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THE WORLD AFTER 9/11 : The Biological Threat

Technical Hurdles Separate Terrorists From Biowarfare

By John Mintz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 30, 2004; Page A01

Hoping to hasten the doomsday their leader foretold, scientists who were members of Japan's Aum Shinrikyo cult brewed batches of anthrax in the early 1990s and released it from an office building and out the back of trucks upwind of the Imperial Palace.

But the wet mixture kept clogging the sprayers the Aum Shinrikyo scientists had rigged up, and, unbeknown to them, the strains of anthrax they had ordered from a commercial firm posed no danger to anyone. Frustrated by their failure at biowarfare, they turned to a less arduous method of mass killing -- chemical attack -- and in 1995 killed 12 Tokyo subway riders by releasing sarin gas in the tunnels.


Jessica Reinhardt shows then-Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) anthrax in a test tube during his tour of the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, where doctors analyzed samples from the anthrax-laden letter the lawmaker's office received in 2001. (Kenneth Lambert -- AP)

_____More Information_____
The Making of a Biological Weapon: Components and Timeline
_____The World After 9/11_____
An Easier, but Less Deadly, Recipe for Terror (The Washington Post, Dec 31, 2004)
Nuclear Capabilities May Elude Terrorists, Experts Say (The Washington Post, Dec 29, 2004)
Attack With Dirty Bomb More Likely, Officials Say (The Washington Post, Dec 29, 2004)
U.S. Unprepared Despite Progress, Experts Say (The Washington Post, Nov 8, 2004)
Va.-Based, U.S.-Financed Arabic Channel Finds Its Voice (The Washington Post, Oct 15, 2004)
Moroccans Gain Prominence in Terror Groups (The Washington Post, Oct 14, 2004)
From a Virtual Shadow, Messages of Terror (The Washington Post, Oct 2, 2004)
Facing New Realities as Islamic Americans (The Washington Post, Sep 12, 2004)
In Search Of Friends Among The Foes (The Washington Post, Sep 11, 2004)
U.S. Eyes Money Trails of Saudi-Backed Charities (The Washington Post, Aug 19, 2004)
Impervious Shield Elusive Against Drive-By Terrorists (The Washington Post, Aug 8, 2004)
About This Series

Today's article on the threat posed by biological weapons in the hands of terrorists is part of a year-long series examining the challenges the United States faces three years after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Yesterday's article dealt with the threat posed by terrorists seeking nuclear weapons. Tomorrow's story will discuss chemical weapons. Earlier articles in this series can be found with the online version of this article at www.washingtonpost.com/nation.

The cult's experiences demonstrate just a few of the myriad technical obstacles that terrorists who might try to manufacture biological weapons could face, problems that would confound even skilled scientists who tried to help them, biological warfare experts say.

Locating virulent anthrax specimens with which to brew an attack-size batch would be difficult given the medical community's caution about suspicious buyers. Smallpox could be next to impossible to obtain because it is thought to exist in only two secure sites, in Russia and in the United States.

Creating aerosolized microbes also requires expertise in many arcane scientific disciplines, such as culturing and propagating germs that retain their virulence and "weaponizing" them so they float like a gas and enter the lungs easily.

But specialists also say it is all but inevitable that al Qaeda or another terrorist group will gain the expertise to launch small-scale biological attacks and eventually inflict mass casualties. Information on the mechanics of creating bioweapons is easily accessible on the Internet and in technical manuals, and the equipment to do the job is readily found. Many brew pubs, for example, have fermenters that can cook up deadly germs.

Advances in bioscience, and the rapid dissemination of this knowledge worldwide, are making it easier for even undergraduates to create dangerous pathogens. Creating microbe weapons is more challenging than producing the simplest implements of terrorism -- conventional explosives or chemical weapons -- but much less difficult than the most technically daunting -- nuclear weapons -- experts say.

Richard Danzig, a former Navy secretary and now a biowarfare consultant to the Pentagon, said that while there are 1,000 to 10,000 "weaponeers" worldwide with experience working on biological arms, there are more than 1 million and perhaps many millions of "broadly skilled" scientists who, while lacking training in that narrow field, could construct bioweapons.

"It seems likely that, over a period between a few months and a few years, broadly skilled individuals equipped with modest laboratory equipment can develop biological weapons," Danzig said. "Only a thin wall of terrorist ignorance and inexperience now protects us."

Some agents are simpler than others to weaponize. Toxins such as botulinum, which is not contagious and unlikely to cause mass casualties, are the easiest to turn into weapons, particularly for a food-borne or water-borne attack. Bacterial agents such as anthrax, which also is not contagious, are more difficult to manufacture. Viruses such as smallpox, which is contagious and could kill millions, are tougher still.

The most challenging are some of the new 21st-century bioweapons that scientists contemplate being created in the future -- but experts believe even these compounds are fast becoming easier to produce.

In 2002, a panel of biowarfare experts concluded in a report co-published by the National Defense University (NDU) that while terrorists could mount some small-scale bioattacks, larger assaults would require them to overcome many technical hurdles. Some key biotechnologies would be achievable only three to four years from then, the panel found.

"When we sent out the report for review to [hands-on] bench scientists, we got the response, 'What do you mean we can't do this? We're doing it now,' " said Raymond Zilinskas, a co-author of the report who heads biowarfare studies at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies, a California think tank. "It shows how fast the field is moving."

Those skeptical of the prospect of large-scale bioattacks cite the tiny number of biological strikes in recent decades. Members of the Rajneeshee cult sickened 750 people in 1984 when they contaminated salad bars in 10 Oregon restaurants with salmonella. Among the few others were the 2001 anthrax attacks through the U.S. mail that killed five people.


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