Busting the Anthrax Myth

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By Fred Burton and Scott Stewart

Dr. Jeffrey W. Runge, chief medical officer at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, told a congressional subcommittee on July 22 that the risk of a large-scale biological attack on the nation is significant and that the U.S. government knows its terrorist enemies have sought to use biological agents as instruments of warfare. Runge also said that the United States believes that capability is within the terrorists' reach.

Runge gave his testimony before a subcommittee on Emerging Threats, Cybersecurity, and Science and Technology that was holding a field hearing in Providence, R.I., to discuss the topic of "Emerging Biological Threats and Public Health Preparedness."

During his testimony, Runge specifically pointed to al Qaeda as the most significant threat and testified that the United States had determined that the terrorist organization is seeking to develop and use a biological weapon to cause mass casualties in an attack. According to Runge, U.S. analysis indicates that anthrax is the most likely choice, and a successful single-city attack on an unprepared population could kill hundreds of thousands of citizens.

Later in his testimony, Runge remarked that many do not perceive the threat of bioterrorism to be as significant as that of a nuclear or conventional strike, even though such an attack could kill as many people as a nuclear detonation and have its own long-term environmental effects.

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 Runge's 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.

Misconceptions About Biological Weapons

There are many misconceptions involving biological weapons. The three most common are that they are easy to obtain, that they are easy to deploy effectively, and that, when used, they always cause massive casualties.

While it is certainly true that there are many different types of actors who can easily gain access to rudimentary biological agents, there are far fewer actors who can actually isolate virulent strains of the agents, weaponize them and then effectively employ these agents in a manner that will realistically pose a significant threat of causing mass casualties. While organisms such as anthrax are present in the environment and are not difficult to obtain, more highly virulent strains of these tend to be far more difficult to locate, isolate and replicate. Such efforts require highly skilled individuals and sophisticated laboratory equipment.

Even incredibly deadly biological substances such as ricin and botulinum toxin are difficult to use in mass attacks. This difficulty arises when one attempts to take a rudimentary biological substance and then convert it into a weaponized form — a form that is potent enough to be deadly and yet readily dispersed. Even if this weaponization hurdle can be overcome, once developed, the weaponized agent must then be integrated with a weapons system that can effectively take large quantities of the agent and evenly distribute it in lethal doses to the intended targets.

During the past several decades in the era of modern terrorism, biological weapons have been used very infrequently and with very little success. This fact alone serves to highlight the gap between the biological warfare misconceptions and reality. Militant groups desperately want to kill people and are constantly seeking new innovations that will allow them to kill larger numbers of people. Certainly if biological weapons were as easily obtained, as easily weaponized and as effective at producing mass casualties as commonly portrayed, militant groups would have used them far more frequently than they have.

Militant groups are generally adaptive and responsive to failure. If something works, they will use it. If it does not, they will seek more effective means of achieving their deadly goals. A good example of this was the rise and fall of the use of chlorine in militant attacks in Iraq.


As noted by Runge, the spore-forming bacterium Bacillus anthracis is readily available in nature and can be deadly if inhaled, if ingested or if it comes into contact with a person's skin. What constitutes a deadly dose of inhalation anthrax has not been precisely quantified, but is estimated to be somewhere between 8,000 and 50,000 spores. One gram of weaponized anthrax, such as that contained in the letters mailed to U.S. Sens. Tom Daschle and Patrick Leahy in October 2001, can contain up to one trillion spores — enough to cause somewhere between 20 and 100 million deaths. The letters mailed to Daschle and Leahy reportedly contained about one gram each for a total estimated quantity of two grams of anthrax spores: enough to have theoretically killed between 40 and 200 million people. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that the current population of the United States is 304.7 million. In a worst-case scenario, the letters mailed to Daschle and Leahy theoretically contained enough anthrax spores to kill nearly two-thirds of the U.S. population.

Yet, in spite of their incredibly deadly potential, those letters (along with an estimated five other anthrax letters mailed in a prior wave to media outlets such as the New York Post and the major television networks) killed only five people; another 22 victims were infected by the spores but recovered after receiving medical treatment. This difference between the theoretical number of fatal victims — hundreds of millions — and the actual number of victims — five — highlights the challenges in effectively distributing even a highly virulent and weaponized strain of an organism to a large number of potential victims.

