Saturday, 17 June 2017

Terrorist Use of Biological Weapons: The Threshold Has Not Been Crossed.


Terrorist Use of Biological Weapons: The Threshold Has Not Been Crossed.


The probability of a contemporary terrorist group using biological weapons is explored in this paper. There are many advantages to the use of these weapons to achieve terrorist motives including the ability to cause widespread panic and fear.  Although certain terrorists and some other groups in society have already demonstrated that they have both the intention and resources to develop such a weapon, which has provided a degree of capability, developing such a weapon poses significant challenges for any terrorist group. Terrorist groups prefer to use tried and proved methods favouring evolution over revolution: once a tactic has proven to be effective it will be adopted by other groups. Biological weapons have not yet proved to be more effective than conventional weapons. In the small cases where these weapons have been used the cost has been high to the terrorist organisation resulting in destruction. There are significant inhibitions to the use of biological weapons both at the organisational and personal level: indiscriminate inhumane killing or damage to the environment instance is prohibited by Islam.


Biological Terrorism, Psychological impact of terrorism, Aum Shinrikyo, Terrorist motives, Rajneeshee cult, al-Qaeda, Weapons of mass destruction.


The purpose of this paper is to explore the probability of a contemporary terrorist group using biological weapons. Biological weapons, Del Vecchio and Cesar (2009, p 267) argue have been used in conflicts for hundreds, if not thousands of years. For insistence, in the fourteenth century bodies of plague victims were catapulted over the defences of the city of Kaffa by the Tartas. Many historians believe refugees fleeing that conflict brought with them the ‘Black Death’ to Europe. (Vogue, 2013, p 267)  Biological terrorism is “. . . the intentional use of microorganisms or toxins . . . to cause death or disease in humans, animals or plants[.]” (Ashfield et al, 2003, p 515) It is the contention of this paper that biological terrorist attacks are possible – in fact have already occurred – however, conventional methods continue to be the most effective. In exploring this contention the paper will first explore terrorism, its motives and particularly the propensity to cause fear.  The elements of a successful biological attack -- including the psychological impact -- will follow, contrasted against the evolution of terrorist tactics. The paper will conclude with restraints against the use of biological weapons using Islam and in particular al-Qaeda given its prominence in current terrorism discourse.  

Terrorism: motives and fear.
Terrorists according to Cary (2009, p 13) are “. . . determent to impose their will upon others. Unlike nation states . . . terrorists resort to violence as the first and final solution.” There is significant academic literature that describes the motivations of terrorism. In a survey of academic writings on terrorism, Alex Schmid and Albert Jongman found the following key elements:
1.    Use of violence;
2.    Symbolic choices of victim;
3.    Performance by an organisation;
4.    Advanced planning;
5.    Operational seriality;
6.    An absence of moral restraint
7.    Political motivation; and
8.    The use of fear and anxiety. (Weimann, 2006, p 21)

Susan Pinto and Grant Wardlaw (1989, p 4) argued that terrorism has two broad goals: (i) to induce widespread fear in the population; and (ii) provoke the government to overreact and thereby undermine their legitimacy. Clive Williams (2004, p 7) defines terrorism as “. . . politically . . . motivated violence, directed generally against non-combatants, intended to shock and terrify, to achieve strategic outcomes.” Strategic outcomes are usually to polarise the population, undermine the government, or cause government forces to react violently (p 9). Whilst Louise Richardson (2006, p 105) summed up the motives as to achieve revenge, renown and reaction. Jonathan Tucker (1999, p 501) classifies terrorist motives into four main groups:
1.    Nationalist or separatist agendas;
2.    Retaliation or revenge for real or perceived injury;
3.    Protest government policy; and
4.    Defend animal rights.

These motivations are not necessarily mutually exclusive. 

According to Alexander and Klein (2003, p494) “[t]errorism is psychological warfare.” John Gearson (2002, p 8) argues that the essence of terrorism is the utilisation of fear, illustrating this point with a quote from the Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu: “To fight and conquer in all your battles is not the supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.” The ability to cause fear is an important element of terrorism as fear and panic will undermine public resolve or cause an overreaction that undermines legitimacy. As Eliza Manningham-Butler (2003 p 3) the head of British intelligence agency MI5 argues, “[n]ormal life is what the terrorist seeks to destroy and creating fear is part of their agenda.” 

