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Anthrax Attacks, Biological
Terrorism and Preventive
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ANTHRAX ATTACKS, BIOLOGICAL TERRORISM AND
PREVENTIVE RESPONSESTestimony of John Parachini Policy Analyst RAND Washington Office Before the Subcommittee on Technology, Terrorism, and Government Information November 6, 2001 The opinions and conclusions expressed in this written testimony are the author’s alone and should not be interpreted as representing those of RAND or any of the sponsors of its research.
Anthrax Attacks, Biological Terrorism and Preventive Responses Statement of John Parachini Policy Analyst RAND Washington Office Thank you, Madam Chair, for the privilege and opportunity to testify before the Subcommittee on Technology, Terrorism and Government Information. Information about the quality of the anthrax used in the letter sent to Senator Daschle indicates a potentially significant paradigm shift in the scope and magnitude of the bioterrorism threat. My remarks will focus on the potential perpetrator of the recent anthrax attacks.
Examining who is behind these attacks provides a current case study to review the threat of bioterrorism. In my opinion, bioterrorism includes any organization, even a state, or individual who seeks to terrorize, incapacitate or kill with disease and biological material.
In conclusion, I will review some preventive measures that aim to diminish the proliferation of biological agents to states and terrorists.
The sophisticated quality of the Anthrax used in the letter sent to Senator Daschle suggests that the bioterrorism threat has reached a new level previously viewed by many analysts, myself included, as possible, but unlikely. At the moment, this new level of threat is manageable, but we must take into account the profound implications of this shift if we are to devise effective preventive and protective policies.
There are at least three possible explanations for the origins of the sophisticated Anthrax contained in the letter sent to Senator Daschle; all of them have heretofore been considered possible, but unlikely. First, these attacks could be the clandestine act of a state either rolling towards wider conflict or secretly inflicting harm because it believes it can do so without detection and attribution. Second, a state could have engaged a terrorist group to conduct the attack or provided the material to a sub-national entity for its own purposes. Third, a terrorist group or individual could have produced this sophisticated quality of anthrax itself or received assistance from scientists willing to sell their expertise. All of these three explanations represent a break with the historical precedents.
The historical data set of biological weapons use by states or terrorists, covertly or overtly, is very limited. 1 Given our potential vulnerabilities, it is a small wonder that states and terrorists have not used disease more often. Understanding why the use of biological weapons has been so infrequent may constructively focus our examination of the current anthrax attacks on measures to reduce the possibility of other attacks in the future.
STATE PERPETRATED BIOTERRORISM
When it comes to the feasibility of using biological weapons, states are most likely to have the resources, technical capabilities, and organizational capacity to assemble the people, know-how, material, and equipment to produce such weapons and to be able to clandestinely deliver them to valued targets. Mustering the resources and capabilities to inflict a devastating blow with biological agents has proven to be a formidable task even for states.
The quality of the anthrax sent to the U.S. Senate reportedly has characteristics generally associated with state biological weapons programs. Clandestine use of a biological agent by a state against the United States has traditionally been viewed as highly unlikely. Fear of devastating retaliation is generally believed to deter states from conducting such attacks. Retaliation would potentially be devastating because some uses of some biological agents can serve as strategic weapons. For example, wide dispersal of For an insightful discussion of the history of weapons of mass destruction and their use by states and terrorists see, David Rapoport, “Terrorism and Weapons of the Apocalypse,” National Security Studies Quarterly, Vol. V, No. 3, (Summer).
anthrax that could be aerosolized or strategic distribution of an infectious agent such as smallpox or plague could produce significant casualties and greatly disrupt life in America. Conventional wisdom is that states might use a biological weapon like anthrax as a weapon, but only as a last resort.
The United States and the former Soviet Union dedicated considerable national defense resources to their biological weapons programs, and both countries encountered significant difficulties along the way. Iraq also dedicated considerable resources to its biological weapons program; although Iraq’s effort was more successful than most experts imagined possible, it still encountered a number of significant challenges. A state’s ability to command resources and organize them for certain priority scientific and industrial objectives presents the potential for the greatest threat of bioterrorism. Given advances in biological sciences and the plethora of information made public about biological weapons in the last five years, other countries may have learned how to produce Anthrax with sophisticated properties.
However, there are three circumstances when a state might clandestinely wage biological terrorism. First, a state struggling for its existence might be willing to use biological weapons clandestinely as a means to forestall or to prevent imminent defeat.
There is no historical example of a state responding with a biological weapon in a moment of desperate struggle for its existence, but it is conceivable.
While the Taliban government of Afghanistan might be an example of a government in danger of being eliminated, the anthrax attacks started before the United States commenced military operations. Even the logic that a desperate government such as the Taliban or Iraq’s Saddam Hussein might lash out against the United States as a desperate move seems improbable. The best the clandestine state attacker could hope for would be to inflict a large number of casualties and to avoid discovery. A successful state biological weapons strike, clandestinely delivered against the United States, might cause many casualties, but it would not lead to the end of the American form of government or ensure the conquest of American territory. Short of a barrage attack of ballistic missiles, the U.S.’s ability to reconstitute itself remains robust. Even a significant clandestine biological strike on a major city would not topple the system of government in the United States. Thus, the inherent limits of hiding a significant attack constrain the realm of the possible.
