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ANTHRAX AND MASS-CASUALTY TERRORISM: WHAT IS THE BIOTERRORIST THREAT AFTER SEPTEMBER 11?

By Jason Pate
Senior Research Associate and Manager
Weapons of Mass Destruction Terrorism Project
Monterey Institute of International Studies

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photo of Jason Pate "Trends in terrorism over the past 15 years indicate that loosely linked transnational networks motivated primarily by religious ideologies seeking mass casualties are replacing more 'traditional' terrorists who are motivated primarily by politics," says Jason Pate, a senior research associate at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. "These ominous trends suggest the potential for mass-casualty attacks, and because biological agents could be used in this fashion, the potential for mass-casualty bioterrorism may be at hand."

INTRODUCTION

The unprecedented terrorist attacks on September 11 and the subsequent series of anthrax attacks have ushered in a new era of terrorism in the United States. Although there previously have been relatively large-scale terrorist attacks in America, such as the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, the coordination, planning, and scale of the September 11 attacks demonstrate that mass-casualty terrorism has reached the U.S. homeland.

Even bioterrorism is not a new phenomenon in U.S. history. In 1984 a cult in a small Oregon town used salmonella to contaminate salad bars in an effort to influence a local election. The cult, which chose an incapacitating rather than lethal agent, succeeded in making 751 people ill, but no one died. In 1994 and 1995, four men, all members of an extremist antigovernment group in Minnesota called the Patriots Council, were the first people ever convicted of possession of a biological agent for use as a weapon under the 1989 Biological Weapons Antiterrorism Act. The men acquired the protein toxin ricin, which is derived from castor beans, possibly to use against local law enforcement and federal officials. Although the Patriots Council plan was never carried out, the group was heavily influenced by rightwing extremist Christian Identity ideology, similar to the ideology that influenced Timothy McVeigh.

Even though both bioterrorism and large-scale conventional terrorism were threats to the United States prior to September 11, the events of the last two months have shown that a quantum leap in terrorist tactics may be occurring. Trends in terrorism over the past 15 years indicate that loosely linked transnational networks motivated primarily by religious ideologies seeking mass casualties are replacing more "traditional" terrorists who are motivated primarily by politics -- such as creating a homeland or seeking justice for perceived oppression by the target state. These ominous trends suggest the potential for mass-casualty attacks, and because biological agents could be used in this fashion, the potential for mass-casualty bioterrorism may be at hand.

This article reviews the historical context of the current anthrax attacks, paying special attention to looking at the current situation in broad perspective. Then it explores why the United States is so vulnerable to this type of terrorism and offers policy recommendations to address these vulnerabilities.

THE CURRENT ANTHRAX ATTACKS

In spite of hundreds of anthrax hoaxes since 1998, the recent anthrax attacks are an unprecedented event. Never before in U.S. history has a biological warfare agent been used in war or peacetime against Americans. It is no surprise that anthrax is the agent of choice, from both technical and political perspectives. On the technical side, anthrax is the prototypical biological weapons agent -- it is relatively easy to produce, it is extremely virulent, and the infection is not contagious, so the outbreak will not spread beyond those affected directly. Most importantly, anthrax forms rugged spores when exposed to environmental stresses, and these spores facilitate processing and weaponization.

From a political perspective, since 1995 there has been very high-level political and media attention given to anthrax. In the mid-to-late 1990s, there were great revelations that Iraq, the Soviet Union and later Russia, and South Africa had created extensive biological weapons programs including work on anthrax. In addition, the U.S. military anthrax vaccine program generated extensive controversy over safety allegations that have not been proven in any clinical trials. Finally, the well publicized arrest of a rightwing extremist in 1998 for suspected anthrax possession -- he possessed only the harmless anthrax vaccine strain -- opened the floodgates for hundreds of anthrax hoaxes nationwide 1998-2001. During the entire period 1995-2001, hundreds of media, academic, and government reports highlighted the vulnerability of the United States to biological terrorism, perhaps emphasizing to potential terrorists not only that the United States was not prepared to deal with bioterrorism, but also that the American public was terrified of the possibility.

A number of issues are critical to understanding the bioterrorist threat beyond September 11, including determining who used the anthrax and why they used it. The quality of the anthrax used in the recent attacks has been a matter of discussion. Clearly, the anthrax was processed using relatively sophisticated techniques, and there are some indications that chemical additives were added to help make the spores more effective. These technical details seem to point to the involvement of a state in the attacks. However, more questions than answers remain. Without knowing who perpetrated the attacks, it is very difficult to prepare for the future. Do the perpetrators have a limited supply of anthrax, or do they have an ongoing production capability?

Perhaps even more important is the motivation of the attackers. Thus far, the attacks have not been designed to affect large numbers of people and have been accompanied by warning letters identifying both that an attack had occurred and what agent was involved. In addition, the letters do not represent an effective delivery system -- very few people have been affected. Future larger-scale attacks may not come with such clear indicators. In order to maximize casualties, anthrax attackers would not announce that an incident had occurred. Rather, people would begin exhibiting symptoms and would die, and it would be up to the public health system to identify that an attack had occurred, by which time it would probably be too late to save many victims.

