The Threat of Biological Terrorism Post-Corona

The rapid spread of the coronavirus beyond borders, the tragic human cost and the economic uncertainty as a result of the pandemic has shown us that we remain woefully underprepared for any future potential biological attack by rogue nations and international terrorist enterprises. The Biological Weapons Convention prohibits the development, production and stockpiling of biological weapons and currently has 182 states-parties. However, the unlikeliness that terrorist organisations and rogue regimes will abide by international agreements is a legitimate cause for concern due to the significance of the threat.

A Deadly Enemy

“We are at War!” European leaders have been using the same soundbite since the beginning of border closures, lockdowns throughout the European continent and wartime mobilisation rhetoric has been observed everywhere.

However, it is not a hostile army we see marching down our streets, nor is it bombs killing thousands of innocent civilians, but rather an invisible enemy whose name when mentioned inspires fear and insecurity. European leaders insist that we are at war with a deadly virus which stalks our land, deprives us of our freedoms and destroys our way of life as we attempt to battle this common deadly enemy.

Some have gone as far as calling this dark episode as this century’s World War C, with an international effort to save lives and fight this blitz-like disease.

Yet, this is far more different from any other struggle, not just because the enemy is a virus, but rather because we have very limited knowledge about COVID-19 and how to fight it. Our initial reaction has been slow and marked by disunity rather than solidarity, thus highlighting disturbingly exploitable vulnerabilities in our response to deadly pandemics.

The spread of the virus has done a lot more damage to world economies and has caused greater social destruction and chaos than any terror attack to date. One can only imagine how the harm caused by the virus could be used as a blueprint for terrorist organisations and rogue regimes seeking to bring the world to its knees. 

 

The Weaponisation of a Virus

The 9/11 attacks demonstrated to the whole world the extent to which a small terrorist organisation could cripple the mighty US superpower by resorting to asymmetric methods. As governments throughout the world strengthen their security and develop new measures to face such possible threats, in parallel their enemies search for new methods to achieve their goals. 

One can only imagine that our current global enemy could be utilised by our opponents as the next weapon of mass destruction where each and every infected person will find themselves as an active deadly agent of evil and destruction on behalf of entities or States seeking to crush their more powerful adversaries.

What if instead of bombings and mass shootings, terrorist organisations resort to spreading a virus? Instead of tanks, planes and ships, could a rogue nation cripple a foreign rival by deliberately releasing a deadly virus against its military and against its population? 

This is no longer science fiction; the concept is far from novel and the threat is real as there have been some documented cases of bioterrorism in the past such as the 1984 Rajneeshee bioterror attack in Oregon and the more recent 2001 anthrax attacks.

These two events clearly demonstrated how easy it is for individuals to conceal small quantities of potentially deadly biological agents, before being released, thus harming and potentially killing people, spreading fear and creating chaos.

This is what makes Category A agents – such as anthrax, ebola, plague, botulism, smallpox etc. - so dangerous today as a result of their lethality, as well as the serious risk they pose to healthcare systems and their rudimental dissemination within a targeted population. Such weapons may also be directed against targets other than humans such as crops and livestock.

 

“Not only are bioweapons cheaper to produce, but they remain far more lethal than any other weapon of mass destruction taking into account human, geographic and environmental factors.”

 

Biological weapons have the advantage of being secret and silent killers. These weapons are not only easy to use but are also cost-effective as they remain relatively affordable compared to other weapons of mass destruction in terms of acquisition and/or manufacture and financially within the reach of smaller nations and even possibly non state armed groups.  

In 1969, a United Nations chemical and biological expert panel determined that the cost of mass casualties per square kilometre was only $1 for a biological weapon against $600 for a chemical weapon, $800 for a nuclear weapon and $2,000 for a conventional weapon. Not only are bioweapons cheaper to produce, but they remain far more lethal than any other weapon of mass destruction taking into account human, geographic and environmental factors.

 

Some countries are dangerously flirting with the idea of a new deterrent weapon using human-engineered biological agents instead of more traditional conventional and nuclear weapons.”

 

While bioweapons have not been used by countries in recent years, some - including rogue states - continue to research deadly pathogens. There is a lot of secrecy with regard to biological weapons programs to such point that we know more about chemical and even nuclear programs. Some countries are dangerously flirting with the idea of a new deterrent weapon using human-engineered biological agents instead of more traditional conventional and nuclear weapons. 

Furthermore, terrorist organisations such as Al Qaeda and ISIS have up to now unsuccessfully attempted to acquire biological weapons. Whilst non-state armed actors could be burdened by significant technical hurdles related to the weaponisation of deadly pathogens or dissemination of lethal biological agents, it could be argued than more than ever, today, terrorist organisations are likely to seek to obtain and use a biological weapon rather than a nuclear weapon in the foreseeable future.

 

We Need a Clear Plan

The current global pandemic has affected countries from all corners of the world and has radically impacted governments’ confidence in their capacity to respond to biological threats as they struggle to contain the virus and save lives.

Rogue States and terrorist organisations are most certainly taking note of world powers’ inability to respond  vulnerabilities,  biological agents or simply by the intentional spread of a virus.

One may argue that despite the risk posed by biological weapons, the probability of a bioterror attack remains low due to the likelihood of severe reprisals and because of the risk of self-contamination. This could explain why Rogue States such as North Korea, Syria and Iran which allegedly possess biological weaponry have so far not used them. However this situation could change as governments involved in biological weapons programs join a “bio arms race”, relying on artificial intelligence, biology and latest genetic technologies to create a biotechnology which could discriminate and target specific groups of people. 

 

“Biological weapons are an emerging serious threat to peace, security and stability.”

 

No more procrastination; we need to be better prepared next time, not only for a naturally occurring pandemic, but most importantly for the possibility of the deliberate and calculated spread of a biological agent aimed at killing thousands or millions of people and seriously impacting the global economy. 

While the threat of such attacks might seem low for many world leaders and experts, biological weapons are an emerging serious threat to peace, security and stability. We can no longer afford to treat them as a remote possibility that does not require immediate attention. The coronavirus pandemic has exposed our weaknesses and our inability to respond to biological emergencies from which we previously thought we were safe.

About author: Jean-Patrick Clancy

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