To summarize: obtaining a biological agent is fairly simple. Isolating a virulent strain and then weaponizing that strain is somewhat more difficult. But the key to biological warfare — effectively distributing a weaponized agent to the intended target — is the really difficult part of the process. Anyone planning a biological attack against a large target such as a city needs to be concerned about a host of factors such as dilution, wind velocity and direction, particle size and weight, the susceptibility of the disease to ultraviolet light, heat, dryness or even rain. Small-scale localized attacks such as the 2001 anthrax letters or the 1984 salmonella attack undertaken by the Bhagwan Shri Rajneesh cult are far easier to commit.

It is also important to remember that anthrax is not some sort of untreatable super disease. While anthrax does form hardy spores that can remain inert for a period of time, the disease is not easily transmitted from person to person, and therefore is unlikely to create an epidemic outside of the area targeted by the attack. Anthrax infections can be treated by the use of readily available antibiotics. The spores' incubation period also permits time for early treatment if the attack is noticed.

The deadliest known anthrax incident in recent years occurred in 1979 when an accidental release of aerosolized spores from a Soviet biological weapons facility in Sverdlovsk affected some 94 people — reportedly killing 68 of them. This facility was one of dozens of laboratories that were part of the Soviet Union's massive and well-funded biological weapons program, one that employed thousands of the country's brightest scientists. In fact, it was the largest biological weapons program in history.

Perhaps the largest attempt by a nonstate actor to cause mass casualties using anthrax was the series of attacks conducted in 1993 by the Japanese cult group Aum Shinrikyo in Tokyo.

In the late 1980s, Aum's team of trained scientists spent millions of dollars to develop a series of state-of-the-art biological weapons research and production laboratories. The group experimented with botulinum toxin, anthrax, cholera and Q fever and even tried to acquire the Ebola virus. The group hoped to produce enough biological agent to trigger a global Armageddon. Its first attempts at unleashing mega-death on the world involved the use of botulinum toxin. In April 1990, the group used a fleet of three trucks equipped with aerosol sprayers to release liquid botulinum toxin on targets that included the Imperial Palace, the National Diet of Japan, the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo, two U.S. naval bases and the airport in Narita. In spite of the massive quantities of toxin released, there were no mass casualties, and, in fact, nobody outside of the cult was even aware the attacks had taken place.

When the botulinum operations failed to produce results, Aum's scientists went back to the drawing board and retooled their biological weapons facilities to produce anthrax. By mid-1993, they were ready to launch attacks involving anthrax; between June and August of 1993, the group sprayed thousands of gallons of aerosolized liquid anthrax in Tokyo. This time, Aum not only employed its fleet of sprayer trucks but also used aerosol sprayers mounted on the roof of their headquarters to disperse a cloud of aerosolized anthrax over the city. Again, the attacks produced no results and were not even noticed. It was only after the group's successful 1995 subway attacks using sarin nerve agent that a Japanese government investigation discovered that the 1990 and 1993 biological attacks had occurred.

Biological Weapons Production

Aum Shinrikyo's team of highly trained scientists worked under ideal conditions in a first-world country with a virtually unlimited budget. They were able to travel the world in search of deadly organisms and even received technical advice from former Soviet scientists. The team worked in large, modern laboratory facilities to produce substantial quantities of biological weapons. They were able to operate these facilities inside industrial parks and openly order the large quantities of laboratory equipment they required. Yet, in spite of the millions of dollars the group spent on its biological weapons program — and the lack of any meaningful interference from the Japanese government — Aum still experienced problems in creating virulent biological agents and also found it difficult to dispense those agents effectively.

Today, al Qaeda finds itself operating in a very different environment than that experienced by Aum Shinrikyo in 1993. At that time, nobody was looking for Aum or its biological and chemical weapons program. By contrast, since the Sept. 11 attacks, the United States and its allies have actively pursued al Qaeda leaders and sought to dismantle and defang the organization. The United States and its allies have focused a considerable amount of resources in tracking and disassembling al Qaeda's chemical and biological warfare efforts. The al Qaeda network has had millions of dollars of its assets seized in a number of countries, and it no longer has the safe haven of Afghanistan from which to operate. The chemical and biological facilities the group established in the 1990s in Afghanistan — such as the Deronta training camp, where cyanide and other toxins were used to kill dogs, and a crude anthrax production facility in Kandahar — have been found and destroyed by U.S. troops.