Second, if a state felt it could attack with biological weapons and be undetected, it might do so. In the twentieth century, there are only two significant examples of states using biological agents clandestinely except during times of war. For example, in the First World War, Germany sought to disrupt allied logistical capabilities by infecting horses with glanders.2 The other case involves Japanese use of biological agents during its occupation of China. Only during wartime have states conducted indiscriminate attacks with biological weapons. In the few instances, the attacked state did not have the ability to respond with devastating force. Given the long and powerful reach of modern states, it is hard to imagine a state risking the political and military consequences of discovery.
A third situation when a state might engage in biological terrorism would be if it attacked its own citizens. In the 1980s, both the Bulgarian and the South African governments used biological materials to kill domestic political opponents. South Africa had a significant clandestine chemical and biological program that supported a major effort against regime opponents. Little is known about the Bulgarian program, but government operatives are believed to have assassinated a Bulgarian dissident in London with the toxin ricin, which they received from the Soviet KGB. Both of these cases entailed discriminate uses of biological weapons. Aside from state assassinations of regime opponents, states have been extremely reluctant to use biological weapons.
Mark Wheelis, “Biological sabotage in World War I,” in Biological and Toxin Weapons: Research, Development and Use from the Middle Ages to 1945, Edited by Erhard Geissler and John Ellis van Courtland Moon, SIPRI Chemical & Biological Warfare Studies No. 18, (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press), pp. 35-61.
If the current anthrax attacks are the work of a state, this suggests that states might use biological weapons for non-strategic purposes. That is, the current anthrax attacks could be the work of a state that wished to inflict revenge on the United States. The state would not seek to conquer the territory of the United States or end the American system of government. The Iraqi government is one that comes readily to mind as a state that might have this motive. The United States defeated Iraq in military battle and killed many of its military personnel and civilians. But this is a theoretical explanation. Yet, at the moment, there is no evidence positively linking Iraq to the spate of attacks.
Other than the quality of the anthrax sent to the U.S. Senate and inferences one might draw about grievances other states hold against the United States, there is no evidence at the moment that a state is the perpetrator. It is imaginable that we are at the start of a war and another state is clandestinely attacking with anthrax as a diversion.
Similarly, it is imaginable that the state perpetrating these attacks is willing to take great risks. And finally, it is imaginable, that a state is attacking the United States with anthrax as a trial to see how we respond. All of these scenarios are possible, but there is no evidence supporting them at the moment. Until additional evidence becomes available, state conduct of these attacks is highly unlikely.
While states can amass the resources and capabilities to wage biological terrorism, considerable disincentives keep them from doing so. A state that undertakes a clandestine attack using biological weapons risks the prospect of the attack being traced back to them. The response to an attack with biological weapons could be devastating, which gives states reason for caution.
STATE ASSISTANCE TO SUB-NATIONAL ENTITYAn alternative possibility is that a state has provided this sophisticated anthrax to a terrorist group. The terrorist group is either serving as a surrogate for a state or a state is transferring biological weapons to a terrorist group for its own purposes. Both possibilities have heretofore been viewed as unlikely.
There are no widely agreed upon historical examples in the open source literature of states providing sub-national groups with biological weapons for overt or covert use.
Money, arms, logistical support, training, and even training on how to operate in a chemically contaminated environment are all forms of assistance states have provided to terrorists. But historically they have not crossed the threshold and provided biological weapons materials to insurgency groups or terrorist organizations. State sponsors have a great incentive to control the activities of the groups they support, because they fear that retaliation may be directed against them if they are connected to a group that used biological weapons. Even if states sought to perpetrate biological attacks for their own purposes, they would probably not trust such an operation to groups or individuals that they do not completely control.
Some argue that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq is the type of state that might cross this threshold.3 In the case of Iraq, the leadership would probably make the decision to undertake such a risky operation. In most countries in an adversary relationship with the U.S. what is more likely than a conscious decision by a country’s command authority is that an unauthorized faction within a state might take it upon itself to use a sub-national group to do its dirty work. The alleged involvement of the Iranian government security services in the attack on American military personnel in Khobar Towers seems to be an example of this type of involvement. Thus, while the probability of states using subnational groups or individuals to perpetrate a biological warfare attack on its behalf seems low, it is not zero.
Meetings between some of the September 11th terrorists and Iraqi intelligence
Laurie Myroie, Study of Revenge: Saddam Hussein’s Unfinished War against America, (Washington, DC: The AEI Press), 2000. See also Laurie Myroie, “The Iraqi Connection”, The Wall Street Journal, September 13, 2001, p. A20. For an alternative view of Iraqi involvement in the 1993 bombing see John Parachini, “The World Trade Center Bombers (1993),” in Jonathan B. Tucker, ed., Terror: Assessing Terrorist Use of Chemical and Biological Weapons, (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2000).
operatives raise the questions whether Iraq or a faction within the Iraqi intelligence service is involved. Thus far, there is no publicly available evidence linking Iraq to the September 11th terrorists or linking the September 11th terrorists to the anthrax attacks.
However, the contact between the Iraqis and the terrorists is suspicious. Ongoing U.S.