The global threat of biological and chemical terrorism is undoubtedly real, although the problem of how to accurately assess this threat has vexed analysts and policymakers for decades. Many are agreed on the individual elements that ought to be considered—for example, motivations for selecting biological or chemical means of attack, access to pathogens and chemical agents, and the capability to effectively weaponize them—but without a structured framework for considering their respective importance, certain factors are overemphasised, and resulting assessments are unbalanced and speculative. This hampers collective efforts to develop appropriate policy solutions to the current and future problem of chemical and biological terrorism. As there have been, thankfully, relatively few terrorist incidents involving biological or chemical weapons to date, attempts to develop predictive models from precedent has proven difficult.
This article considers the prospects of biological and chemical terrorism, particularly in the Asian region, looking ahead to 2030. Yet biological and chemical terrorism is not a problem which impacts only a handful of states, or a particular region. Any terrorist event involving biological weapons (BW) or chemical weapons (CW) would evidence a failure in one or more state’s counter-proliferation and counter-terrorism policies and in the global ‘web of prevention’ which could have serious repercussions for many other countries. As a lawyer who works with states around the world to strengthen their domestic regulatory framework in order to prohibit and prevent these weapons, I know the challenges that many states encounter in trying to shore up this ‘web’.
Few could have foreseen how the rapid advances in biology and chemistry over the last ten, or even five, years could impact on the terrorist threat, with ‘dual-use’ materials, equipment and technologies now more readily accessible. Thus attempts to extrapolate what the situation might be like in 30 years time are extremely difficult.
This paper seeks to explain the nature of biological and chemical (‘bio-chem’) terrorism; propose a methodology for bio-chem terrorism threat assessment; highlight certain trends impacting on this threat in the Asian region; and endeavour to make some policy recommendations in order to reduce these threats in the years ahead.
Biological and chemical terrorism
So what is biological and chemical terrorism? Definitions of these terms differ, both in precision and scope. Generally speaking, biological terrorism involves the use of pathogens and toxins by non-state actors to inflict harm against humans, animals and plants (agro-terrorism). Such harm can include attempts to cause mass death or illness among human or animal populations, either directly or through contaminated food supply, as well as efforts to destroy crops and sabotage agricultural production. Importantly, it also includes the psychological and economic harm to populations through the panic associated with overt or covert biological attacks. For example, the 2001 anthrax letters attack in the United States led to a disproportionate economic and psychological harm compared with the actual number of deaths. It must be remembered that biological terrorism is at the far end of the spectrum of biological risks which range from natural disease outbreak, unintended consequences, accidents, negligence, vandalism/sabotage and the deliberate use of BW. Risk assessment across this spectrum is prudent, given that many of these other risks pose a more immediate problem to states. Chemical terrorism similarly seeks to inflict such harm, but through the use of chemical agents or toxins.
Assessing the threat of biological and chemical terrorism
Analysts at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies developed a helpful methodology for conducting bioterrorism risk assessment for consideration by The Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission (‘Blix Commission’) in 2004 (Ackerman and Moran). While they consider that bioterrorism is a ‘distinct’ issue from chemical, nuclear and radiological terrorism, with its own highly specialized problems deserving of ‘bio’ focussed responses, arguably the similarities in the problems of biological weapons (BW) and chemical weapons (CW) control (especially when compared with nuclear or radiological weapons) as well as the growing convergence between the two fields of science and their respective treaty regimes supports the application of this methodology to chemical terrorism threat assessment.
The Ackerman/Moran model postulates that bioterrorist threat assessment is based on the interaction between the consequences and the likelihood of an attack. When chemical terrorism threat assessment is included, the model specifies that:
• Biological or chemical terrorist threat = consequences of attack * likelihood of attack
Ackerman and Moran break this down into sub-elements as follows:
• Consequences of an attack= value of asset being defended* hazard posed by [biological or chemical] agent(s) * vulnerability of asset being defended
• Likelihood of attack = motivation * capability of attacker(s)
This structured threat assessment, they argue, requires the examination of factors traditionally excluded from bioterrorism threat assessment (for example, non-physical effects of a biological attack) and makes the process more objective (notwithstanding the subjective elements involved in assessing terrorists’ motivations). They also point out that there is a tendency to infer terrorists’ intention from a potential or actual capability, and vice versa, which is misguided. For example, while Islamic extremist groups Jemaah Islamiyah and Abu Sayyaf are known to possess manuals on the production of biological and chemical weapons, this alone does not mean they had the intent or the capability to successfully do so.