Development of biological weapons.
There are four categories of biological agents/pathogens which can be used as weapons: naturally occurring poisons or toxins; viruses; bacteria and plagues. (White, 2009, p 102) According to Kellman (2001) there are five characteristics that determine a pathogen’s value as a biological weapon: (i) pathogenicity; (ii) contagious or infectious characteristics; (iii) the progress of contagion and resistance to protective measures or intervention; (iv) degree of lethality; and (v) potential risk to the terrorists. Whereas Bates and Asgar-Jirhandeh (2002, p 21) outline four factors: (i) size of infectious dose; (ii) mode of transmission; (iii) environmental stability; and (iv) availability of therapeutic measures. Nevertheless, they concur regarding their respective assessments of the agents most likely to be used as a biological weapon which are outlined in the table below:

Incubation Period
Means of transmission
1 day to 8 weeks
non contagious
2 to 72 hours
non contagious
2 to 3 days
Flea bites
Inhalation of infectious droplets from other people
7 to 19 days
prolonged face-to-face contact with infected person
4 to 10 hours
Inhalation, Ingestion
Non contagious

Source: Bates and Asgari-Jirbandeh, 2002, p 22; Kuhr & Haver, 2001, p 1036; and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2013)  

Anthrax is the agent most often mentioned as the weapon of choice: it is highly stable,  resistant to environmental circumstance and once an area is contaminated it is difficult to irradiate. (Kellman, 2001) For instance, following the 2001 Anthrax postal incidents in the United States it took months to decontaminate the Hart Senate Office Building at a cost of over $20 million. (Allison, 2004, p 59) United States military weapons program tests “. . . conducted in San Francisco [showed] . . . the aerosolized release of simulated anthrax positively demonstrated an effective attack on an urban population . . .  and the test in New York City . . . demonstrate[d] . . . an effective attack on an underground subway system.” (Kuhr and Haver, 2001, p 1034) Smallpox also poses a significant risk as it is contagious (Kellman, 2001) and there is little immunity since smallpox was irradiated in the late 1970s. (Bates and Asgari-Jirbandeh, 2002, p 25) The ‘Dark Winter’ exercise -- conducted for the U.S. National Security Council at Andrews Air Force Base, Washington, on 22-23 June 2001 -- modelled a smallpox attack: within two months there were one million fatalities with a further two million infected. (‘Dark Winter,’ 2001)  

It is not a difficult task to produce toxins in crude facilities as a senior Scotland Yard officer observed after raiding the lab producing Ricin in London: “. . . this was a garden shed, kitchen chemistry, and all that was required was stuff that could be picked up on the average high street.” (O’Neill and McGrory, 2006, p 245) However, acquiring the right pathogen does not necessarily lead to an effective weapon. Dr Raymond Zilinskas outlines that an effective biological attack requires: (i) suitable quantity of toxin/pathogen; (ii) an appropriate formulation of the agent; (iii) appropriate container to store and transport the agent; and (iv) effective manner of dispersal. (Salama and Hansell, 2007, p 636) All stages require scientific expertise and equipment. (Cary, 2009, p 17) It would appear effective dispersal of the agent is where many difficulties occur; for instance, despite al-Qaeda having considerable literature on biological weapons on its websites they are relatively devoid of instructions regarding delivery. (Salama and  Hansell, 2007, p 637) There are basically three methods of delivery: airborne release, contamination of water supply and contamination of food. (Committee on Environmental Health and Committee on Infectious Diseases, 2006, p 1271) Contamination of the water supply is problematic as it would require a large quantity of agent to overcome dilution and the purification process in western cities. (Barnaby, 2002, p 55) Despite devoting considerable resources to this problem the Libyan and Iraqi weapons programs never overcome dispersal issues. (Salama and  Hansell, 2007, p 638) 

