2015 has seen a resurgence in marauding terrorist firearms attacks (MFTA) demonstrating the willingness of terrorist organizations to commit heinous atrocities against innocent civilians. The threat of continued terrorist attacks is exacerbated by the sheer volume of followers who subscribe to this monstrous behavior and the breadth of expertise and skill they contribute beyond force multiplication. Intelligence agencies and governments worldwide are struggling to counteract the surge of MFTAs, while balancing the need to prioritize the potential types of low probability, but high consequence attacks with weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). MFTAs are one iteration of terrorism; employing WMDs, especially biological weapons, are another iteration of terrorism that continues to represent a clear and present danger to society.

USNavyChemBio660x400There is plenty of consensus that the use of biological weapons by non-state actors remains a tangible reality. The recent report of the Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense, A National Blueprint for Biodefense: Leadership and Major Reforms Needed to Optimize Efforts​, described the possible use of biological weapons as “real and growing”. The report further states that “[biological] weapons that once consumed a great deal of time and resources to make now take far less, and it is reasonable to believe that what the United States could accomplish more than 40 years ago, [individuals] can accomplish now”.[1] NATO and Interpol leaders concur on the presence of this serious threat in statements and testimony following the November 13th Paris attacks.[2] Previously, the authors came to a similar conclusion in a three part series that took a cursory look at the potential for the abuse of advances in biotechnology and synthetic biology applications.[3] The premise, which the authors still firmly believe today, is that rapid advances in technology have made the development of biological weapons more accessible, cheaper, and quicker to create (e.g., basic gene editing kits are sold for less than US$200 and advertised as streamlined for users who even have “zero experience with biotechnology”).[4]

In light of the multiple MFTA incidents in Paris, the recent attack in San Bernardino, CA, among many others across the globe, does the premise still make sense: bioterrorism remains a threat? To date there have been no recent attacks using biological weapons or even hints of biological weapons being used in an attack; yet as recent as the Paris attacks, warnings were issued by the French Prime Minister Manuel Valls of the potential use of biological or chemical weapons of mass destruction.[5] Where are such assumptions borne? Is the collective brain trust that believes in the potential reality of biological weapon development by terrorist organizations skewed by unrealistic expectations about the ease and accessibility for developing biological weapons?

Biological dual-use applications far outpace any ability to identify and mitigate potential abuse before it occurs. It is important to note that simple accessibility of biological materials and advanced technologies is not reason enough to elevate the threat of biological weapons; rather, the combination of ingenuity and tenacity with which individual groups seek to garner such technology for ill intent, combined with the accessibility to technology and biological materials is what makes the threat real. While do-it-yourself laboratories represent the positive potential of increased accessibility to biological materials and biotechnology advancements, they also illustrate both the challenges and ease with which biological materials can be manipulated in a low-resource environment.

Chart

The lack of occurrence of a successfully executed biological terror incident is not because terrorist have given up on pursuing biological weapons. Non-state actors have not hesitated to employ WMDs when they were able to access such weapons and criminal elements are more than willing to assist terror organizations in attaining materials. Consider two examples. During the last year the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has used chemical weapons multiple times from available Syrian stockpiles or manufactured their own crude versions on the battlefields of Syria[6] (See figure 1). And, in February several criminals in Moldova were arrested when they attempted to sell radioactive material to what they thought was a terrorist group. In addition to these recent developments there are plenty of terrorism experts who conclude that sufficient evidence exists to believe that terrorist are pursuing WMD capabilities; one has to look no further than excellent papers such as the Harvard Kennedy School’s Al-Qaeda Weapons of Mass Destruction Threat: hype or reality (2010) or W. Seth Carus’s The History of Biological Weapons Use: What We Know and What We Don’t (2015), to get a feel for who is pursuing these weapons and what is possible.

Countries with dual-use or biological weapons-specific activities[7] Terrorist organizations known to be pursuing biological weapons
China Al-Qaeda
Iran ISIL
North Korea
Russia
Syria
Table 1.Counties and Organizations Possibly Pursuing Biological Weapons Capacities

 

Terrorist organizations from ISIL to Al-Qaeda continue to actively seek WMD capabilities, including biological weapons. Al-Qaeda in particular has been pursuing biological weapons since the early 1990s when the organization was still small and located in Sudan.[8] One constraining factor is that biological weapons may provide limited utility compared to the current approach taken with MFTAs; this contrast is especially true given the level of investment needed to create biological weapons along with the limited utility compared to MFTAs.

Due to the successful use of MFTA tactics in both the West and in Middle East conflicts, many terrorist organizations have been putting most of their resources into conventional means of attack. Conventional terrorism is cheap and can be executed by uneducated individuals who have received only rudimentary training. The leadership of terrorist organizations seem to be deciding that existing, limited resources should continue to be invested in MFTAs because right now conventional means are very cost effective and have yielded high impact results.

