Biological Weapons – A Primer

05 Jul

“ . . . the danger of CBW [chemical, biological warfare] terrorism has become particularly great because of the confluence of two trends: the growing accessibility of mass-casualty weapons and the emergence of new and more ruthless forms of religious and ideological fanaticism,” (Tucker, 2000, p. 12).

“ . . . just as a bullet is a harmless lump of lead without a cartridge and a rifle to deliver it, so most pathogens and toxins are not effective weapons in their natural state and must be processed (“weaponized”) and combined with a delivery system to make them capable of producing large numbers of casualties,” (World at Risk, 2009, p. 8).

• Thinking Back . . .

The anthrax attacks in the Fall of 2011, coming as they did on the heels of 9/11, stunned America. I know it scared me. My entire sense of security and invulnerability was swept away by these two paradigm-shifting events. I began to see the world as a very dangerous place. Though I was a teenager in the 1990s, I still remember watching news coverage of the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, the vehicle bomb attack on an Air Force barracks in Saudi Arabia in 1996, the African Embassy bombings in 1998, and the USS Cole attack in 2000. I was less than a year away from joining the Navy as a Security Forces member. I don’t really know why, but I felt I had to rush down to the recruiter’s office. On the way out the door, my father reminded me I wasn’t allowed to leave until the following August!  I felt helpless. How could this be happening to our country, I wondered? I don’t think I’m alone, perhaps in our own way, we all felt helpless.

This week’s posting is a primer on what, exactly, biological weapons are. I hope to present this in a clear, non-academic fashion. We cannot protect against the threat unless we know what a biological weapon is. I’d encourage you to download and read World at Risk, the subject of this series. The link is in the references section at the end of this posting.

• Real-world:

A week after September 11, letters containing 1–2 grams of dried anthrax bacterial spores were sent to three major television broadcast networks, the New York Post, and American Media International (AMI) in Florida, a publisher of supermarket tabloids. On October 9, two more letters bearing the same New Jersey postmark and containing a more refined preparation of dried anthrax spores were mailed to the Washington, D.C., offices of Senators Tom Daschle and Patrick Leahy. Anthrax contaminated postage which was sorted by an automated machine cross-contaminated still more letters, spreading the anthrax even further afield.

“Former NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw, who was one of the targets of the anthrax letters, testified about his experience at the Commission’s public hearing in New York City. About a week after September 11, 2001, Brokaw said, two of his assistants handled a letter addressed to him that contained a granular powder. Several days after coming in contact with the powder, both women developed fever, malaise, and ugly black skin lesions. Their mysterious illness touched off several days of confusion and missteps. Three times Brokaw was told by various health officials, including experts at the U.S. Army’s biodefense research center at Fort Detrick, in Maryland, that his assistants’ skin lesions had been caused by the bite of a brown recluse spider. Finally, nearly three weeks after the initial exposures, officials from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) made the correct diagnosis of cutaneous anthrax. Prior to this diagnosis, Brokaw recalled, there was “kind of an unsettled feeling in the [NBC] building, but we’re confining it because we don’t want to cause undue panic. You know, we’re operating based on what we’ve been told by very authoritative sources. Well, when we’re told that it is in fact an anthrax attack, that [my assistants] have cutaneous anthrax, all hell broke loose at 30 Rock. There were no [response] systems in place,” (World at Risk, 2009, p. 7).

• The Problem:

World at Risk posed the following very pertinent questions:

• What is the risk of another incident?

• How worried should the public be?

• And in the future, how will the bioscience revolution and the globalization of the biotechnology industry change the nature of the biological weapons threat?

These are critical questions. The dual-purpose nature of bio-technology is making it increasingly likely that the wrong people will get their hands on biological agents. I’m resisting the temptation to issue a doomsday prophesy, however, because as I’ve mentioned here and in other postings – intentions of a terrorist must match the capabilities for there to be a viable threat. This is a very critical concept frequently missed by the mainstream media. Remember the key finding from World at Risk that I mentioned in the previous posting:

“given the high level of know-how needed to use disease as a weapon to cause mass casualties, the United States should be less concerned that terrorists will become biologists and far more concerned that biologists will become terrorists,” (p. 11).

• What are Biological Agents, anyway?

“Biological agents are living organisms that cause fatal or incapacitating diseases, as well as toxins – nonliving poisons extracted from living bacteria, plants, and animals, or synthesized in the laboratory,” (Tucker, 2000, p. 4). Unlike chemical weapons, they have an intubation period of two days, or more, before symptoms develop. Examples include (Jane’s, 2005, p. 165):

• Anthrax

• Plague

• Smallpox

• Ebola

• Hemorrhagic fever

• Ricin

• Botulinum toxin

• Cholera

• Typhus

Not all biological agents are created equal. Some are more effective than others. There are three basic factors which determine how useful a biological agent is as a weapon:

Infectivity – the ability to infect a host and begin wreaking havoc;

Virulence – severity of the resulting illness;

Persistence – how long the agent can survive once released into the environment. This is a very important factor; Aum Shinrikyo tried to use botulinum toxin five times in Tokyo in the mid-1990s (Tucker, 2000, p. 221). Each attempt was unsuccessful, probably because of the low quality and persistency of the agent.

Conducting a biological attack is quite intricate, despite what Hollywood claims. Many factors are at play here, chiefly these (Jane’s, 2005, p. 159):

Find an Agent. You need to get your hands on a biological agent. A terrorist can either take a sample from a natural source (a person or sick animal) or steal it from a laboratory. I briefly discuss laboratory security, or lack thereof, in my last posting!

• Find a delivery system. This can be regular military or improvised munitions. Given the current jihadist trend toward individualized, less spectacular attacks, it is more likely that an attack will use simple devices which can produce an aerosol, including truck-mounted sprayers, crop sprayers, garden sprayers, fire extinguishers, cans of deodorant, etc. Explosives are a poor option; they usually kill most of the biological agent.

• Deliver the agent.  Meteorological conditions are critical here, unless the agent is distributed indoors.

• Meteorological conditions. The agent has to be distributed at the right altitude, at the right time of day, and with the optimum wind speed conditions. A terrorist who has done some rudimentary homework will overcome these hurdles by deploying the agent indoors.

• Wrap-up

Next week, I’ll delve into what the threats from state and non-state actors actually are. There are some interesting case studies from real-world events you may not know about – for instance, a domestic terrorist group conducted a biological attack on US soil in the 1980s and sickened hundreds of people in Oregon. The goal of this series is to discuss facts, not wild theories or conjecture. Hopefully we’re covering new ground here, and opening a few eyes to the threats facing our country.


Alibek, K., Dashiell, T., Dwyer, A., Layne, S., Patrick, W., Ponikvaar, D. . . & Sidell, F. (Eds.) (2005). Jane’s chem-bio handbook. Surrey, UK: Jane’s.

Graham, B., Talent, J., Allison, G., Cleveland, R., Rademaker, S., Roemer, T., Sherman, W., Sokolski, H. & Verma, R. (2008). World at risk: the report of the commission on the prevention of WMD proliferation and terrorism. Retrieved from

Tucker, J. (Ed.) (2000). Toxic terror: assessing terrorist use of chemical and biological weapons. Cambridge, MA: BCISA.

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Posted by on July 5, 2011 in WMD Analysis


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