In sum, the recent anthrax attacks occurred in a historical context. Although the attacks are unprecedented, they should not necessarily come as a surprise. Fortunately, the attacks have been very limited, but the potential exists for a much larger-scale aerosol delivery resulting in mass casualties.

WHY THE UNITED STATES IS VULNERABLE TO MASS-CASUALTY BIOTERRORISM

The United States is a vast, open society that by its very nature is vulnerable to terrorism in general. U.S. borders are open to both goods and people, interstate movements are virtually unregulated, and there has never before been a good reason to implement changes. Of the range of terrorist threats -- from truck bomb to plane hijacking to anthrax attack to smallpox epidemic -- that could cause mass casualties, the United States is perhaps least able to deal with bioterrorism. Whereas security measures can be implemented at airports to eliminate the possibility of a repeat of September 11, and potential target structures can be made less vulnerable to conventional attack, there is no quick and straightforward solution to the bioterrorism problem.

One of the reasons the United States is so vulnerable to bioterrorism is because successive federal, state, and local governments in the country have allowed the U.S. public health infrastructure to deteriorate over the last three decades. After successful pathogen eradication campaigns, the advent of powerful antibiotics, and the emergence of a largely healthy middle and upper class, public health in the 1970s did not seem a high priority in an era of budget cuts. Today, the public health system across the United States barely has enough funding, staff, and other resources to manage day-to-day issues, much less crises caused by either natural outbreaks or bioterrorism. The United States simply does not have the capacity to manage a disease outbreak affecting hundreds or thousands of people.

At the international level, there are very few tools that are effective against the bioterrorist threat. The 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC) is the main international treaty governing biological weapons. Other mechanisms exist, such as the Australia Group, which attempts to provide guidelines for technology exports related to biological weapons production. But the Australia Group has limited enforcement power and does not include certain key states of concern. In addition, the Group limits only relatively large-capacity equipment; this does not address the possibility of smaller-scale clandestine production. The BWC itself has no enforcement of verification regime, and although a draft Protocol was submitted to the BWC's Conference of States Parties this year, the United States refused to sign the document, effectively halting work on augmenting the treaty's ability to enforce its provisions. A BWC Review Conference is scheduled for November 2001, although it is unclear whether there will be any more progress toward a verification agreement.

However, even with U.S. signature and a completed Protocol, it is far from clear that the BWC would do anything in the fight against bioterrorism other than help to build and strengthen the international norm against biological weapons. Indeed, the treaty text does not address terrorism but focuses instead on the threat from states.

At the national policy level, the concepts of deterrence and foreign policy that were so useful during the Cold War do not apply to the threat of bioterrorism. When the adversary is an elusive network of enigmatic diehard operatives completely dedicated to their cause, it is nearly impossible to design a strategy to respond. Terrorists rarely have targetable assets, either financially or militarily. Efforts to freeze terrorist financial assets are hampered by the vastness of the international banking system, and only in cases where states are supporting terrorists is it possible to find a military target. All attempts to destroy al-Qaida's infrastructure are laudable, and the United States should continue to pursue the perpetrators of the September 11 attacks. But it is crucial to remember that these efforts have limited value.

In sum, the vulnerability of the United States to bioterrorism, the lack of effective international means, and ingrained Cold War foreign policy concepts make responding to the bioterrorist threat exceedingly complex and challenging.

POLICY RECOMMENDATIONS

Policies to address the bioterrorist threat come in three broad categories: addressing terrorism generally, responding to a mass-casualty bioterrorist incident specifically, and maximizing all available international options.

The United States should continue to use all means at its disposal to eliminate the current terrorist threat from al-Qaida and related organizations. This includes raising the costs of sponsoring terrorism so high that terrorists will not be able to operate easily; maximizing intelligence operations directed against terrorism; and making it clear that terrorism is unacceptable, in order to deter future attacks. In addition, the United States should work very closely with its international partners to coordinate efforts designed to reduce the biological weapons threat. Security will be increased if the taboos against biological weapons are strengthened and the international community works together to address the threat.

There are limits to what the United States can do nationally and internationally to address bioterrorism. Therefore, policymakers should accept that it is impossible to eliminate completely either the terrorist threat or the threat from bioterrorism. It is therefore highly critical that the United States prepare itself to detect and respond to a bioterrorist incident. This includes steps to:

  • Immediately augment the public health system. This includes increasing funding and resources that will enable the public health system to increase its capacity.
  • Design and implement an extensive surveillance network for disease outbreaks.
  • Link all health providers to the Internet, and create online resources that will serve as the central repository for disease information. Real-time data will enable health officials to monitor public health and identify critical developments before they become unmanageable.
  • Upgrade laboratory capabilities so that many more labs have the ability to identify pathogens, using standardized procedures which will also need to be developed.
  • Educate and inform all health-care providers to recognize the signs and symptoms of suspicious outbreaks.

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(The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the U.S. Government.)

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