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.

Al Qaeda's lead chemical and biological weapons expert, Midhat Mursi al-Sayid Umar, also known as Abu Khabab al-Masri, was reportedly killed on July 28, 2008, by a U.S. missile strike on his home in Pakistan. Al-Sayid, who had a $5 million dollar bounty on his head, was initially reported to have been one of those killed in the January 2006 strike in Damadola. If he was indeed killed, his death should be another significant blow to the group's biological warfare efforts.

Of course, we must recognize that the jihadist threat goes just beyond the al Qaeda core. As we have been writing for several years now, al Qaeda has undergone a metamorphosis from a smaller core group of professional operatives into an operational model that encourages independent grassroots jihadists to conduct attacks. The core al Qaeda group, through men like al-Sayid, has published manuals in hard copy and on the Internet that provide instructions on how to manufacture rudimentary biological weapons.

It is our belief that independent jihadist cells and lone-wolf jihadists will almost certainly attempt to brew up some of the recipes from the al Qaeda cookbook. There also exists a very real threat that a jihadist sympathizer could obtain a small quantity of deadly biological organisms by infiltrating a research facility.

This means that we likely will see some limited attempts at employing biological weapons. That does not mean, however, that such attacks will be large-scale or create mass casualties.

The Bottom Line

While there has been much consternation and alarm-raising over the potential for widespread proliferation of biological weapons and the possible use of such weapons on a massive scale, there are significant constraints on such designs. The current dearth of substantial biological weapons programs and arsenals by governments worldwide, and the even smaller number of cases in which systems were actually used, seems to belie — or at least bring into question — the intense concern about such programs.

While we would like to believe that countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom and Russia have halted their biological warfare programs for some noble ideological or humanitarian reason, we simply can't. If biological weapons were in practice as effective as some would lead us to believe, these states would surely maintain stockpiles of them, just as they have maintained their nuclear weapons programs. Biological weapons programs were abandoned because they proved to be not as effective as advertised and because conventional munitions proved to provide more bang for the buck.

In some ways, the psychological fear of a "super weapon" — undetectable, microscopic, easily delivered and extremely deadly — shapes assessment of the threat, more so than an objective understanding of actual capability and intent (not to mention the extreme difficulties of ever creating some sort of a super bug). Conventional weapons systems, and unconventional tactics, continue to be the most cost-effective and proven methods of warfare, whether between state actors or between state and nonstate actors. Nuclear weapons have also been shown to have true weapons of mass destruction power.

To help keep the cost-benefit calculation of a biological warfare program in perspective, consider that Seung-Hui Cho, the man who committed the shooting at Virginia Tech, killed 32 people — more than six times as many as were killed by the 2001 anthrax letters. John Mohammed, the so-called "D.C. Sniper," was able to cause a considerable amount of panic and kill twice as many people (10) by simply purchasing and using one assault rifle. Compare Mohammed's effort and expenses to that of the Aum Shinrikyo anthrax program that took years of work by a huge team and millions of dollars to develop but infected no one.

Now, just because biological weapons are not all they are cracked up to be does not mean that efforts to undermine the biological warfare plans and efforts of militant groups such as al Qaeda should not continue or that programs to detect such agents or develop more effective treatments and vaccines should be halted. Even though an anthrax attack probably will not kill huge numbers of people, as we saw in the case of the anthrax letters, such an attack can be quite disruptive. Cleaning up after such an attack is expensive and takes considerable time and effort. Like a dirty bomb, an anthrax attack will more likely serve as a weapon of mass disruption and not a weapon of mass destruction.

Due to the disruption and the potential for some deaths as a result of an anthrax attack, the threat against the United States does remain a significant concern. However, the threat it represents is not as great as that of conventional attacks using firearms and explosives against soft targets, and it certainly does not rise anywhere near the level of a threat posed by a terrorist attack using a nuclear weapon.

Homeland security resources are very limited and have been shrinking as we move further from 9/11 and as other items begin to take precedence in the federal budget. This means that an array of different programs is being forced to scramble for an ever-shrinking piece of the funding pie. In such an environment, it is often a temptation to overstate the threat. Such overstatements are harmful because they can sometimes prevent a rational distribution of resources and prevent resources from being allocated to where they are needed most.

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