After the Aum Shinrikyo cult launched their 30 March 1995 Sarin (a chemical weapon) attack on the Tokyo Subway many herald this as a new age of terrorism. (Gearson, 2002, p 13) Gearson (2002, p 20), however, highlights that “[t]errible though the deaths of twelve people . . . was, it did not represent quite the technological watershed as which it is sometimes been presented.” Aum – which relied upon airborne dispersal -- had a considerable clandestine biological program and attempted the ‘attacks that never were’: of over twenty (ten biological) attempted attacks, only the 30 March attack was in anyway successful. (Kaplan, 1999, p 26) 

However, there has been a successful case of widespread food contamination. In 1981 the followers of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh purchased a ranch in Wasco County in Origan establishing a commune, eventually incorporated as the City of Rajneeshpuram. (Torok et al,1997) The city was constructed on land zoned for agriculture that caused controversy and tension with their neighbours; however, incorporation give them the advantage of establishing their own police force and access to other state facilities. (Miller, Broad, and Engleberg, 2002, p 15) As tensions rose, cult members became increasingly hostile towards anyone who opposed their plans. In response, they decided to influence the upcoming local government elections. (Barnaby, 2002, p 43) Rather than a proposal to crash an aeroplane into The Dalles court house, they opted for biological agents to incapacitate the electorate: ironically 16 year later al-Qaeda would do the opposite. (Zaitz, 2011) Cult members contaminated salad bars at restaurants in The Dalles with salmonella bacteria purchased with the advantage of their ‘city status’ from commercial suppliers. Over 751 infections occurred, overwhelming local hospital facilities, no fatalities were recorded. (Torok et al,1997) The salad bars were ideal as the chilled environment allowed the bacteria to propagate and poor food handling standards caused cross contamination. (Torok et al,1997)  Although the strain of salmonella was not common in the area, the outbreak was initially considered unintentional. It was not until the cult began to break apart and an informer came forward that authorities turned towards a criminal investigation. 

Despite the relative success of the Rajneeshee cult, their operational deployment of biological weapons has not been emanated by other terrorist groups. Successful tactics are normally copied by other groups. For instance, once Hezbollah started using suicide bombings in Lebanon, other groups quickly replicated with it spreading within and outside the theatre: for instance Sri Lanka. (White, 2009 p253) Robertson (2004, p 51) argues whilst terrorists are radical politically, tactically they are conservative. Hence, it is proposed that terrorists favour evolution of tactics rather than a revolution. The suicide bomber was an evolution of the car bomb. 9/11 adopted the tactics of the 1970s hijacker, combined them with the suicide bomber and adapted them for greater effect: the conspirators used little more than knives with great effect. (Lawler, 2001 p 2182) Jenkins (1995) outlines that “. . . success is vital; failure erodes moral and loses members . . . if tactics stay the same, there is little need to alter weapons.” Nobel Prize winning geneticists Joshua Lederberg predicted the possibility of “. . . an Oklahoma style attack complicated by the inclusion of a kilogram of anthrax spores as a kind microbiological shrapnel along with explosives . . . [imagine] its implications for salvage and rescue[.]”(Barnaby, 2002, p 40) This has already occurred although with chemical weapons: the 1995 World Trade Centre bomb contained cyanide (Kaplan, 1999, p 26) and chlorine has been mixed in improvised explosive devises in Iraq. (U.S. Department of State, 2007) However, the chemical element of the 1995 attempt were ultimately unsuccessful with the explosion burning up the chemical.  Nevertheless, the evolution of terrorist tactics is unpredictable. Although in hindsight there were warning signs – 1994 Ramzi Yousef Philippine Plot to blow up eleven passenger plans (Bergen, 2001, p 151) and 1994 hijack of Air France Flight 8969 (Jenkins,1995 and Taylor, 2008) -- 9/11 was a watershed: according to Allison (2004, p 53) “. . . we learned on 9/11, even the everyday instruments of modern life  (like airplanes) can be turned into weapons.”  

Targets: people and agriculture.
Fear is one of the objectives of a terrorist attack. According to Alexander and Klein (2003, p 493) people have “. . . vestigial fears of microbial and viral agents, fears that have been recorded throughout history and particularly during the plague epidemics of the Middle Ages.” Polatin, Young and Mayer (2005, p 313) outline the psychological and physiological effects of fear:

When . . .  threatened, there is an alternation and disruption of homeostatic regulation. This activities the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis to immediately prepare the organism for ‘fight or flight.’ 

