THE THREAT NEXT TIME:
by Kalikiano kalei
Part 1: Some Interesting Context
About a month ago, I purchased a rare and unusual specimen of respiratory apparatus from a private party in the Russian Republic. As a historian and writer concerned with several areas of defense technology (notably NBC and aerospace life support, among others), this was an opportunity to acquire and study a rather interesting prototype example of an aircrew oxygen breathing mask type (the KM-35 series masks) developed and used by the former Soviet regime’s Air Forces.
The cost of this particular specimen was a bit on the high side, but its potential for helping reveal Soviet aircrew life support research and design intentions of the 1980s period was promising. Sending on the remuneration, I anticipated receiving the mask after the usual prolonged transit that parcels sent out of Russia usually require (if we think our American postal system is a highly inflexible bureaucracy, only a single such encounter with the Russian counterpart postal system will soon dispel that quaint notion!). Instead of the parcel, I received a brief communication from my contact in the Russian Republic stating, in less than perfectly understandable English (evidence that a software language translation program such as GOOGLE’s had been used) that there was a restriction on small parcels being sent to the USA from Russia limiting such packets to a total weight of one pound or less (454 grams). The mask weighed a total of 500 grams and therefore could not be sent (so I was informed).
This was a rather unexpected and extremely puzzling discovery, since my Russian contact could not offer any more clarification on this matter other than an assurance that if he sent the slightly overweight parcel to me, it would be returned as undeliverable (due to the just mentioned sanction). Once again, the poor language translation of my Russian contact’s words also added considerably to the resulting confusion. That left only an attempt on my part to try to find out something about this supposed restriction, so I began making phone calls to various US agencies and sending out inquiries to official US agency websites. These agencies included US Homeland Security, the US Customs and Borders Agency, the US Postal Service and even a few exotic groups like the US Department of State’s Treaty Conformation and Trade Agreements Divisions.
In each inquiry attempt, I dispatched email queries and also placed phone calls to listed official public information numbers given at the various agency websites. Each time was question was the same: “Do you have any information about a small parcel weight restriction limiting packages sent from Russia or other foreign nations to the USA to one pound or less?” In every instance, the unanimous answer was “No, we do not; we know nothing about such a sanction.”
Suspecting that perhaps the present terrorist concerns had somehow prompted this measure, especially subsequent to the recent failed attempt to air-freight terrorist explosives packed into bogus photocopier cartridges, I was especially persistent in my efforts to obtain information from the Office of Homeland Security. Several calls to three or four of their various information lines produced the same negative response, but it is interesting to observe that the persons I talked to in almost every instance seemed to be somewhat inarticulate, relatively uninformed and probably not public employees of the highest (i.e. well educated) caliber (I am inferring this, based on our conversations and the halting answers provided).
At any rate, all of my considerable efforts to find out if such a sanction proscribing shipping of air-mailed parcels greater than one pound weight existed met with the same uniform expression of disavowal. No one knew anything about such a strange curtailment of posted small parcels, so it would seem. Greatly puzzled by this, I began to search the internet to see if there might be something on this to be found there; after all, in the wealth of information we all swim in these days, it seems as if there’s nothing in our world that doesn’t have some sort of traceable link to follow on the web! What I found were odd, disconnected comments and statements (originating mostly from blogs and or various internet forum threads) about certain US collectors of Japanese gaming components having run into a similar restriction in the course of their efforts to receive small parcels from that nation. However, no one seemed to have any information pertaining to exactly where this restriction had originated; all that came across was a common dissatisfaction over being frustrated by it, but no one referenced any source for the restriction.
Meanwhile, my Russian contact stated that the Russian postal system was not the source; he claimed that it must be a US restriction. Although I can well imagine the bureaucratic nightmare that the Russian postal system consists of, logic seemed to dictate that this was truly NOT a Russian impediment and that it must be a US related restriction.
After weeks of frustration and innumerable attempts to discover something more on this problem, I inadvertently stumbled across an eBay seller specializing in importing items from Serbia to the US who stated (on his eBay auctions) that he was temporarily unable to have items weighing more than a pound sent from Serbia to the USA. Aha! An email inquiry sent to him through eBay soon revealed the answer I had been seeking without any prior success.
