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Assessing the Biological Weapons and Bioterrorism Threat

Authored by Mr. Milton Leitenberg. | December 2005

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This monograph is comprised of six substantive sections. An opening introductory section sets the global context in which the threat of ?bioterrorism? should be placed. It briefl y surveys other nonmilitary challenges to national and global security that the United States and other nations currently face, and will face in the coming decades. It does so, where possible, by including the mortality levels currently resulting from these factors, particularly natural disease agents, and the levels that can be projected for them. This provides a comparative framework within which bioterrorism can more properly be assessed.

The second section, using U.S. Government sources, surveys the evolution of offensive state biological weapons programs. This demonstrates that offi cial estimates of the number of such programs have diminished by between one-fourth and one-third, from a peak of some 13 nations in mid-2001. What is known regarding any proliferation from these programs is also surveyed, as well as state assistance to nonstate actors.

The third section surveys the evolution of the efforts by nonstate actors?terrorist groups?to obtain, develop, and use biological agents. The survey covers the entire 20th century, and up to the present day, focusing on the last 25 years. The efforts by the two groups which involved the most serious attempts to produce biological agents, the Japanese Aum Shinrikyo group between 1990-94 and the al-Qaida organization in Afghanistan between 1997-98 and December 2001, are reviewed in detail. Using information provided by declassifi ed documents, as well as information from other sources, this section provides as detailed an examination as is available of the BW efforts of the al-Qaida organization.

The Japanese Aum group did not succeed in obtaining virulent strains of pathogens, nor was it apparently capable of working successfully with the strains that it did have. The al-Qaida group also appears not to have been able to obtain pathogens, nor to have reached the stage of laboratory work by the time U.S. military forces occupied Afghanistan.

As the most signifi cant examples available, these highlight all the more the unique character of the anthrax postal mailings in the fall of 2001 in the United States. The quality of the material that was distributed demonstrates the dangerous possibilities that could be achieved. However, until the perpetrator is identifi ed, and unless it becomes possible to exclude any links with the U.S. biodefense program, it remains impossible to assess the relevance of this event as an indicator of what might be expected from international terrorist organizations.

The fourth section reviews the public portrayal of the BW threat by U.S. offi cials. It includes a review of offi cial and unoffi cial exercise scenarios that have been carried out in the past half-dozen years, as well as recommended planning scenarios proposed by U.S. Government agencies. It includes a very detailed examination of several of these scenarios. Many of the exercises are predicated on the repeated use of the aerosolized pathogens which produce plague and smallpox. These pathogens are not easy to obtain, and they are relatively diffi cult to work with. Producing aerosolized formulations of them is far beyond the current or near-term capabilities of any identifi ed international terrorist group.

The fi fth and fi nal section discusses the impact of the U.S. biodefense research program on the possible future development of biological weapons. A signifi cant issue is the interaction of constraints and limitations imposed by the terms of the Biological Weapons Convention, an international treaty which the U.S. Government was instrumental in bringing about, and the greatly expanded U.S. biodefense research program already in progress and set out in planning documents for the near future. The current lack of departmental and government-wide oversight over these programs is noted.

The monograph ends with a brief section of conclusions, including policy recommendations.


A summary of the material presented in this monograph produces the following conclusions:

  • Significance of the problem.

    ?Bioterrorism? may or may not develop into a serious concern in the future, but it is not ?one of the most pressing problems that we have on the planet today.?
  • The evolution of state biological weapons programs.

    The number of state BW programs has apparently been reduced by one-third or one-fourth in the past 15 years. The remaining number of countries appears to be stable; no compensating rise in offensive state BW programs has been identifi ed. In addition, the U.S. Government?which has almost without exception in past decades been the only country to publicly identify WMD proliferants ? appears in its most recent statements to be qualifying the status of states with presumed offensive BW programs. To date, no state is known to have assisted any nonstate or terrorist group to obtain biological weapons.
  • The evolution of nonstate/terrorist biological weapon capabilities.