These primeval responses have the potential to produce mass panic (Kellman, 2001) that can overwhelm the healthcare system with suffers of acute autonomic arousal: symptoms brought on by fear of the attack rather than the agent itself. (Holloway, et al, 2007) Cary (2009, p 16) has produced a list of twelve psychological responses to a biological attack that include horror, anger, panic, paranoia, and loss of faith in social institutions: these achieve many of the motives of terrorism. For instance, paranoia was evident after the 2001 anthrax mail incident when some people placed their mail in microwave ovens. (Allison, 2004, p 59) Di Giovanni (1999, p 1500) argues that even a hoax can take on a life of its own and cause similar effects to a real attack. For instance, in a study following an anthrax hoax in South Wales, United Kingdom, 45% reported symptoms of acute anxiety even after the substance was shown to be inert. (Mason and Lyons, 2003, p 352) 

The decontamination process -- a necessary component of any response to a biological weapon incident -- is a significant psychological trauma in itself: whether that be a creditable hoax or actual deployment.  This consists of disrobing – the removal of clothing – and showering: the process is done outdoors – where protection of dignity is very difficult to maintain – to prevent cross contamination of first responders and medical facilities. (Holloway, et al, 2007) This is particularly acute with children where “. . . decontamination can be frightening . . . exacerbated by the identity-concealing PPE[.]”(Committee on Environmental Health and Committee on Infectious Diseases, 2006, p 1272) The involvement of children, particularly if they are disrobed, can also be acutely demoralising to the wider public: this was evident when blood smeared young children only in their underwear ran from the scene of the jihadist siege of Beslan School #1 (Ferency, 2009) or footage following the chemical attacks in Aleppo Syria. (Webb, 2013) This lack of dignity accounted for considerable psychological injuries from the Tokyo Subway attack. (Alexander and Klein, 2003, p 494) 

There is much focus upon the threat posed by biological terrorism to people; however, there is an equal if not greater threat to agriculture. Sequeria (1999, p 48) contends that “exotic . . . outbreak[s] represents threats to agriculture, to our environment, and to the health and national security of the United States.” According to Wheelis, Casagrande and Madden (2002, p 572) only a small amount of agent is required to create an epidemic of an exotic disease which can be prepared with little risk to the terrorists. Due to limited biodiversity used in agriculture, loss of one species could be devastating to food supplies. (Alberici, 2013) Furthermore, there is a moral difference between targeting humans and plants/animals which may make the latter a more acceptable target.  This was emphasised by the United States National Guard Colonel Robert Pratt: “Terrorist adversaries will not overlook the overwhelming impact that invasive species could have on the United States.” (Carter and Gore, 2013, p 299) For instance, foot-and-mouth disease could be introduced by sourcing the pathogen from a region where it occurs naturally, as there is little herd immunity it quickly spreads throughout an unaffected area. This was demonstrated by the non-suspicious 2007 outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in the United Kingdom: their industry was devastated losing in excess of $30 billion. (Carter and Gore, 2013, p 301)  A threat to release foot-and-mouth disease was made in Queensland in 1984 demanding prison reforms within twelve weeks or inflicted wild pigs would be released. (Robertson, 2004, p 51 and James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, 2009) One recent attack along these lines occurred in the United States involving the introduction of an invasive pest the zebra mussel: although technically not a biological agent.  Threats were made to a Mid-Western Congressman that if he voted in-favour of internet gambling reforms, zebra mussel would be released in freshwater lakes of his state: when he ignored the threat the pest soon appeared. (Carter and Gore, 2013, p 299) As outlined by Jonathan Tucker, promoting animal rights can be a motive for terrorism. For instance Ingrid Newkirk president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals outlined the virtues of a biological attack targeting animals:

. . . that it [foot-and-mouth disease] comes here [the United States] it will bring economic harm only for those who profit from giving people heart attacks and by giving animals a concentration camp existence. It would be good for animals, good for human health, and good for the environment. (Wheelis, Casagrande, and Madden, 2002, p 573)   

Culling is the primary method of containing an outbreak which is devastating and produces emotive media footage. For instance in the 2007 UK foot-and-mouth outbreak around one thousand animals were killed by the disease; however, millions more were killed to contain the outbreak. (Carter and Gore, 2013, p 301)  