This individual told me that the US Postal Service had issued the restrictive edict owing to ‘recent terrorist activity and attributable to the shipping of small packets of explosives via air freight (or air mail). Moreover, he reprinted verbatim an email communication he had received from a US Postal Service representative elaborating on the restriction, citing details and considerations. The email message ended with a sincere “Thank you very much and if there’s any further information on this matter that I can help provide, please don’t hesitate to contact me. Sincerely yours, Susan X, USPS”
I’ve used close to a thousand words to provide the above context to make a point that I think should be both painfully clear and terrifyingly obvious. Given the above confused circumstances and absolutely laughable lack of any associated meaningful inter-communication between US agencies charged with protecting our nation from terrorist acts, is it any wonder that terrorists continue to feel confident that they can create chaos and devastation in the very midst of the most powerful nation on earth? I think not.
While we have millions of taxpayer dollars being thrown helter-skelter to public agencies and bureaucracies charged with preventing and/or thwarting acts of domestic terrorism, there still seems to be little more interactive, referential cross-communication among the thousands of individuals involved in our anti-terrorist agencies than there would be among two people standing next to each other, but who spoke different languages.
While I do not wish to be gratuitously condescending in saying this, it didn’t escape my awareness that a good number of the individuals I talked to at these agencies sounded as if there had struggled to finish high school (vocabulary, range of knowledge, awareness, insight, etc.), yet these are the people the public have contact with, the ones who must perform a critical role in acting as intermediaries between the public and those higher up in the process who may actually have the intelligence, alacrity, perceptiveness and broad ranging understanding to make cogent connections, draw astute inferences and possess the authority to act upon information or intelligence either related to or received from individuals concerning terrorist threats. The possibilities, of course, are as numerous as they are potentially frightening.
All of the above must necessarily serve as background for the principal subject I wish to comment on here: the very real threat of bio-terrorism.
Part 2: The Threat
Terrorism has existed at least as long as humankind. It surely must be one of the earliest forms of limited, grass-roots warfare, given the fact that terrorism is a terribly complex and potentially subtle form of violent human antagonism directed towards others that may be carried out on a small scale, yet have quite far-ranging results. Accordingly, there are a number of ancient recorded accounts of diseased bodies being thrown into water supplies to infect enemies, in some cases with surprisingly effective results.
As has often been pointed out in the past, while warfare between nations typically consists of broad-scale conflict carried out by a great number of well-armed and equipped men who battle another group, similarly prepared and equipped, terrorist activity more typically involves a relatively small number of individuals, frequently not well equipped and certainly not wearing any visually identifiable indication of their allegiance. Modern terrorism is a specialised form of what was previously more commonly referred to as ‘guerilla warfare’. Terrorism is of necessity a covert activity and its weapons must be, by that same necessity, far more creatively adapted and economically selected to suit terrorism’s style of indirectly engaging and creating dismay and confusion among a declared enemy.
The most recent terrorist menace the world faces originates in modern radical Islamic extremism, although terrorism has in the past certainly involved a wide range of political, social, economic and religious spectrums (including Christianity). There are three principal types of combative weaponry Islamic extremists may use to wage their war against the ‘enemy’: 1) conventional munitions (this includes guns, individually fired small-arms weapons, and so-called improvised explosive devices); 2) small, portable nuclear devices (thought of mostly in terms of easily concealed and easily transported devices of limited, although extremely deadly potential; i.e. the ‘suitcase’ bomb); and 3) chemical/biological weapons. Of the three, the last category has the most potential to achieve substantially catastrophic results.
In asking why this is the case, the answer is relatively simple to deduce, since conventional weapons are already readily available and in use and small portable nuclear explosive devices are far more difficult both to develop, configure and deploy. Of the three referenced groups of terrorist weapons, the only logical choice to achieve the greatest result with the least effort would have to be the last category of chemical and/or biological agents. Of these last two threats, the more deadly and most likely to be employed would be biologicals.
It helps to understand a few basic details about NBC (nuclear, biological and chemical) weapons before going any further here. Biological weapons are, pound for pound, more lethal than either chemical or conventional nuclear (i.e. non-Hydrogen bomb) weapons by an order of magnitude. In her 1999 released book ‘The Plague makers’, author Wendy Barnaby cites the following information: “An official American study compared the number of dead that would result from an attack with a nuclear weapon the size of the Hiroshima bomb (i.e. an explosive power equivalent to about 12.5 kilotons of TNT), 300 kilograms of SARIN nerve gas, or 30 kilograms of anthrax spores. The bomb would kill between 23,000 and 80,000 people; the SARIN nerve gas, 60 to 200; the anthrax, 30,000 to 100,000. These estimates were worked out on the basis of neither a best nor worst case scenario. The study points out that if conditions were more favorable to chemical or biological warfare, these weapons would kill even more.”
