Biological Weapons – A Primer

“ . . . 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


Security in Biological Laboratories

A few years back, inspectors from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) visited several BSL-4 laboratories throughout the United States to evaluate the security at the sites. A Bio-Safety Level 4 lab handles the most deadly viruses; common sense would dictate that the means to secure these viruses would be commensurate with their lethality. That was not the case. Some of the vulnerabilities noted at various labs were (World at Risk, 2008, p. 4):

• No barriers or fencing – in some instances inspectors could walk right up to the building housing the viruses;

• People strolling into the building through an unsecured loading dock;

• Inadequate camera coverage of the perimeter;

• A simple swing arm across the roadway to enforce vehicle access control;

• Unarmed security forces;

• Open windows into a portion of the facility housing the most lethal viruses, allowing easy surveillance from outside the perimeter.

All told, the GAO visited five BSL-4 labs and evaluated them against fifteen separate benchmarks. Two of them only received scores of 3/15 and 4/15, respectively. Despite this dismal performance, the United States is actually the leader in laboratory security (World at Risk, 2008, p. 5).

I’m not going to be a generic “expert” here and tell you that this is a grave danger because evil terrorists are plotting a full-scale assault on a BSL-4 laboratory – far from it. If you’ve read my previous postings, particularly my first on threat analysis, you’ll know I believe many warnings are issued without due interpretation.

Intentions often do not match the capabilities of a group. Al-Qaeda has not yet demonstrated the ability to acquire, develop and weaponize biological weapons. Their online manuals are amateurish and inadequate for their intentions. However, this may change very quickly. One of the most prescient points I’ve ever seen in a government document is this one:

“[G]iven 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, 2008, p. 11).

Why are there such glaring security deficiencies at BSL-4 laboratories? Lack of standards: “Select agent regulations do not mandate that specific perimeter security controls be present at BSL-4 labs, resulting in a significant difference in perimeter security between the nation’s five labs,” (GAO, 2009, p. 8).

This is inexcusable on two levels. First, because the Department of Homeland Security has not mandated these security standards. Second, because the officials at the laboratories have not taken steps, on their own, to improve security. At the very least, hire an outside company to do a physical security survey and vulnerability assessment of your facility!

This is a very sobering introduction to our risk from biological weapons. Just because security is not standardized and is generally poor at some facilities does not mean biological agents will walk off into the sunset. Biological agents require skill to utilize – Hollywood and the mass media have created a myth, whereby any steely-eyed moron can wipe a city off the map with a biological agent. The reality is much different.

In future, posts, I’ll delve deeper into this issue as we explore World at Risk.


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. New York, NY: Random House.

United States Government Accountability Office. (2009). BSL-4 Laboratories Improved Perimeter Security Despite Limited Action
by CDC
. Retrieved from

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Posted by on June 17, 2011 in WMD Analysis


WMD Proliferation – The Real Threat #1

I’m starting a new series where I’ll systematically examine a very important document – I doubt you’ve ever heard of it: “World at Risk – The Report of the Commission on the Prevention of WMD Proliferation and Terrorism,” (2008).

This was the result of a six-month commission charted by then-President Bush to examine the real threats posed by WMD proliferation. The results were very sobering and rather chilling. I am always on the lookout for constructive analysis related to Homeland Security and Antiterrorism. My eyes were opened by this document, and I think it deserves to be shared. I’m not sure how long this study will take, but I believe it’s worth doing.

I’m a security professional – I don’t put stock in hyperbole and conspiracy theories. I cite my references and facts in APA format like a good college boy – any academic types out there are probably beaming with pride right now! The issues I’ll address in this series are pertinent, salient points which need to be discussed. I’m not naive enough to believe that this blog will attract a large following, but for those who do drop by a time or two, I hope you find it worthwhile and sobering.

I’ll close with the first paragraph from the Commission’s report:

“The Commission believes that unless the world community acts decisively and with great urgency, it is more likely than not that a weapon of mass destruction will be used in a terrorist attack somewhere in the world by the end of 2013,” (World at Risk, 2008, p. xv).


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. New York, NY: Random House.

