Saturday, August 02, 2008

Stratfor: Bioweapons an unlikely means of terrorist attack

News this week of the suicide by a US bioterrorism scientist just before his indictment for the 2001 anthrax attacks caused me to dredge up some old research and writing of mine from before the launch of this blog on the topic of emerging bioterrorism threats. At the time, I worked for ACLU of Texas and there weren't too many security experts speaking out who publicly agreed with my layman's assessment: that the risk from expanded research into obscure, deadly bugs, sometimes ones the scientists themselves genetically engineer, outweighs the chance that Al Qaeda would successfully attack us that way.

Several years later I'm glad to see expert assessments changing to recognize the hard truth: We have met the bioterrorism threat and it is us. At Stratfor, an Austin-based private intelligence firm, Fred Burton and Scott Stewart offer an essay on the free part of the site ("Busting the anthrax myth," July 30), in which they declare:

We must admit to being among those who do not perceive the threat of bioterrorism to be as significant as that posed by a nuclear strike. To be fair, it must be noted that we also do not see strikes using chemical or radiological weapons rising to the threshold of a true weapon of mass destruction either. The successful detonation of a nuclear weapon in an American city would be far more devastating than any of these other forms of attack.

In fact, based on the past history of nonstate actors conducting attacks using biological weapons, we remain skeptical that a nonstate actor could conduct a biological weapons strike capable of creating as many casualties as a large strike using conventional explosives — such as the October 2002 Bali bombings that resulted in 202 deaths or the March 2004 train bombings in Madrid that killed 191.

We do not disagree with [Department of Homeland Security] statements that actors such as al Qaeda have demonstrated an interest in biological weapons. There is ample evidence that al Qaeda has a rudimentary biological weapons capability. However, there is a huge chasm of capability that separates intent and a rudimentary biological weapons program from a biological weapons program that is capable of killing hundreds of thousands of people.

Burton and Stewart offer an assessment that was considered near-blasphemous when I promoted the same idea back in 2002 - Al Qaeda is highly unlikely to attack us this way:

Operating in the badlands along the Pakistani-Afghan border, al Qaeda cannot easily build large modern factories capable of producing large quantities of agents or toxins. Such fixed facilities are expensive and consume a lot of resources. Even if al Qaeda had the spare capacity to invest in such facilities, the fixed nature of them means that they could be compromised and quickly destroyed by the United States.

If al Qaeda could somehow create and hide a fixed biological weapons facility in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas or North-West Frontier Province, it would still face the daunting task of transporting large quantities of biological agents from the Pakistani badlands to targets in the United States or Europe. Al Qaeda operatives certainly can create and transport small quantities of these compounds, but not enough to wreak the kind of massive damage it desires.

That's exactly right. Most bioweapons attacks fail or kill at most a few dozen people and delivery systems to turn bioweapons into WMD require super high levels of sophistication. Al Qaeda knows it could kill more people than that by stealing the nearest plane, or buying one.

By contrast, the story of the 2001 anthrax attacks began in 1981 with cultures extracted from a dead cow along the Texas-Mexico border that was bred into a bioweapon-ready strain by scientists at Fort Detrick, then weaponized into a powder for delivery at Dugway Air Force Base in Utah. This event was not an attack by external terrorists but was enabled by practitioners of the black arts within the American defense establishment itself, whether or not the man who committed suicide was responsible.

Like the Stratfor writers, I agree it's worthwhile for the United States to continue"efforts to undermine the biological warfare plans and efforts of militant groups such as al Qaeda." However the massive bioweapons research in American universities studying super-dangerous bugs in BSL-3 and 4 labs IMO creates more risk than it resolves and diverts primary research dollars toward dangerous and unproductive ends.

Serious debates about security can only occur in the face of accurate, un-hyped risk assessments, so the Stratfor folks are providing a valuable service on that score.