Of the several different types of biological agents, consensus among most experts in chemical and biological warfare research seems to be that Anthrax, one of the oldest known toxic biological agents, has the most potential for creating wide-spread death and destruction at the hands of terrorists and at the lowest cost and least difficulty. Anthrax is a disease that is caused by a bacterium known as Bacillus anthracis that may be spread a number of ways, but most commonly through ingestion (eating), subcutaneous intake (through a cut in the skin), or through inhalation. Subcutaneous Anthrax causes large black blistering of the skin and may result in death for about 20% of untreated (i.e. with antibiotics) infected individuals. Pulmonary (inhaled) Anthrax is far more deadly, but requires a higher initial dose to develop; septicaemia and toxaemia result in death for 100% of infected individuals within 48 hours! Although vaccination has been shown to be partly effective in staving off deadly effects of Anthrax, the mechanism of treatment for Anthrax is complex and the vaccines must be precisely administered in order for full efficacy to be achieved.
Anthrax spores, rather easily produced in bulk, are highly resistant to heat and ultraviolet light (effects that are normally hostile to many forms of bacteria) and may persist for decades, thereby rendering them a perfect potential biological weapon for sowing chaos and confusion among civilian populations. Paradoxically, as a war agent for use by armies, biologicals have limited value due to the fact they are much harder to direct and control, once loosed. In the case of Anthrax, the extremely long-lived spores are very difficult to contain and decontaminate, given the variable dispersal techniques that may be used. As an example, the UK’s Porton Down chemical and biological research facility some while ago was sent samples of Anthrax (produced during the pre-First World War period) that had been sitting on storage shelves at a facility for decades. Some of those spores were discovered to be still active after nearly eight decades without special protection or conditioned storage! An equally rather startling fact is that the amount of Anthrax required to be lethal to an individual human being is only about eight thousand spores, the amount that would fit, given their extremely small size, on the period at the end of a sentence!
Consequently, in addition to the extremely tiny size of Anthrax spores (1 to 5 microns in a suitably weaponised form), their inherently hardy nature and their deadly potential for causing widespread death, a further advantage of use of Anthrax as a biological weapon is that it may also be distributed in a range of ways. With deliberately engineered production of particles that range from 1 to 5 microns in size (best suited for absorption by inhalation), Anthrax spores are perfectly adapted to aerosolisation, a most efficient method of dispersing them. If there is any good news to come out of all this, it is the fact that thus far terrorist groups have not been generally successful in producing Anthrax spores in that infinitesimally small size that is best suited to aerosol distribution. Terrorist uses to date of Anthrax have been therefore largely limited to direct injection or use in contaminating food supplies.
Given the increasing sophistication of terrorist groups and an apparent uptick in funding (by undisclosed national groups, such as Iran) that has been noted by the various international NBC research and analysis agencies, the old status quo appears to be changing and it is reckoned reasonably that it is just a matter of time before production of suitably aerosolized Anthrax is successfully undertaken by a terrorist-affiliated group and used in a terrorist attack against the United States.
One reason why biological agents like Anthrax are so amenable for use as weapons of terror is that unlike expensive and technique intensive nuclear weapons technology, research and development of biological agents requires a disproportionately lessened investment in facilities, personnel and laboratory skills. By one estimate, passable weapons grade biological agents can and could be made by individuals possessed of a relatively small 15 x 15 foot ‘lab’ and using the same level of expertise required by college chemistry and biology undergraduate academic courses! Although producing weaponised Anthrax in the desired size takes a bit more expertise by terrorist groups, it is certainly not beyond the realm of the possible.
Lest there be any doubt at all remaining as to whether the above is true or not, all that is needed is a quick reminder of the 1994/95 ‘Aum Shinriko Cult’ use of chemical and biological weapons in attacks carried out by that group on domestic civilians. Aum Shinriko was an apocalyptic cult that believed that the world would experience a major catastrophic event in 1997 and that 90% of civilians living in major cities would die, therein. Study of this group and its possible motives suggests that they were simply trying to help fulfill this prediction by attacking subway riders in Tokyo with home-made SARIN nerve agent and by spraying Anthrax spores from an eight story Tokyo building (fortunately the spores were not sufficiently small enough to maximize their most deadly potential and only birds and plants were killed). Although twelve people on the subway trains died from the exposure to SARIN, over five thousand people were injured in that infamous attack. That was only the actual direct physical impact of this terrorist attack, however; the greater or even perhaps the most powerful effect of Aum Shinrikyo’s use of NBC agents on civilians was the tremendous psychological damage that resulted. Wide-spread fear, confusion, misunderstanding, uncertainty, civic chaos, panic and generalised anxiety effects were far more disruptive than the actual attack itself. These effects are well known and have been exhaustively studied by strategic analysis groups dedicated to chemical and biological weapons matters, but also to terrorists, who may be expected to exploit them to their fullest possible extent.