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Posted by on June 12, 2011 in WMD Analysis


TSA vs. Private Contractors

Recently, the TSA determined that private security organizations were not as efficient at screening passengers and their baggage at airports as they were. “In January 2011, Transportation Security Administration (TSA) chief, John Pistole, announced a halt to expansion of the use of private security screeners at US airports explaining that the TSA had found “no clear and substantial advantage” to expand the use of private contractors,” (Leggiere, 2011).

A new report, recently released, rebuts this claim. The story can be found here:

This function, of personnel screening at our nation’s airports, has made TSA perhaps the most hated and maligned Federal entity in recent memory. The IRS will continue to hold that title, however, until somebody flies a plane into TSA headquarters . . .

The screening function should be outsourced to private contractors. Here are a few very obvious points in favor of this model:

Competition encourages innovation. The TSA is an immature, lumbering agency struggling to find its way. I understand they’re facing staffing and training challenges. However, lack of competition stifles innovation. Nobody needs to see a study to agree with this concept. A private security company who competes with rivals for a contract will perform better. Period.

This is an easy job. I don’t care what the TSA union might say – this is an easy job. I did years of sentry duties as a military policeman, inspecting baggage, vehicles and personnel for explosives and other sinister devices. I know it’s easy, all hyperbole aside.

TSA should focus on procedural compliance. This is the proper role for the agency – oversight and quality control. I don’t care whether this is the model TSA administrators envision, or are implementing now – it is the most effective model.

TSA should act as a clearinghouse for aviation threats and intelligence. One critic of the private screening model had this to say, “further privatization could lead to greater inconsistencies in threat identification, intelligence dissemination, and screening operations.  This would greatly threaten TSA’s mission,” (Leggiere, 2011). This is complete nonsense.

–          If TSA took a step backward from the “front lines,” it could efficiently liaison with the various contract companies and provide timely intelligence to those employees actually conducting the screenings at the airports. I realize that would mean each local and regional TSA office would have to maintain effective and constant liaison with the airports within their jurisdiction – would harm could possibly come from that?

–          The employee putting hands-on at the airports (pun intended) needs very basic information about current threats. Sources and methods involved in the collection of this intelligence will never be distributed to these screeners. Distributing tactical, low level intelligence to field hands is not nearly as glamorous or informative as commonly assumed – and this intelligence can be distributed just as easily to private contractors as it is to TSA employees.

The private model is more efficient. We should go with it.


Leggiere, P. (06 June 2011). House Committee Report Disputes TSA Findings On Private Airport Screening. Homeland Security Today.

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Posted by on June 7, 2011 in Security


Assessing the Threat – Case Study #1

This is a case study supporting my argument that actual analysis is missing from the assessment of threats in our world today. Look at these excerpts about the 1995 Aum Shinrikyo sarin suway attack, all of which are from the Council on Foreign Relations website:

“[T]he subway attack also showed the world just how easy it is for a small cult or group of terrorists with limited means to engage in chemical warfare.”

“Although sarin is very complex and dangerous to make, experts say that the gas can be produced by a trained chemist with publicly available chemicals.”

Look at the two assumptions from the excerpts above – they assume (1) Aum Shinrikyo had limited resources, and (2) weaponizing and devising a means to deliver the sarin to the target was not a problem. Both of these assumptions are wrong.

The Tokyo subway sarin attack in 1995 is regarded as the “chemical 9/11” in the security field. The attack was carried out by the Japanese doomsday cult Aum Shinrikyo. However, contrary to most professionals, I don’t rate their operational capability very high.

Aum Shinrikyo was founded by a man named Shoko Asahara, who argued that he was the Christian messiah, that a great cataclysm would soon destroy the earth and that a global apocalyptic war was inevitable. David Kaplan, in the book Toxic Terror (2000), argued that “belief in Armageddon appears to have been the primary motivation behind the cult’s far-ranging attempts to arm itself with powerful weapons, including biological and chemical agents,” (p. 208).

When the topic of chemical terrorism is mentioned, Aum Shinrikyo usually comes up. What is missing from these arguments is analysis . . .