BLOGVERSATION: See three posts by Bugs and Gas Gal on the topic and a widely blogged-about piece at Salon by Glenn Greenwald. Common Sense says the the scientist may have had a profit motive.

MORE: From the New York Times, Has bioterrorism research made us less secure?


Ron in Houston said...

Yeah, but un-hyped risk assessments don't sell papers or get viewers.

Besides how can a politician manipulate it?

Soronel Haetir said...

I'm not certain I agree in the case of chemical weapons. The sarin attack on the Tokyo subway very nearly succeeded. If it had worked it could easily have killed more than 9-11, although without the terrorist bonus of massive building destruction.

On the plus side, getting people into the US with even moderate amounts of explosives seems to be much harder than it would appear. I keep waiting for a Palestinian style suicide attack on security queues at airports, but so far that hasn't occured.

Windypundit said...

I'm no expert, but from everything I've read and heard about chemical and biological weapons, they're just not very effective in small quantities. They kill people, but there are easier ways for terrorists to kill people.

Along the lines of your risk analysis, there was a novel out a few years ago that had terrorists infiltrating a laboratory in the U.S. to make their chemical weapons. In some ways, that would be a lot easier than smuggling chemicals across the border.

Anonymous said...

"Stratfor: Bioweapons an unlikely means of terrorist attack"

Depends on what Stratfor means by "terrorist".

The "Terrorists R US"

"Serious debates about security can only occur in the face of accurate, un-hyped risk assessments, so the Stratfor folks are providing a valuable service on that score."

Maybe everyone ought to read up on Lime Disease and AIDS and ebolla and chemtrails.

In the USA government at all levels, we no longer do "serious debates."

"Either they're stupid or they're evil. I don't know or care which. Either way, they're trying to kill us." Archie

Brent King said...

A few months ago,it was was reported by The Dallas Morning News that the seccurity on weaponized ricin at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas was less than adequate and there were concerns that had not been addressed.The news story also revealed the resentment the reseachers had with regards to the security measure required.I doubt much has changed making the threat the researchers and the university administrator's lack of adherance to security.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Soronel, I agree. The analysis above only applies to bio, not chemical weapsons. Specifically, so-called "defensive" and offensive research in these university programs is virtually identical b/c it's all primary research. They create a new bug then figure out how to create a vaccine for it, etc.. The research in opposition to chemical weapons going on in universities is much more of the applied type aimed directly at specific risks, not toward creating or experimenting with new chemical weapons the way at Dugway and Fort Detrick they're weaponizing deadly bugs.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Brent, I'll try and hunt down that DMN story. When I was tracking this closely around 2002-2004, you'd see exposures and high risk behavior crop up nationally quite regularly.

Beyond the liberty issues related to quarantines, etc., the TX laws on which were rewritten in 2003, this wasn't really an ACLU issue so it was hard for me to justify spending time on it for the job. But the safety versus security theater aspect of the situation always fascinated me.

Bottom line: If you aren't fiddling around with weaponized Ebola in a US government lab, odds are nobody will ever weaponize it, so DON'T DO IT!!! Look what happened when they weaponized anthrax for "defensive" test purposes!

Anonymous said...

Dr. Garth Nicholson has spoken and written extensively on this subject. He and his scientist wife were sort of victims of University of Texas - Houston Medical where they both were scientists there working on top secret biologicals.

Also, he has written a book in novel form, "Project Daylilly".

He currently runs a medical research typy laboratory in California where people from all over USA can get help for these many new "undiagnosable" diseases for which there appear to "cure", including "fybromyaligia", lime disease, "Gulf War Syndrome" and many other as yet unnamed conditions of the auto-immune function.

Anonymous said...

Scott you should call Alex Jones there in Austin and he can tell you how all this works and who is doing it. Check out some of his radio shows on U Tube.

Anonymous said...

Too bad Alex Jones has a daily radio hour to fill. His good points get lost in the Sea of Crazy. It brings him down to the level of Art Bell and George Norey.