It is noteworthy to pause briefly here and recall (for its historical significance) that of all the nations in the world that have researched, engineered, studied and/or produced chemical and biological weapons for use as war agents (there are many, including the USA, the UK, South Africa, Israel, Iraq, and others almost too numerous to mention here), Japan stands by itself as the only nation that has ever not just developed NBC war agents in mass, but applied them to human beings on a broad scale and in a continuous manner for a protracted period. While America bears the sorrowful burden of being the only nation to ever have used nuclear weapons against a civilian population (the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombs), Japan bears the even more terrible responsibility of having deliberately caused the cruel deaths of thousands upon thousands of Chinese civilians and prisoners of war by using them as living test subjects for their chemical and biological weapons testing program in the mid-to-late 1930s (in ‘Manchuko’, Japanese-occupied Machuria). At the end of that war, instead of prosecuting those responsible for these serious crimes against humanity, the United States and its Allies granted them blanket immunity from war crimes trials in exchange for access to all the research and records that those programs produced! Although a fact not without significant shock effect, this seeming miscarriage of justice (purposefully undertaken for the object of gaining full access to Japanese WWII CBW intelligence) is not widely known by the average American today in our ostensibly politically correct moral milieu.
The problem of containing possible use of biological such as Anthrax by terrorists has until very recent times been severely hampered (despite several international conferences and referendums convened to ban development and stockpiling of NBC/WMD agents since the 1960s) by the fact that commercial biological laboratories exist all over the planet that routinely perform closely related work for commerce and private industry. It is a relatively simple thing for such widely-available technology, techniques and methodologies to be converted or otherwise applied to programs aimed at development of war agents. Referred to as 'dual-use' technology, the complications arising are substantial. In a number of situations not too long ago, samples of deadly bacteriologicals and virals were readily and openly available upon request by both private and laboratory researchers. Very little if any effort was dedicated to monitoring applications for specimens and samples and it has been only in the most recent years that this status quo has changed significantly. Even so, there are still ways to obtain these materials illicitly, despite recent changes in policy governing their availability and dispersal, and as pointed out earlier, once received, they may be modified and or further worked up in small, make-shift laboratories that may be extremely difficult to locate and eliminate.
Perhaps no better point made to highlight this sobering fact is that while highly developed Western biological research laboratories (such as those of the US Army Medical Research and Materiel Command’s chemical and biological facilities sited at Fort Detrick, MD, and also those at the UK’s Porton Down establishment) mandate a sophisticated four-level preventive containment system in their investigations with deadly biologicals, Anthrax has in the past been handled in production situations with a minimum of safety concerns. The fact that cattle feed cakes were hand injected with Anthrax spores back in the 1940s by English technicians working only behind a single glass pane, without any resulting mortal hazard to their ranks, demonstrates how easily a dedicated group willing to take risks can produce suitably deadly materials that may be used by terrorists with terrifying results.
When asked if a terrorist group could obtain and adequately process a virulent biological such as the deadly Ebola virus (or Anthrax), no less a well-known and respected international figure in NBC defense circles than Dr. Graham Pearson (former director of the UK’s chemical and biological research program at the Porton Down facility) has stated: “They could, if they had access to the agent, microbiological skills and wanted to take the risk in less secure environments.” Considering Dr. Pearson’s quote in light of the fact that Islamic radicals today routinely self-destroy themselves in hopes of killing and maiming those whom they have determined to be the enemies of radical Islam, such conservative statements seem a bit whimsical. After all, to a radical Islamic terrorist who thinks little of killing himself with a bomb, what are a few deadly hazards stemming from exposure to potentially lethal biologicals? Take a particularly well-educated, academically trained and skilled biologist, construct a rudimentary laboratory complex for him, provide him with a few lethal biological specimens, give him a powerful religious motivation to develop biological weapons, and the result isn’t difficult to imagine.
