washingtonpost.com  > Nation > National Security > Intelligence
Page 2 of 2  < Back  

Technical Hurdles Separate Terrorists From Biowarfare

One reason for the small number of attacks is that nearly every aspect of a bioterrorist's job is difficult. The best chance of acquiring the anthrax bacterium, Bacillus anthracis, is either from commercial culture collections in countries with lax security controls, or by digging in soil where livestock recently died of the disease -- a tactic Aum Shinrikyo tried unsuccessfully in the Australian Outback.

Once virulent stocks of anthrax have been cultured, it is no trivial task to propagate pathogens with the required attributes for an aerosolized weapon: the hardiness to survive in an enclosed container and upon release into the atmosphere, the ability to lodge in the lungs, and the toxicity to kill. The particles' size is crucial: If they are too big, they fall to the ground, and if they are too small, they are exhaled from the body. If they are improperly made, static electricity can cause them to clump.

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.

Making a bug that defeats antibiotics, a desired goal for any bioweaponeer, is relatively simple but can require laborious trial and error, because conferring antibiotic resistance often reduces a bioweapon's killing power. Field-testing germ weapons is necessary even for experienced weapons makers, and that is likely to require open spaces where animals or even people can be experimentally infected.

Each bioagent demands specific weather conditions and requires unforgiving specifications for the spraying device employed. "Dry" anthrax is harder to make -- it requires special equipment, and scientists must perform the dangerous job of milling particles to the right size. "Wet" anthrax is easier to produce but not as easily dispersed.

Experts agree that anthrax is the potential mass-casualty agent most accessible to terrorists. The anthrax letter sent in 2001 to then-Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) contained one gram of anthrax, or 1 trillion spores.

In a 2003 report for the Pentagon, Danzig estimated that if terrorists released a much larger amount of skillfully made anthrax particles under optimal weather conditions in a large city, 200,000 people in an area 40 miles downwind of the release would be infected, and, if untreated, 180,000 of them would die. Smaller numbers would die as far as 120 miles away.

Government officials would probably realize that an attack had occurred a day or two later, when victims began to show up in emergency rooms with flulike symptoms. Guessing the geographical spread of the attack, officials would then order emergency distribution of ciprofloxacin or other antibiotics, which would probably save many lives -- although experts agree the public health response would be likely to be chaotic and possibly ineffective.

For most experts, the most frightening anthrax scenario is an antibiotic-resistant bug, which many say is not far-fetched. It is "one of the big things we're worried about," Philip K. Russell, a top bioterrorism adviser in the Department of Health and Human Services, said in an August interview in the trade journal Biosecurity. "It's my view that we have about three or four years to come up with a solution to multidrug-resistant anthrax. . . . We haven't taken anthrax off the table as a threat that can create a very big disaster."

Government officials also said they accept a Danzig theory that terrorists probably would launch bioattacks against various cities simultaneously or sequentially, using a tactic he calls "reload." Danzig said it would be designed to overwhelm government responses and undermine public confidence in officials.

"Our national power to manage the consequences of repeated biological attacks could be exhausted while the terrorist ability to reload remains intact," he wrote in the Pentagon report.

The 2002 NDU study -- led by Zilinskas and Seth Carus, a biowarfare expert at the university -- concluded that at that time, large-scale bioweapons were less likely to be fashioned by terrorists than by nations such as Iran, or by disgruntled bioscientists. The report also detailed the skill levels necessary to accomplish various biowarfare-related tasks. A "junior scientist," for example, could use genetic engineering to weaponize both bacterial and viral pathogens.

Experts say that since then, the spread of knowledge and the increasing availability of sophisticated equipment have placed more and more complex tasks within the ability of less-skilled people. Some experts expressed concern about the easy availability of inexpensive biological "kits" from commercial catalogues that streamline cloning and other once-daunting tasks.

The Zilinskas-Carus report said it is "chancy" to estimate which weapons terrorists could make after 2005 because of scientists' increasing ability to synthesize and manipulate biological material such as DNA.

"Novel DNA sequences are being designed and inserted into living cells by undergraduates," said Roger Brent, a biowarfare expert who is president of the Molecular Sciences Institute, a leading research group in Berkeley, Calif.

Some scientists doubt terrorists will master genetically altered superbugs. But Brent and other experts raise the specter of terrorists' hiring scientists who can insert a toxin into, say, a bioengineered SARS virus, which would then be as contagious as severe acute respiratory syndrome and as fatal as the toxin inside it.

Last year, Brent told a study panel convened by the CIA that current biological capability resembles the capacity of computers in 1965, or English cotton mills in the 1800s -- technologies on the cusp of explosive growth. He said the day is coming when not only terrorists but "garage hackers" will be able to assemble bioweapons.

The CIA panel's late 2003 report, "The Darker Bioweapons Future," said that "the same science that may cure some of our worst diseases could be used to create the world's most frightening weapons. The know-how to develop some of these weapons already exists."

Even banned viruses such as smallpox might be employed one day by terrorists who sidestep the difficulty of obtaining them by synthesizing agents that resemble them, Brent told the panel. "Once synthesized," he said, they "can be grown in indefinite quantities."

"The Rubicon has already been crossed and the process of creating novel genetically engineered orthopoxviruses [diseases including smallpox] is irrevocable," Ken Alibek, a former Soviet bioscientist who defected to the United States, wrote recently in a scholarly journal. "It is just a matter of time before this knowledge will result in the creation of super-killer poxviruses." He added: "If a threat, no matter how small, of a smallpox attack exists, it must be addressed" by developing smallpox detection systems and medicines.

"The alternative," Alibek wrote, "is to remain as helpless as the millions of people who died of smallpox over previous centuries."

< Back  1 2

© 2004 The Washington Post Company