Consequences of an attack
Applying the Ackerman/Moran model, the following factors are relevant to a threat assessment of the consequences of a biological (and chemical) attack.
Value of asset to defender
The ‘assets’ that may be targeted by terrorists include human lives, and animal and crop production (economic assets): it is the terrorists’ perception of their value to the defender that should guide assessment of this element. While policymakers should always seek to protect human life, they inevitably have to make choices about resource allocation and will likely need to carry out a ‘cost-benefit’ analysis to determine the monetary value of economic assets and how much they are willing to spend to prevent their harm, versus replacement value.
Harm potential of agent
There are infinite permutations and combinations of the harm potential of these agents. It is necessary to carry out assessments of each biological (or chemical) agent that might realistically be used by terrorists. The factors that terrorists will take into account in selecting a biological agent for a terrorist attack form the basis for this threat assessment: for example, how likely it is to kill its intended victim (pathogenicity); the degree to which it is contagious or infectious; its resistance to protective or prophylactic countermeasures; and the degree of risk to the terrorist in handling it.
The biological agents often cited as being of potential interest to terrorists include: bacterial organisms (e.g. anthrax and plague); viruses (e.g. ebola, haemorrhagic fevers and even smallpox); toxins (e.g. botulinum toxin, ricin and saxitoxin); and certain rickettsiae and funghi. The trade in certain precursor chemical agents is also subject to national controls to help prevent their diversion to chemical weapons programmes or access to them by terrorists, although the developing world views these counter-proliferation measures as restricting their peaceful development.
Vulnerability to biological or chemical weapons
Certain factors make populations around the world more susceptible to the deliberate spread of disease through bioterrorism and reduce their ability to respond with protective and prophylactic measures after a biological or chemical weapons attack. The globalized economy has increased the routes and speed of disease transmission: for example, the SARS outbreak in 2002-2003 was spread from mainland China to Hong Kong,Canada and beyond by infected air travellers within hours. Global public health programmes have eradicated certain diseases (in the case of smallpox) and significantly reduced the incidence of other naturally occurring diseases, but this has indirectly facilitated a reduced natural immunity around the world to certain diseases. However, having a high standard of public health globally is, on balance, vital in reducing populations’ vulnerability to disease, including deliberate disease through bioterrorism. The ability of health systems to respond to medical emergencies is also a factor in chemical terrorism, where large numbers of victims will need simultaneous treatment. It must also be remembered that certain countries or regions may be more vulnerable to particular diseases, or may have limited capacity to respond to bio-chem attacks.
Likelihood of an attack
Ackerman and Moran also highlight the relevance of terrorists’ capability and motivations in conducting a biological attack when carrying out a threat assessment: both capability and motivation must be present for there to be terrorist attack. These factors are also examined in great detail by other analysts. This section will outline some of the relevant issues and examine their relevance to the prospect of bio-chem terrorism to the Asian region.
Terrorists’ capability to attack
Despite the complete prohibition on biological and chemical weapons in international law, some states are still believed to harbour ambitions of possessing a CBW capability. Should these states have CBW capability, perhaps hiding it within a permissible BW or CW defence programme, and the desire to provide terrorists with financial, logistical, technical or other assistance, then this significantly reduces a terrorist group’s lead time to acquire this capability. Countries providing a ‘safe haven’ for terrorists (through negligence, ineffectual law enforcement or because they do not have complete control of their territory), inadvertently provide support for bio-chem terrorist objectives.
Organization and resources
A terrorist group motivated to acquire a CBW capability does require certain attributes, whether or not is has garnered state-sponsorship. To maintain the discipline to secretly develop such a capability, the group would need to be ‘vertically organized, highly integrated and ideologically uniform’. Without state sponsorship, terrorist groups would also need fairly substantial capital to fund an organized, large-scale attack involving a weaponized agent.
Acquisition of materials and equipment
It is a relatively inexpensive process to purchase or steal relevant biological agents, acquire samples from the natural environment or infected animals or crops, or create pathogens through synthetic biology techniques. Many chemical agents of interest to terrorists may be purchased in large quantities off-the-shelf, such as fertilizers or chlorine. Studies have also shown that dual-use equipment for the production and weaponization of biological and chemical agents is available for sale on the internet. Alarmingly, state surpluses have also been offered for sale in this way.