Although we have yet to see deliberate or concerted attempts at present to covertly develop and spread biological agents by radical Islamic terrorists, informed speculation has it that it may only be a relatively short time before such an effort is finally made in earnest. As systems are set up to guard against the use of conventional explosive devices by terrorists trying to use them to bring down commercial aircraft, and as various agencies are developed to prevent acts of conventional (i.e. using previously employed and well known methologies) terrorism, there have been to date no terrorist attempts to use deadly biological agents by known Islamic radical organisations. The mid-90s Aum Shinrikyo incidents were the product of a small, relatively isolated and highly discrete group of religious cranks unique to the Far East and isolated to the islands of Japan. They were also not suicidal martyrs who believed that self-death in the act of killing ‘enemies’ of Islam grained them entrance to paradise (an important distinction). The new Islamic breed of terrorist is particular deadly because he has no over-riding thought for self-preservation and personal safety; his sole objective is the elimination of those he sees as religious heretics no matter what the personal cost. Armed with deadly bacteriological agents that have been sufficiently weaponised and effectively dispersed so as to achieve maximum devastation among unsuspecting civilians, there is no reasonable estimate capable of being made as to the 'worst-outcome' impact such a surprise attack would have on an already anxious Western world.
Given its relative suitability for meeting all the criteria required to constitute a relatively easily prepared and very deadly threat to civilian centers of population, the speculation that Anthrax may well be the agent we have to fear most in the hands of terrorists may yet be borne out in the months and years to come. There is certainly a preponderant amount of respected opinion that believes this may be the case, an opinion that available documentation backs with convincing credibility. When one considers the massive and highly sophisticated former Soviet biological weapons program, in which genetic splicing technology created a vaccine-resistant 'superbug' that combined highly contagious Smallpox with deadly Anthrax, the possibilities become enormous and truly frightening.
Regrettably, there are no simple methods of preparing fully against that eventuality, other than maintaining excellent world-wide intelligence on these issues. In terms of the efficacy of localised protective measures, as has been pointed out many times, simple preventive measures such as use of approved protective respirators (fitted with proper P100 rated filters), while providing some protection against inhalation of biologicals, are only a partially efficacious protective response. In a large urban population center, if such an attack comes, it will be well underway before the first indication surfaces: a sudden surge of hospital admissions with diffuse, very difficult to immediately diagnose acute symptoms.
The only possible initial response in the event of any attack using biological agents would be to remain indoors and isolate one’s self from both the outside and from others as thoroughly as possible. Only after word was received via radio that it was safe to go out again and circulate would it be wise to do so. This implies that each household should make an effort to provide a basic supply of disaster items that include adequate food, a portable radio, water and hygiene materials to assure a survival duration of about a week (72 hours at least). Protective masks, filters, and clothing would also be a good idea to have on hand, but again, until specific details of a terrorist attack using biologicals were known, the safest immediate response would be to seal off one’s living spaces and simply wait for further word from suitably equipped emergency response teams, via radio media stations.
We know from the historical record that human beings are capable of doing just about anything to each other, ranging from engaging in the most profound acts of love and affection all the way to the other extreme, feats of barbaric cruelty and heartless treachery. Whether these acts are prompted by the former or latter motivations is often a matter of whatever religious beliefs or promptings may or may not dominate popular culture at any given time (and by whom), since religion is probably the most contentious and consistently active causative influence in all of human affairs. In the case of terrorism, wanton destruction and death have been deemed to be a suitable, fully justified expression of applied radical Islamic terrorist belief, caught up as fanatics are in the blind, self-delusion of their faith, refusing to recognise the intense irony of such a profoundly nihilistic philosophical outlook.
While there is no way to eliminate this threat to those of us who retain a bit more balance in our view of the world and what it’s all about, at least we have the benefit of understanding something about the potential for widespread harm that may come from violent hatefulness of this stype and may thereby benefit from knowing both what to expect and how to protect ourselves against such things. All life as we know it involves biological science. We and every living creature are totally governed by the physics of basic biochemistry. That shared, it helps, as I have often learned in the past, to know as much about one’s enemies as one possibly may if one expects to survive catastrophic biological events, and in the case of this particular threat that terrorists pose of employing biological weapons to further their cause, the enemy, ironically, is us (e.g. humanity itself). Only by trying to understand ourselves and each other as fully and completely as possible in the conduct of our mutual social activities and economic affairs can there be any hope for our rather pathetic species to remain intact on this embattled planet, isolated as it is in the depths of an uncaring and coldly impersonal Universe. Like it or not, the sad fact is that Earth is populated by a dominant sentient life form that possesses the worrisome ability to destroy itself many times over on a mere religious whim...
Defense Against the ‘Poor Man’s Nuke’
Terrorist Use of Chemical Weapons, by Austin Godber
Terrorist Motivations for Chemical and Biological Weapons Use: Placing the Threat in Context
eMedicine Background on Biological Terrorism
Emerging Disease: Biological Terrorism
Anthrax: Terrorist Use as a Biological Weapon
Rand Report on Use of Biological Weapons by Terrorists