By Adam Bernier and Patrick Rose

In Part I of this series, we examined how the advancement of synthetic biology has made bio-engineering accessible to the mainstream biological community. Non-state actors who wish to employ biological agents for ill intent are sure to be aware of how tangible bio-weapons are becoming as applications of synthetic biology become more affordable and the probability of success increases with each scientific breakthrough. The willingness of non-state actors to engage in biological attacks is not a new concept; however, the past biological threat environment has been subdued compared to that of conventional or even chemical terrorism. The frequency and deadliness of biological attacks has, thankfully, been limited; much of which can be attributed to the technical complexity or apparent ineptitude of the perpetrators developing biological weapons. Despite the infrequency and ineffectiveness of biological attacks in the last four decades, the threat may be changing with the continued advancement of synthetic biology applications. Coupled with the ease of information sharing and a rapidly growing do-it-yourself-biology (DIYbio) movement (discussed in Part I), the chances of not only, more attacks, but potentially more deadly ones will inevitably increase.

During the last half century terrorist organizations have consistently had an interest in using biological weapons as a means of attacking their targets, but only few have actually made a weapon and used it. The attraction is that terrorist activities with biological weapons are difficult to detect and even more difficult to attribute without a specific perpetrator claiming responsibility. Since 1971 there have been more than 113,113 terrorist attacks globally and 33 of them have been biological. The majority of bio-terrorism incidents recorded occurred during the year 2001 (17 of the 33); before 2001 there were 10 incidents and since 2001 there were 6 (not counting the most recent Ricin attacks). The lack of a discernable trend in use of bio-terrorism does not negate the clear intent of extremist organizations to use biological weapons. In fact, the capacity to harness biological weapons more effectively today only increases the risk that they will successfully be employed.

The landscape is changing: previously the instances where biological attacks had the potential to do the most harm (e.g., Rajneeshees cult’s Salmonella attacks in 1984, Aum Shinri Kyo’s Botulinum toxin, and Anthrax attacks in the early 90’s) included non-state actors with access to large amounts of funding and scientists. Funding and a cadre of willing scientists does not guarantee success though. The assertion was thus made that biological weapons are not only expensive, they require advanced technical training to make and are even more difficult to effectively perpetrate acts of terrorism with. While it is difficult to determine with certainty whether the expense and expertise needed to create biological weapons has acted as a major deterrent for groups thinking of obtaining them, many experts would argue that the cost/expertise barrier makes the threat from biological attacks extremely small. This assertion is supported by the evidence that the vast majority of attacks have taken place in Western countries and was performed by Western citizens with advanced training in scientific research.

In the past decade the cost/expertise assertion has become less accurate. Despite the lack of biological attacks, there are a number of very dangerous and motivated organizations that have or are actively pursuing biological weapons. The largest and most outspoken organization has been the global Al Qaeda network, whose leaders have frequently and passionately called for the development (or purchase) of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD). The principal message from Al Qaeda Central and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has included the call to use biological WMDs to terrorize Western nations. Al Qaeda has had a particular focus on biological and nuclear weapons because of their potential for greatest harm. Osama Bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri and Anwar al-Awlaki have all called for attacks using biological weapons, going so far as to say that Muslims everywhere should seek to kill Westerners wherever possible and that obtaining WMDs is the responsibility of all Muslims. Before the US-led invasion of Afghanistan, Al Qaeda had spent significant funds on building a bio-laboratory and had begun collecting scientists from around the world;

Figure 1. Top: the number of bioterrorism attacks worldwide has remained constant with dramatic activity surrounding the September 11, 2001 attacks. Bottom: the geographic distribution of bioterrorism attacks since 19170. Source: Global Terrorism Database, National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, University of MD
Figure 1. Top: the number of bioterrorism attacks worldwide has remained constant with dramatic activity surrounding the September 11, 2001 attacks. Bottom: the geographic distribution of bioterrorism attacks since 19170. Source: Global Terrorism Database, National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, University of MD

however, the Afghanistan invasion and subsequent global War on Terrorism is thought to have disrupted their capabilities and killed or captured many of their assets. Despite the physical setbacks, this disruption does not appear to have changed the aggressive attitude towards obtaining WMDs (e.g., more recently U.S. Intelligence has been concerned about AQAP attempting to make Ricin).

The emergence of synthetic biology and DIYbio has increased the likelihood that Al Qaeda will succeed in developing biological WMDs. The low cost and significantly reduced level of necessary expertise may change how many non-state actors view biological weapons as a worthwhile investment. This is not to say that suddenly anyone can make a weapon or that it is easy. To the contrary making an effective biological weapon will still be difficult, only much easier and cheaper than it has been in the past.

The rapid advancements of synthetic biology could be a game changer, giving organizations currently pursuing biological weapons more options, and encouraging other organizations to reconsider their worth. Because the bar for attaining biological weapons has been lowered and is likely to continue to be lowered as more advances in biological technology are made, it is important that the international community begin to formulate policy that protects advances in science that acts to prevent the intentional misuse of synthetic biology. Disregard for this consideration will be costly. A successful attack with a potent biological weapon, where no pharmaceutical interventions might exist, will be deadly and the impact of such an attack will reverberate around the globe because biological weapons are not bound by international borders.


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Patrick Rose, PhD is a recognized international biodefense expert supporting efforts to mitigate the threat of bioterrorism and improve public health preparedness. Co-author Adam Bernier, MA is an expert in counter-terrorism and supports planning efforts for catastrophic incident management and prevention.