Consider this:

Aum Shinrikyo had an unusually favorable operating environment. Japanese authorities were aware of their activities, but allowed them to continue. Either the Japanese authorities were professionally incompetent or I fail to grasp the intricacies of their political difficulties. Kaplan (2000) put it more politely, “Despite an extraordinary six-year crime spree, the sect met with surprisingly little resistance from Japanese officials, who were hampered with jurisdictional problems, a reluctance to probe religious organizations, and a lack of investigative initiative. Only after the Tokyo subway attack did authorities move quickly against the cult,” (p. 223).

•  Aum Shinrikyo had significant financial resources. At its peak in 1995, analysts believe Aum had in excess of $1 billion in funds. This figure is widely cited in various reports on the cult. 

Aum Skinrikyo had a robust chemical and biological weapons program, run by “believers” with credentials in medicine, biochemistry, biology, physics – and they still failed to achieve the massive death toll they sought.

Despite this expertise, Aum Shinrikyo never developed a delivery method for their C/B weapons suitable for mass casualties.

     –   They attempted to release anthrax from a building in Tokyo with a sprayer and a fan – no casualties resulted, probably from the low quality of the anthrax.

     –   In all, they attempted ten biological attacks, each of which resulted in no casualties.

     –   In 1994, Aum Shinrikyo killed seven people in a sarin attack in the city of Matsumoto which made use of a heater and a fan.

     –   In 1995, twelve were killed in the subway attack, which was crudely executed by puncturing bags of diluted sarin inside a subway car.

     –   Jonathan Tucker, in Toxic Terror (2000), argued that, “the fact that the cult did not succeed in its effort to inflict mass casualties suggests that chemical terrorism is not as easy as some analysts contend,” (p. 6).  

Al-Qaeda, despite the impassioned warnings from “experts,” has never demonstrated anywhere near the C/B capability of Aum Shinrikyo. Their online terror manuals for C/B weapon development are crude and amateurish, reflecting an intention to cause harm but little credible capability.

If we look at appropriate case studies, we can see lessons learned for present-day situations. In this case, did Aum Shinrikyo successfully overcome the three operational hurdles?

Devise a plan of attack? Yes.

Obtain the weapon? Yes.

Successfully deliver the weapon to the target? No. Aum attempted 10 biological attacks and 10 chemical attacks from 1990 – 1995. These attacks resulted in nineteen deaths, 12 of which were from the 1995 subway attack. The crude delivery methods and generally poor quality of the agents involved drastically lowered the potential casualty rates.

When you examine a potential threat, remember to consider intentions and capability. You usually get a different, but more accurate picture.


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

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Posted by on June 3, 2011 in Uncategorized


Assessing the threat

You’ve seen these headlines, and so have I:

“Terrorists plan to attack major US cities!”

“Al-Qaeda planned to attack rail sectors!”

I’ve had enough of it all. This post 9/11 terrorist craze has given way to hysteria – perhaps like my grandparent’s generation, we’ve all become a little too paranoid. Media outlets and government intelligence estimates often fail to apply actual analysis to these warnings. The result is a populace which is increasingly numb to repetitive dire warnings from solemn goverment officials. I’m an anti-terrorism specialist, and I even skim over these headlines on my search for something actually interesting!

A good threat assessment will examine intentions and capabilities of an adversary. Too often, those provoking headlines are all about the intent of a terror organization (yes, there really are some besides al-Qaeda), and not the capabilities. This is where the analysis piece is missing.

Any adversary who wants to attack a target must overcome three basic hurdles:

1. Devise a plan of attack – what tactic will be used?

2. Obtain the weapon  – explosive, handgun & ammunition, chemical or biological, etc.

3. Devise a means to successfully deliver that weapon to the target – how will the attack be carried out?

Hollywood isn’t reality – unless you have a handgun and some ammunition, these attack means aren’t as easy to execute as you might think. The intentions of a adversary typically don’t match up to it’s capailities. If they were, Faisal Shahzad, the would-be Times Square vehicle bomber, would have succeeded. He did not – because it requires a moderate degree of skill to devise a vehicle bomb that will actually work.

Next time you see a catchy headline about some devious terror plot, ask yourself: Have the three operational hurdles been overcome? Did these terrorists even get close? More often than not, the answer is no.

Apply analysis to the homeland security headlines, and you’ll be surprised at how meaningless much of it all is . . .

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Posted by on June 2, 2011 in Uncategorized