However, consider that each time advances are made in biology, especially synthetic biology, these advances remove the historic barriers to biological weapons manufacturing; the simple but ineffective ricin incidents in 2014 lend some credibility to that trend. With the simplified and ever increasing reliability of biological manufacturing processes, it becomes more likely that terrorist organizations will spend time and resources pursuing WMDs. Furthermore advances in biotechnology and synthetic biology are unparalleled compared to chemical and/or nuclear processing technology thus more likely to become reality. As it gets easier, it is also more likely that a terrorist sympathizer with a background in biology possesses the required skills to synthesize a weapon.

hazmat-suit-939720_640A reasonable counter argument to those who question the probability of a serious biological attack is that an appropriately knowledgeable and inspired terrorist has yet to materialize. Nearly all large, recent terrorist attacks were only possible because a single individual had a vision of how to create a new iteration of an MFTA or innovative attack modus operandi, had the knowledge to plan it, and was patient enough to convince an organization’s leadership that it was worth supporting. The 9/11 attacks were clearly some of the most spectacular and devastating in the history of terrorism and they would not have happened without one man: Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. He first proposed the idea for the 9/11 attacks to Bin Laden in 1996 soon after Bin Laden returned to Afghanistan. Bin Laden heard new ideas all the time and did not agree to fund or participate in the plan at first. It was expensive, risky, and the outcome was uncertain at best. Believing that using passenger jets as missiles was the type of innovative tactics needed, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed never gave up and made himself useful to Al-Qaeda until in early 1999 Bin Laden finally agreed to green light the 9/11 plot. To be successful, biological terrorism needs a Khalid Sheikh Mohammed with the skills and dedication required for a biological attack.[9] If a person of such devotion can convince a terrorist organization to provide the necessary funds and materials, a biological attack is all but certain; Aum Shinrikyo is a perfect example of what potential can come with devotion, patience, and the right investment in staffing and equipment. A December 2015 report of the European Parliament found that, “ISIL/Da’esh has recruited and continues to recruit hundreds of foreign fighters, including some with degrees in physics, chemistry and computer science, who experts believe have the ability to manufacture lethal weapons from raw substances”.[10]

Ultimately, we need to recognize that the lack of biological terrorism is not the result of the lack of a threat. The threat increases all the time in every country struggling with terrorism. The uptick in conventional terrorism is the result of its recent and proven success, low cost, and the fact that nearly anyone with some training can do it, but it does not in any way imply that there is less of a threat from biological weapons or other WMDs. It can be easy to get caught up in the wave of MFTAs sweeping the globe. Governments, intelligence agencies, and scientists must be vigilant to not overlook the threat from WMD terrorism and biological terrorism in particular. If we do, we are only enabling the terrorists to get closer to biological weapon capability at a time when it is getting easier to attain and harder to detect. All it is going to take for a biological attack to happen is the right terrorist at the right time. That could be tomorrow.

This article was co-authored with Patrick P. Rose. Patrick P. Rose, director for pandemic and catastrophic preparedness at the National Association of County and City Health Officials, holds a Ph.D. in infectious diseases and is a subject matter expert on national security issues related to public health security. He works with federal and local stakeholders to address requirements and gaps that produce vulnerabilities in public health security. In addition, he supports efforts domestically and internationally in the field and at the policy level to reduce the proliferation of biological weapons and to increase public health security awareness.

[1] A National Blueprint for Biodefense: Leadership and Major Reforms Needed to Optimize Efforts, page 4 (https://s3.amazonaws.com/media.hudson.org/20151028ANATIONALBLUEPRINTFORBIODEFENSE.pdf), accessed 12/2015

[2] European Parliament, Briefing: ISIL/Da’esh and ‘non-conventional’ weapons of terror. December 2015

[3] DIY Bioterrorism Part I: The Age for Synthetic Biology and the Threat to Global Security (http://www.cbrneportal.com/diy-bioterrorism-part-i-the-age-for-synthetic-biology-and-the-threat-to-global-security/), accessed 12/2015

[4] https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/diy-crispr-kits-learn-modern-science-by-doing#/

[5] New raids as France warns of possible chemical attacks (http://www.cbsnews.com/news/paris-attacks-french-pm-risk-chemical-biological-weapons-raids-belgium/), accessed 12/2015

[6] U.S. confirms Islamic State use of chemical weapons (http://www.militarytimes.com/story/military/2015/08/21/ISIL-used-mustard-gas-makhmour-against-kurds/32116637/), accessed 12/2015

[7] A National Blueprint for Biodefense: Leadership and Major Reforms Needed to Optimize Efforts, page 4

[8] Through Our Enemies Eyes: Osama bin Laden, Radical Islam, and the Future of America, Michael Scheuer, pages 133-137

[9] The 9/11 Commission Report, pages 145-150

[10] European Parliament, Briefing: ISIL/Da’esh and ‘non-conventional’ weapons of terror. December 2015

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Adam J. Bernier is the president of Apex Strategies LLC, a Washington DC consulting firm. He holds a Master’s degree in counter-terrorism and homeland security and is a subject matter expert on national security issues related to terrorism and WMDs. He supports efforts to counter extremism and WMD threats as well as strengthening response capabilities for responding to catastrophic incidents.