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Learning to Love Anthrax

Who was behind the anthrax attacks of 2001? The FBI has still not solved the case and, at this rate, it probably never will. But even if we never solve the mystery, we still were taught a terrifying lesson in the perils of biological terrorism. We really do need to worry about biowarfare (BW) agents like anthrax and botulinum falling into the hands of groups like al Qaeda.

Or do we? Perhaps not as much as we think. Last year, Christian Enemark, a national-security expert at the Australian National University in Sydney, prepared a comprehensive evaluation, “Biological Attacks and the Non-State actor: A Threat Assessment.” Focusing on the use of salmonella bacteria by the Rajneesh cult in Washington State in 1984, the Aum Shinrikyo attacks in Japan in the early 1990’s, and the U.S. anthrax attacks, it offers a complete balance sheet of the pros and cons of using BW agents for terrorist purposes.

On the pro side from the terrorist’s point of view, one of the attractive features of using biological weapons is the effect on the “worried well.” Even small attacks, like the 2001 anthrax episode, which sickened seventeen people and killed five, play upon “the visceral human fear of infection” so that even a modest attack generates a huge impact:

People are acutely sensitive to the prospect of infection, as distinct from other health risks in everyday life such as smoking and high fat consumption. In addition, we tend to distinguish between types of infection based on the historical reputation of a disease, whether it is characterized by grotesque symptoms and/or high fatality rates, and how common or familiar it is. Cities function normally in the midst of a community-wide epidemic of regular influenza. But an outbreak of plague, responsible for the 14th-century Black Death in Europe, would be likely to cause widespread panic. And the highly lethal Ebola virus, although not easily transmissible between humans, inspires particular dread because it causes massive hemorrhaging in its victims. New or unfamiliar diseases can also engender a level of fear out of proportion to the threat they pose, in morbidity and mortality terms, relative to other diseases. This is demonstrated by the panic reaction to SARS in 2003. In China alone, over 100,000 people die each year from tuberculosis, and there are projected to be 10 million Chinese with HIV/AIDS by 2010.Yet SARS, which ultimately resulted in fewer than 400 Chinese deaths, generated dread to an extent vastly disproportionate to the disease’s ability to kill.

On the other side of the ledger–and I have drawn only small snippets from Enemark’s comprehensive accounting–if biological weapons can easily cause terror, they cannot readily be employed by non-state actors to kill on a mass scale.

Enemark cites research showing that cult-like organizations, “may be the least suited to meet the complex requirements for a BW program.” The Aum Shinrikyo case, in particular, “illustrates that a paranoid, fantasy-prone, and sometimes violent atmosphere [inside a cult] is not conducive to the sound scientific judgments needed to produce and weaponize biological agents.”

Aum’s leaders reinforced the cult’s doctrines among members through the use of physical isolation, beatings, physical torture, and the administration of hallucinogenic drugs such as LSD. As an organization, Aum was also fickle by nature and inclined to embark on numerous expensive, and sometimes bizarre, ventures rather than concentrate on perfecting a particular weapon. Its activities in pursuit of producing mass casualties included an expedition to acquire the Ebola virus during an outbreak in Zaire in October 1992. Aum also attempted to build a high-power laser weapon and sought a device for generating earthquakes.

Like Aum, al Qaeda is arguably “paranoid” and “fantasy-prone,” and its scientists–if it currently has any in its ranks–would definitely have to operate inside a violent environment. Even though al Qaeda has been able to plan some terrorism spectaculars, as on 9/11, its skills inside a bio-warfare lab might well lag.

Of course, states (like Saddam Hussein’s Iraq) face far fewer obstacles in developing biological weapons, and Enemark examines the possibility that a Saddam-like regime would provide a toxic agent to a group like al Qaeda. But he concludes that “any state anxious for its own survival would be most unlikely to entrust a BW capability to ruthless outsiders.”

Is Enemark right? Are we worrying too much about BW when we should be worrying about other things? However one answers that question, this is a paper deserving close attention.


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