Biological Terrorism – The Real Threat

05 Sep

“As long as rapid innovations in biological science and the malevolent intentions of terrorists and proliferators continue on trajectories that are likely to intersect sooner or later, the risk that biological weapons pose to humanity must not be minimized or ignored,” (World at Risk, 2009, p. 12-13).

Perhaps the greatest risk from biological agents is from non-state actors, such as domestic and foreign terrorist groups who like the idea of inflicting mass casualties in a covert manner. I must emphasize again, biological agents are very different from chemical weapons – intubation periods may range from a few days to perhaps a week or more, depending on the agent used (Jane’s, 2009, p. 160). Medical professionals will probably not even know they have a problem until days later, when people begin presenting to the hospitals with similar symptoms. Even then, unless there is an active medical surveillance program in place in the community, the local Health Department may not connect the dots immediately. Biological agents may also produce results all out of proportion to the actual threat; remember the public fear during the 2001 anthrax scare? I’ll examine two real-world incidents where non-state actors attempted to conduct biological attacks – one succeeded, the other did not:

The Rajneeshees:

This was an Indian cult with significant financial resources which immigrated to the United States and set up shop near The Dallas, Oregon in 1981. The cult effectively took over a nearby city by sheer force of numbers, had perhaps 10,000 local members and even their own medical clinic with a state-licensed medical laboratory (Tucker, 2000, p. 118). Their biological attack was conducted to sicken and incapacitate as many local residents as possible so they could not vote in a local election, which the Rajneeshees intended to influence.

The chief architect behind this biological attack was a thoroughly evil woman named Ma Anaud Puja, a registered nurse and cult member who “delighted in death, poisons, and the idea of carrying out various plots,” (Tucker, 121). Other, less rabid cultists secretly referred to her as their own “Dr. Mendele.”

Puja took “bactrol discs” containing Salmonella Typhimurium from the cult’s state-licensed medical laboratory and had a technician culture the bacterium (Tucker, 127-128). The cult had a legitimate use for these discs:

“The RMC had a legitimate need for Salmonella Typhimurium because it was one of the control organisms used to meet the requirements for quality assurance expected of licensed clinical laboratories. The RMC laboratory was required to test the proficiency of its technicians by having them identify samples contaminated with known agents, and it maintained stocks of common pathogens for this purpose,” (Tucker, p. 127).

The cultists took the cultured salmonella and sprinkled it onto salad bars at ten different restaurants. Puja was reported to have giggled madly after one such foray and remarked that she’d had a “good time,” (Tucker, p. 134). 751 people were sickened, some quite seriously. Nobody died. Prior to the 2001 anthrax attacks, it was the only successful biological attack perpetrated on American soil.

Aum Shinrikyo:

I covered this bizarre doomsday cult in a posting a few months back. This is the same group whose claim to fame is the 1995 Toyko subway sarin attack. They also had an active biological weapons program, but their efforts were futile. They attempted perhaps ten attacks, including one where they released anthrax spores from a rooftop building in Tokyo. The attack failed, some reports say due to the low virulence of the anthrax (Tucker, p. 271) and others claim the cult used the wrong strain of anthrax (World at Risk, p. 271).

Al Qaeda:

In keeping with Al-Qaeda’s long-standing hatred of America and the West, they have attempted to get a viable biological weapons program going for some time. I see no evidence they have approached the capabilities of Aum Shinrikyo, or even the Rajneeshees, for that matter.

Prior to 9/11, they hired a Pakistani veterinarian to help them develop an anthrax program. This scheme fell apart as the man balked over money and abandoned the project. Al-Qaeda later hired a Malaysian who studied biology at California State University; however, this man was apprehended shortly after 9/11.

Outlook Grim:

Aum Shinrikyo and the Rajneeshees sought out talent to help them develop biological weapons – Aum even had its own chemical and biological weapons plant. Aum attempted at least ten biological attacks and failed, the Rajneeshees succeeded on their first try.

“Aum’s failure to carry out a mass-casualty attack, despite its access to scientific expertise and ample financial resources, suggests that one should not oversimplify or exaggerate the threat of bioterrorism. Developing a biological weapon that can inflict mass casualties is an intricate undertaking, both technically and operationally complex,” (World at Risk, 11).

Both of these organizations were further along than Al-Qaeda likely is right now – but the key concept is that biological weapons are difficult to use, unless an organization can recruit appropriate talent.

“In other words, 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,” (World at Risk, 11).

In their report, World at Risk, the President’s Commission on WMD Proliferation and Terrorism stated the threat from a biological agent is more likely than a nuclear threat: “[T]he acquisition of deadly pathogens, and their weaponization and dissemination in aerosol form, would entail fewer technical hurdles than the theft or production of weapons-grade uranium or plutonium and its assembly into an improvised nuclear device,” (p. 11).

Another disturbing aspect to biological terrorism is that so many of the processes are “dual use,” meaning they can be used for good or nefarious purposes, and who can tell otherwise?

“As DNA synthesis technology continues to advance at a rapid pace, it will soon become feasible to synthesize nearly any virus whose DNA sequence has been decoded—such as the smallpox virus, which was eradicated from nature in 1977—as well as artificial microbes that do not exist in nature. This growing ability to engineer life at the molecular level carries with it the risk of facilitating the development of new and more deadly biological weapons,” (World at Risk, p. 12).

Future Topics:

I’ve covered the risks from biological agents over the past few months. I will delve into nuclear terrorism next, and there is some frightening info to cover! I’ll begin examining some of the key recommendations from World at Risk in my next posts.


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

Jane’s. (2009). Jane’s chem-bio handbook (3rd ed.). Surrey, UK.

Tucker, J, (2000). Toxic terror: Assessing terrorist use of chemical and biological weapons.Cambridge, MA: BCSIA.

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Posted by on September 5, 2011 in Uncategorized


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