Islam, al-Qaeda and the use of Biological Weapons.
Jenkins (1995, p 44) argues that “terrorists are governed by self-imposed constraints, including their own moral qualms[.]” For instance, Stone (2009, p 772) argues “. . . deterrence works by persuading an adversary that costs flowing from a cause of action will outweigh the benefits.” There is a stigma associated with the use of biological weapons. Due to the stigma the costs outweigh the benefits: as use of the weapons is problematic, it is difficult to distinguish between large and small scale use. (Browne, 2006, p 6). Gurr and Cole (2002, p 164) provide a list of psychological inhibitions which prevent the use of biological weapons: (i) personal belief systems of the individual; (ii) organisational factors; (iii) lethality of the weapon; and (iv) target selection. The organisational factors and structure are important as “ . . . evident from past record of NBC [nuclear, biological and chemical] terrorism is that the more serious cases involved groups with authoritarian decision making structures, particularly religious and cults.” (Gurr and Cole, 2002, p 168) However, it is interesting that both the Rajneeshee and Aum Shinrikyo showed restraint. Aum specifically ruled out the use of AIDS, typhoid or hepatitis due to the damage those pathogens may cause. (Gurr and Cole, 2002, p 180) Furthermore, the Tokyo, 9/11 and The Dalles attacks show that once a group becomes a strategic threat they can expect a considerable backlash that can threaten the survival of the movement. (Jenkins, 1995) 

Islam is very selective regarding the way force can be used in conflicts. Sohail Hashmi (2009, p 323) rejects the use of biological weapons -- despite the Qur’an and Hadith providing numerous justifications for the use of force -- for the following reasons:
1.    Does not permit a level of discrimination between combatants and non-combatants (“Fight those who fight against you, but do not transgress limits” (Qur’an 2:190));
2.    The manner in which the weapons kill and maim violates Islamic teachings to fight humanely;
3.    Cause lasting damage to the environment (“. . . they are communities like you.” (Qur’an 6:38)); and
4.    Any resources devoted to the use of biological weapons are israf (waste) since they cannot be used.

The President of the International Union of Muslims Yusf Al-Qaradawi, concurs with many of Hashmi’s points stating: “The ethical constitution of legitimate war in Islam dictates that it is prohibited to kill anyone except those who are fighting. In this legitimate war, fighting is restricted to face-to-face confrontation between Muslims and the army of the aggressors.” (Stone, 2009, p 767) Nevertheless, Hashmi does identify historical precedence for the use of biological weapons sighting an unpublished thirteenth century manuscript of Hanafi law permitting the use of “. . . smokes, prepared liquids, and ill-smelling deadly odours, for causing damage to forts and castles and horrifying the enemy.” (Hashmi, 2009, p 329) This could reasonably be interpreted to permit the use of biological weapons. Nonetheless, on the balance, Hashmi argues that “. . . on the basis of Islamic ethics, then they cannot . . . contemplate any use of weapons of mass destruction.” (Hashmi, 2009, p 346)

Despite the obvious legitimacy questions, Osama Bin Laden as far back as 1998 stated the acquisition of unconventional weapons – including biological weapons – is a religious duty. (Corera, 2006, p 161) The al-Qaeda leadership continues to focus on and justify mass slaughter. (Bunn, et al, 2011, p 10) The justifications for the use of these weapons relate to legitimate war and proportionality.  In his ‘Declaration of Jihad’ bin Laden makes the case that Islam is under attack and hence they are engaged in a defensive jihad:

The massacres that have taken place in Tajikistan, Burma, Kashmir, Assam, the Philippines, Fatani, Ogaden, Somalia, Eritrea, Chechnya, and Bosnia-Herzegovina send shivers down our spines and stirrup our passions. (Browne, 2006, p 21)

Bin Laden links the killings of millions of Muslims by American forces and the government answerable to the people through democracy makes it justifiable to target Americans ‘on mass.’ (Browne, 2006, p 22) Shaykh Nasir bin Hamamid al-Fahda issued a fatwa to this effect:

Anyone who considers America’s aggression against Muslims in the past decade . . will conclude that striking her is permissible merely on the rule of treating as one has been treated. (Salama and Hansell, 2007, p 627)

Hashmi (2009, p 322), however, claims that al-Qaeda purely focuses upon legitimate grounds and ignores legitimate means. Stone (2009, p 767) observes that “. . . Muslims the world over remain concerned about some of Al Qaeda’s methods, and that these concerns have been taken seriously.”

