Biological Terrorism: A Less Talked WMD Threat

Ajey Lele

In recent times North Korea’s and Iran’s nuclear adventurism has become so significant that an important news was found missing from the current global strategic discourse on weapons of mass destruction (WMD). The news was concerning the acceptance by North Korea of the presence of bio-weapons in their country. The North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Kang Sok Ju has declared to Japanese sources that: “Other than nuclear, we also have many other things. We also have bio-weapons.”

The lack of any global debate on this issue signifies three things. First, the absence of WMDs at Iraq has considerably reduced the appeal of biological and chemical weapons. Secondly, the general feeling is that the threat from biological weapons is a very low probability threat and they are not as dangerous as made out to be, hence, do not qualify as WMDs. Thirdly, it speaks volumes about the failure of Biological and Toxic Weapons Convention (BTWC) to such an extent that it has even failed to generate a global debate about this issue.

A critical analysis about above positions indicates that all these interpretations are partially correct. However, such half true opinions are unavoidable due to lack of clarity about the nature of the threat itself. Such opinions are formulated because most of the studies carried out on this subject are based on imaginary scenario build-ups due to lack of actual examples of terrorists using bio-weapons or countries engaging in bio-warfare.

Sadly, Iraq war has shifted the focus of global disarmament debate. The world community is taking the threat of WMDs, particularly from the biological weapons less seriously. However, the absence of WMDs in Iraq does not make the threat less serious. North Korea’s admission of the presence these weapons indicate that still many ‘states of concern’ take these weapons seriously and the danger exists.

Interestingly, the absence of WMDs in Iraq has even forced the CIA to have a re-look at their policies. During last month they have contradicted their own recent findings about the bio-weapons programme of Cuba. Their new findings conclude that Cuba has no active bio-weapons programme. This signifies that the Americans are themselves not sure about the Cuba’s biological weapons programme and they are playing ‘diplomatically’ safe. It is extremely difficult to carryout exact threat assessment of biological weapons because of the absence of any verification mechanism under the BTWC.

As such the materials and equipment used for development and production of bio-weapons are ‘dual-use’, or suitable both for military purposes and legitimate commercial activities, verifying compliance with the BTWC to a high level of confidence is exceedingly difficult.

Currently, we are caught in a great change in world history: the shift from the age of physics and chemistry to the age of biology and from the industrial revolution to the bio-tech century. Last few years have witnessed a substantial growth in areas pertaining to biotechnology, genetic engineering and drug discovery. However, the same tools that are used to revolutionizing biotech industry could be used to make deadly bio-weapons. But, at the same time the existing pattern of actual bio-terror attacks does not provide a clear basis for predicting the nature of futuristic probable attacks. Hence, there would be always a debate about the seriousness of this threat till it becomes a reality.

At the same time, today the terrorist organizations are engaging stronger adversaries by exploiting their weaknesses and are looking for new tools and tactics of terror. The recent philosophical statement issued by Osama is indicative of the fact that he going to make life more difficult for the Americans in the near future. One never knows he may even opt for biological weapons because he has seen the American paranoia for such weapons after the ‘postal envelope anthrax’ outburst.

In Indian context it is unlikely that such weapons could be used. But, there were reports from J & K, where cyanide based injections were used by the terrorist groups. It is likely that in a valley a ‘foreign terrorist’ group could use such weapons with increase in their desperation levels. For India, there also exists a danger from agro-terrorism, where the countries economy could be ruined by deliberately exposing our livestock to disease-causing infectious agents or dangerous chemicals. The resulting losses may include animal deaths, economic damage and danger to public health from an unsafe food supply.

Preparing for such threats of bio-terrorism necessitates major investments in public health surveillance, timely contributions from biomedical sciences and pharmaceutical industry, transnational collaborations and training. But, at the same time, there is a growing concern about the naturally occurring infectious disease problem in many parts of the world like SARS, Bird flu etc. So, the amount of resources and effort and focus that we are devoting to the defence against biological weapons might ultimately, if looked upon in the context of all emerging and reemerging diseases, be an important and positive boon for public health. The current revolution in biotechnology, information technology, sensor technology and nanotechnology should be effectively used to strengthen biological defense techniques.

Author Note
Author is Research Fellow at the Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses(IDSA), New Delhi