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:
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:
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.
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.
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.
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?