Bin Laden’s deputy and successor Zawahiri has been acutely aware of the need to maintain constituency support citing previous attempts of failed jihad against the Egyptian government. (Browne, 2006, p 14) This is evident in his criticism of Zarqawi’s brutal tactics in Iraq:

. . . we are in a battle, and that more than half of this battle is taking place in the battle field of the media. And that we are in a media battle in a race for the hearts and minds of our umma. (Browne, 2006, p 17)  

Nonetheless, there is evidence that al-Qaeda did attempt to acquire biological weapons. For instance:
1.    Hambali working on anthrax in the lead up to 9/11. (Bunn, et al, 2011, p 32)
2.    Training video discovered in Afghanistan showing experiments on a dog. (Salama and Hansell, 2007, p 624)
3.    CIA reports show al-Qaeda operatives training in Afghanistan for use of biological weapons. (Stern, 2001, p 84)
4.    Al-Qaeda leadership met with Pakistani scientists in the months preceding 9/11. (Suskind, 2006, p 27)
5.    “Documents recovered from facilities in Afghanistan show that bin Laden was pursuing a sophisticated biological weapons research program.” CIA Director Tenet. (Johnston and Risen, 2002)
6.    Rudimentary research facilities discovered in Afghan mountain caves near Shah-i-kot, Kabul and Jalalabad. (Beeston, 2002, p19)
7.    Finding of 40 dead al-Qaeda operatives in a cave in Algeria of plague. (Salama and Hansell, 2007)
8.    Recipes found at training sites down loaded from white supremacist websites. (Hoffman, 2006, p 275)
9.    The conspirators in the London Ricin plot trained in al-Qaeda Afghan camps. (Salama and Hansell, 2007, p 622)

However, evidence that al-Qaeda were able to weaponise pathogen/toxins – other than ricin and cyanide -- is limited and questionable. (Hosenball, 2004, p 8) There is some evidence from Bin Laden that his quest for unconventional weapons were a deterrent against United States. (Salama and Hansell, 2007, p 618) However, it is concerning that there are similarities between the rhetoric associated with unconventional weapons and those leading up to 9/11. (Bunn, et al, 2011, p 24) As the group continues to be supressed and may trend towards defeat or disintegration it is possible that they may use biological weapons in one last stand. (Hoffman, 2006, p 278) However, this could be counterproductive and lead to the restoration of the overwhelming international support the United States enjoyed following 9/11. (Browne, 2006, p 61) 

This paper has argued that there is a possibility for use of biological weapons by a contemporary terrorist group. There are many advantages to the use of these weapons to achieve terrorist motives including the ability to cause widespread panic and fear: evident in the 2001 Anthrax incidents and hoaxes. However, terrorist prefer to evolve tactics rather than be revolutionary; therefore, it is more likely to see a biological weapon combined with a conventional weapon to produce a ‘dirty bomb.’ If the biological element fails the attack would not be a total failure as there will still be the conventional blast. Vogue (2013, p 48) referred to Arthur Clarke’s novel Superiority where in a factious conflict one side pursued revolutionary warfare whilst the other utilised rudimentary weapons. The first side lost as although their advanced weapons worked well in the laboratory they failed on the battlefield. Much appears to be the same with biological weapons. The recent attack on the Westgate Shopping Mall in Kenya – which followed the 2006 Mumbai tactics – shows how successful rudimentary weapons can be: over 67 people were killed (Urquhart, 2013) and it sparked fear around the world specifically regarding shopping centre security. (Campbell, 2013)  If biological weapons are used it is likely to be a manner not predicted: perhaps a white supremacist group following gun ownership reforms target United States agriculture industry so as to undermine the federal government. It should be remembered that the 1995 Oklahoma bombing was the most destructive terrorist attack on U.S. soil before 9/11. (Lambert, 2011, p 441)



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