Acquisition of knowledge and skills
Possessing the raw materials for a biological or chemical weapon is one thing, but delivering it to a target population effectively is another. Terrorists may try to develop the necessary knowledge and skills ‘in-house’, or they may bring in outside expertise. It is widely thought that the logistical and technical hurdles to develop a BW programme capable of producing a viable weapon and dissemination device capable of inflicting mass casualties is beyond most terrorist groups. The Aum Shinrikyo cult in Japan, which released sarin gas into the Tokyo subway on 20 March 1995 killing 12 people and seriously injuring at least 50 more, had previously made many unsuccessful attempts to weaponize biological agents. Its vast wealth was insufficient to guarantee success.
Terrorists’ motivations for conducting biological or chemical terrorism
The likelihood of a terrorist attack involving biological and chemical weapons requires capability and motivation. There are particular reasons why terrorist groups might choose to use these weapons over others that might be more accessible and likely to achieve significant casualties, psychological harm, societal chaos and economic disruption (e.g. conventional explosives or even firearms). However, terrorists may consider that using these weapons over others has certain advantages, as described below.
Desire to inflict significant casualties and/or mass panic
There are different methods for predicting the casualty rates for biological and chemical terrorism scenarios, although the variability of certain factors (particularly relating to effective delivery) makes it extremely difficult to calculate with accuracy. There is certainly the potential for a bioterrorism event to result in thousands of casualties. A terrorist’s cost-benefit analysis could show that bioterrorism results in more deaths than conventional weapons and at less cost than efforts to acquire a radiological weapon capability, for example. At the very least, a suspected biological attack, a hoax, or even an attack with relatively few deaths can result in mass panic.
Willingness to break the global taboo against CBW use to achieve their goals
The taboo against the use of biological and chemical weapons, by State or non-State actors, remains extremely strong… but there have been exceptions. The Aum Shinrikyo cult worked on sarin, VX gas, anthrax, botulinum toxin, ebola and hydrogen cyanide with clear evidence of their intention to use these on human populations. The perpetrator of the 2001 anthrax mailings also showed a total disregard for human life, using the postal system as a delivery mechanism, thereby contaminating mail intended for millions of recipients.
Relatively easy to carry out and difficult to detect
A biological or chemical terrorism attack involving the successful delivery of a large quantity of material and resulting in significant casualty rates may be relatively difficult to achieve. However analysts have recently been determining the ease with which terrorists might execute attacks by contaminating food supplies, or by manipulating life science technologies for harm. The issue of food contamination is particularly worrisome, as food production processes might actually facilitate the delivery of tainted products to the consumer, by which time it is extremely difficult to determine when and where the deliberate contamination occurred, or who caused it. Meanwhile, a disease outbreak might not even be traced to a covert bioterrorism attack. This all points to the need for effective public health surveillance and response systems in order to mitigate the effects of such an attack, but the issue of the public health sector’s involvement in law enforcement to identify the location and cause of an attack, let alone the perpetrator, once a deliberate attack is suspected, is fraught with sensitivities.
Prospects for bio-chem terrorism: trends in the Asian region
States in Asia face threats involving terrorists located and operating within Asia; located in Asia and operating outside the region; and from terrorists located elsewhere and targeting Asia. The burgeoning biotech industry across Asia has significantly increased the region’s vulnerabilities to bioterrorism and has focussed global attention on Asian efforts to mitigate these risks while also pursuing its right to peaceful development.
I do not purport to be an expert in terrorism in general, nor in the particular groups that are located or operate in the Asian region. But what I am familiar with is the extent to which states around the world have prohibited biological and chemical terrorist activity in their territory and have taken steps to prevent the proliferation of CBW, including to terrorists and other non-State actors. Most examples are drawn from the BW area, as VERTIC’s legislative assistance programme, which cooperates and shares information with states to develop new laws to prohibit and prevent nuclear, biological and chemical weapons, heavily focuses on BW-related legislative support. By sharing my thoughts on the status of prohibition and prevention in the Asian region, I aim to identify some trends in Asian states’ vulnerability to bio-chem terrorist attacks and their ability to prevent such attacks occurring within their territory or in other states.