    The production and distribution of a dry powder anthrax product in the United States in 2001 is the most signifi cant event. However, understanding to what degree that demonstration of competence is relevant to ?traditional? terrorist groups is impossible until the perpetrator(s) of the anthrax events are identifi ed. If it was done with assistance, materials, knowledge, access, etc., derived from the U.S. biodefense program, the implications change entirely.

    The Rajneesh group (1984) succeeded in culturing Salmonella. The Japanese Aum Shinrikyo group failed to obtain, produce, or disperse anthrax and botulinum toxin. The steps taken by the al-Qaida group in efforts to develop a BW program were more advanced than the United States understood prior to its occupation of Afghanistan in November-December 2001. Nevertheless, publicly available information, including the somewhat ambiguous details that appeared in the March 31, 2005, report of the Commission on Intelligence Capabilities, indicates that the group failed to obtain and work with pathogens. Should additional information become available regarding the extent to which the al-Qaida BW effort had progressed, that assessment might have to be changed.

    Scenarios for national BW exercises that posit various BW agents in advanced states of preparation in the hands of terrorist groups simply disregard the requirements in knowledge and practice that such groups would need in order to work with pathogens. Unfortunately, 10 years of widely broadcast public discussion has provided such groups, at least on a general level, with suggestions as to what paths to follow. If and when a nonstate terrorist group does successfully reach the stage of working with pathogens, there is every reason to believe that it will involve classical agents, without any molecular genetic modifi cations. Preparing a dry powder preparation is likely to prove diffi cult, and dispersion to produce mass casualties equally so. Making predictions on the basis of what competent professionals may fi nd ?easy to do? has been a common error and continues to be so. The utilization of molecular genetic technology by such groups is still further off in time. No serious military threat assessment imputes to opponents capabilities that they do not have. There is no justifi cation for imputing to real world terrorist groups capabilities in the biological sciences that they do not posess.

  • Framing ?the threat? and setting the agenda of public perceptions and policy prescriptions.

    For the past decade the risk and immanence of the use of biological agents by nonstate actors/terrorist organizations ? ?bioterrorism? ? has been systematically and deliberately exaggerated. It became more so after the combination of the 9/11 events and the October-November 2001 anthrax distribution in the United States that followed immediately afterwards. U.S. Government offi cials worked hard to spread their view to other countries. An edifi ce of institutes, programs, conferences, and publicists has grown up which continue the exaggeration and scare-mongering. In the last year or two, the drumbeat had picked up. It may however become moderated by the more realistic assessment of the likelihood of the onset of a natural fl u pandemic, and the accompanying realization that the U.S. Government has been using the overwhelming proportion of its relevant resources to prepare for the wrong contingency.

    Others see exaggeration as necessary in order to prompt preparation. They acknowledge the exaggeration but argue that political action, the expenditure of public funds for bioterrorism prevention and response programs, will not occur without it. ?Bioterrorism? may come someday if societies survive all their other impending crises. However, the persistent exaggeration is not benign: it is almost certainly the single greatest factor in provoking interest in BW among terrorist groups, to the degree that it currently exists, for example, in the al-Qaida organization. Precisely this occurred: Their most senior leadership was provoked by statements regarding bioterrorism and its supposed ease by U.S. offi cials in 1996-97.

  • Costs of the U.S. biodefense program.

    On the grounds of ?necessity,? the U.S. biodefense research program appears to be drifting into violation of Article 1 of the BWC. There is little question but that U.S. offi cials would make that judgment of any other nation?s biodefense program in which the same kind of work was being carried out as is taking place and is planned by U.S. agencies, or in the case that agencies of another government put forward reinterpretations of the provisions of Article 1 of the BWC so as to imply that work could be done on ?defensive? biological weapons. A national-level oversight system to see that BWC compliance is maintained by all projects of the U.S. biodefense program?unclassifi ed, classifi ed, and perhaps yet other ?black? projects?does not exist. Should the BWC be weakened further and if other state programs begin to go down the same research path as the U.S. biodefense program, together with any eventual recourse to BW by nonstate actors, the international regime against the development of biological weapons may be irrevocably damaged.