, DC, is closed for the next six weeks for decontamination.

December 2001 Twenty-three anthrax exposures are verified in the United States by the end of December, with five deaths resulting from the attacks.

January 23, 2002 The FBI and U.S. Postal Service announce a $2.5 million reward for information leading to an arrest in the anthrax exposures.

February 5, 2002 U.S. President George W. Bush announces a $4.5 billion increase in the federal budget for biological counterterrorism, for a total outlay of $5.9 billion for 2003.

Biological Agents

On September 17, 2001, only days after the terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, DC, a letter containing anthrax spores was received by a media publishing company in Florida. The individual who opened the letter later died from the anthrax exposure. By January 2002 there were twenty-three confirmed anthrax cases, five of which resulted in death. Coming so shortly on the heels of the most stunning and casualty-laden terrorist attack in world history, the American public, media, and government voiced fears that the anthrax-laced letters were the start of a larger biological terrorist attack. The perpetrators of the anthrax attacks had yet to be determined as of May 2002, but the event has spurred greater attention to the possibilities of terrorists obtaining and using biological weapons and a greater interest in preparing for and countering such an attack.

In early 2002 U.S. President George W. Bush increased the federal budget for biological counterterrorism to US$4.5 billion. Nations around the world have initiated counterterrorism taskforces and practice preparedness responses to possible biological terrorist attacks. What, exactly, are they preparing for?

Biological or bacteriological weapons are derived from living organisms. The infectious nature of the living organisms can be manipulated and used because they can multiply in plant, animal, and human organisms, causing sickness, injury, and even death. Most biological agents are odorless and tasteless. Unlike a bomb, infection from a biological agent can be much more unassuming, as was shown in the anthrax cases of 2001, in which individuals were exposed through the simple act of opening a piece of mail. Biological and toxin weapons can be disseminated into target populations in several different ways. Technical means of delivery include the use of artillery shells and missiles. The use of such large delivery systems, however, increases the difficulty of such an attack because the launching or explosion of the weapon might kill the biological agent. Cheaper and easy delivery methods include the use of animal vectors, crop dusters, backpack sprayers, and even postal letters.

There are four different types of biological agents: bacteria, viruses, rickettsiae, and fungi. Bacteria are single-cell organisms that cause diseases such as anthrax, tularemia, and plague. Viruses are intracellular parasites about one hundred times smaller than bacteria and can infect human beings, domestic animals, and crops. Examples include smallpox and hemorrhagic fevers like Ebola and Marburg. Bacterial and viral agents are the most commonly studied types of agents for biological weapons. They are also usually the most lethal agents.

The third type of biological agent, rickettsiae, are microorganisms. Resembling bacteria in form and structure, rickettsiae are intracellular parasites that reproduce inside animal cells. Typhus and Q fever are caused by rickettsiae. Typhus is delivered through fleas, lice, or mice. It results in fever, depression, red skin rashes, and delirium. Q fever originates with animals and can be transferred to humans through inhalation of contaminated dust (mainly on farms) or, more rarely, through ingestion of contaminated milk. It causes high fever, headache, confusion, chills, nausea, and chest and abdominal pain, among other symptoms. Finally, fungi can cause critical diseases in humans, such as histoplasmosis, a disease that primarily affects the lungs. Potato blight is a fungal disease that can destroy crops, and cause widespread food shortages and economic difficulties.

Toxins are poisonous substances created by bacteria, fungi, plants, insects, spiders, and other animals. Like biological agents, toxins are derived from living organisms. They differ, however, in that toxins are inanimate chemical derivatives and therefore can not replicate. Toxin weapons can disseminate poison, but that poison can not multiply like bacteria or viruses will. Due to the fact that toxins are chemical derivatives they also fall into the category of Chemical Weapons Conventions.

Biological Diseases-Primary Threats*

Common NameScientific NameDescription
AnthraxBacillus anthracisAnthrax exposures can be cutaneous, inhalational, or gastrointestinal. 95% of cases are cutaneous (skin) exposures. If untreated, 20% of cutaneous anthrax exposures are fatal; gastrointestinal cases are up to 60% fatal; almost all inhalation anthrax cases are fatal. Initial symptoms mimic the onset of influenza. Anthrax is not contagious.
Botulism botulinum toxinClostridiumBotulism is typically transmitted through contaminated food and results in blurred vision, muscle weakness, and dry mouth. Although botulism can be incapacitating for several weeks, it is usually not fatal and is not contagious.
PlagueYersinia pestisThe bubonic form of plague is usually transmitted by flea bites; pneumonic plague, however, can be transmitted through human contact if the plague bacterium enters the respiratory system. Antibiotic treatment can be effective if the plague is diagnosed immediately after the onset of symptoms.
SmallpoxVariola majorThrough a global vaccination program, smallpox was eliminated as a health threat in 1977. Stores of the virus remained in research facilities and the Soviet Union attempted to develop a weaponized form of the virus in succeeding years. Fatal in about 30% of infections, there is no effective treatment regimen for individuals infected with the disease.
TularemiaFracisells tularensisTularemia can be contracted through contaminated food or water or by an insect bite. Although it is not contagious and can be treated with antibiotics, tularemia can be fatal.
* High-priority (or "Category A") agents are easily disseminated and cause high mortality rates. Category A agents also include viral hemorrhagic fevers such as the Marburg virus and Ebola hemorrhagic fever.

Larry Wayne Harris

1952- Survivalist and white supremacist Larry Wayne Harris made headlines in February 1998 when he was arrested in Henderson, Nevada, by the FBI on suspicion of carrying anthrax spores with the intent to use them. A member of the Aryan Nations, Christian Identity Church, and the National Alliance neo-Nazi group, the Lancaster, Ohio, resident was picked up after an informant tipped off federal authorities about Harris's alleged plans.

Harris had previously been arrested for fraudulently obtaining bubonic plague bacteria from a Maryland lab in 1995. After plea bargaining to one charge of wire fraud, Harris was placed on eighteen months of probation in 1997. Insisting that he had not intended to harm anyone, Harris subsequently capitalized on his notoriety to publicize his survivalist work, including a publication on bioterrorism that he sold on the Internet.

After testing the seized materials at Camp Detrick, the FBI learned that Harris had actually carried some non-lethal anthrax vaccine and dropped the charges against him. Harris cited the incident as proof of a government conspiracy against him and made a round of media appearances to promote his views. The flap over Harris's arrest and release also foreshadowed a wave of more than one hundred anthrax hoaxes bewteen October 1998 and February 1999, many of them directed at government agencies, abortion clinics and women's health centers, and high schools and universities.

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