Across Asia, the status of states’ legislative preparedness to prevent and respond to bio-chem terrorism is patchy although some states, such as India, have tackled this task comprehensively. It must be said, however, that no state in the world has a ‘gold standard’ regulatory framework in this area.
India and Pakistan have relatively comprehensive national legislation in this area (with Pakistan currently finalizing a new BWC Act), while the other states (Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives, Nepal and Sri Lanka) have very few relevant legislative measures in force and do not appear to be making attempts to improve the situation. These states are at an increased risk of being ‘safe havens’ for terrorist activities involving biological and chemical weapons, without the means to effectively investigate and prosecute those engaging in such activities.
Critically, these states lack:
• Legislative provisions punishing activities involving biological weapons (development, production, acquisition, stockpiling or use; attempts; financing etc) despite being members of the relevant treaties to facilitate the detection and punishment of attempted or actual use of BW;
• Control lists for biological agents and toxins, dual-use equipment and technology to license imports and exports, regulate domestic transfers, and license facilities and personnel to handle controlled agents;
• Preventive measures to account for, secure and physically protect dangerous biological agents and toxins to prevent terrorist access to CBW materials stored in facilities or in transit;
• Preventative measures to control transfers of dangerous biological agents and toxins to reduce vulnerability through theft or loss of terrorist relevant materials; and
• National biosecurity oversight mechanisms to implement biosecurity laws; monitor their effectiveness and issue updated subsidiary regulations; report to Parliament on biosecurity effectiveness; and liaise with other states and intergovernmental bodies on this issue.
Certain states in this region formerly housed Soviet ‘anti-plague’ stations and other elements of the large Soviet offensive biological weapons programme, and so have a history of legislative measures to protect their personnel and the environment. While certain states have comprehensive legislation in some areas, particularly those explicitly required under WMD treaties or the UN Counter-Terrorism Conventions, they lack specific regulation required under UNSCR 1540 (such as preventive measures to account for, secure and physically protect dangerous biological agents and toxins). Other states have prohibited BW and CW in law, yet lack effective preventive measures. Encouragingly, many states are progressively strengthening their regulatory frameworks to prohibit bio-chem terrorism, alongside activities to enhance physical security of terrorist-relevant materials.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, China, Japan and South Korea lead the field in this region. Japan was in the unfortunate position of having to develop legislation reactively, in light of their experience prosecuting Aum Shinrikyo cult leader Shoko Asahara for the sarin gas attack (the case took eight years to conclude).
Worryingly, certain states in this region which have a growing biotechnology industry and harbour radical Islamic terrorist groups lack even the most basic measures prohibiting biological weapons and comprehensive regulations preventing terrorist acquisition (for example, they lack control lists and preventive measures to account for, secure and physically protect dangerous biological agents and toxins). There is some evidence that they are attempting to ameliorate these deficiencies, with new legislative bills under preparation. Inter-regional cooperation will be crucial to effective enforcement of these laws.
Certain states in this region are widely considered to harbour active offensive biological and chemical weapons programmes or, in the case of Iraq, used to possess such programmes. Combined with the presence of radical Islamic terrorist groups in the region, the potential for state sponsorship of biological and chemical terrorism in this region deserves more attention by the international security community. While there is some movement in certain states towards a more robust biosecurity regulatory environment (principally certain states in North Africa and the Gulf Cooperation Council), the progress is slow and uneven. Regional geopolitics also mean many states in this region remain outside the BWC and CWC regimes and lack sensitivity to CBW proliferation issues.
Analysts and policymakers around the world need to pay more attention to the chemical, but particularly biological, terrorist threat. The respective treaty regimes should be strengthened, particularly compliance monitoring and enforcement of the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention, starting with the existing confidence-building measure arrangements. Intra- and inter-regional cooperation on biosecurity and (bioterrorism prevention) and chemical security (chemical terrorism prevention) is absolutely essential to developing a more effective web of prevention, as terrorist activities transcend borders. All states face common challenges in this area and aside from facilitating helpful communication, such cooperation could develop regional initiatives at tackling them.
Programme Director, VERTIC
This article is drawn from the author’s paper on ‘Chemical and Biological Terrorism: trends in Asia’, presented at the 12th Asian Security Conference, hosted by the Institute for Defense Studies and Analysis, New Dehli, India, during 11-13 February 2010.