Homegrown Horror


The Prospects for All-American Bioterrorism

The saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom.

- Isaac Asimov

More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads.
One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness, the other to total extinction.
Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly.

- Woody Allen

by Ken Silverstein and David Isbenberg

When the first post-11 September anthrax cases were revealed, speculation about who was responsible focused immediately on associates of Osama bin Laden or the government of Iraq.  Now, though, it's widely believed that the anthrax attacks are homegrown, the result of an individual or a small domestic terrorist group.  It also seems that the source of the anthrax is a US government lab, since recent reports have said that the powder used in the attacks is virtually indistinguishable from anthrax produced by the military before it shut down its biowarfare program.  In a strange way, all of this is good news.  "The worst-case scenario is if there's a biological Unabomber out there who's making anthrax by himself," says Elisa Harris of the Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland University, who previously has worked for the National Security Council.  "That would suggest that the possibility of [using biological weapons] is much easier than previously thought."

Yet whoever turns out to be behind the current attacks, most experts say the risk of a major bioterrorist incident is clearly growing.  Among domestic groups, right-wing extremists and messianic groups stand out as having shown the greatest interest in carrying out such an attack.  In 1997, FBI Director Louis Freeh specifically warned during testimony before Congress that white-supremacist groups and militia organisations have sought to acquire biological weapons.  Jessica Stern, a former National Security Council staffer, has said that right-wing extremists are "obsessed" with biological agents and have been trying to perfect their use for years.

Historically, the world has seen a few cases of bioterrorism, but until now none has achieved much success.  The only notable instance in the United States came in 1984, when members of the Rajneeshee cult in Oregon poisoned salad bars with salmonella, which sickened 751 people.  But W Seth Carus, a bioweapons expert at the National Defense University until being hired at the new Office of Homeland Security (OHS), says that there has been "an explosion of interest" in bioterrorism in recent years.

American right-wingers have considered and sometimes planned the use of biological weapons since at least 1972, when a white-supremacist group called the Order of the Rising Sun apparently created as much as 40 kilograms of typhoid bacteria cultures in a college laboratory.  They planned to contaminate water supplies in Chicago, St Louis, and other midwestern cities, thereby leading to the deaths of "inferior" populations.  The plot was uncovered when two members of the group panicked and informed police.  At about the same time, the Minutemen, a right-wing outfit headed by the owner of a Missouri veterinary drug firm doing business as Biolab Corporation threatened to disperse a biological virus at airline terminals.  More recently, in October 2001, a violent anti-abortion group calling itself the Army of God sent threatening letters containing bogus anthrax to Planned Parenthood headquarters in Washington, DC, and to branches elsewhere in the United States.

Biological agents are effective in small amounts and are relatively cheap and easy to produce.  A 1999 Defense Department study found that a domestic team with biological training was able to produce two pounds of mock aerosolised anthrax for about $1.6 million.  The team had little trouble in gathering fermenters, grinders, and other necessary laboratory equipment.  Timothy Tobiason, a right-wing agricultural-chemical entrepreneur from Nebraska, currently sells copies of a germ-warfare cookbook he authored that experts say is accurate enough to be dangerous.

Perhaps the easiest biological agent to produce is ricin, which the Bulgarian secret police used during the Cold War era to assassinate dissident Georgi Markov.  (He was jabbed with an infected umbrella tip while waiting for a bus in London.)  In 1995, Douglas Baker and Leroy Wheeler of the so-called Minnesota Patriots Council produced ricin toxin from a castor-bean-based recipe and planned to use it to assassinate government officials.  Fortunately, the FBI had penetrated the group, and Baker and Wheeler became the first people convicted under the Biological Weapons and Anti-Terrorism Act of 1989.

Terrorists might also try to steal a "seed culture" from a biological-warfare research lab or university research centre.  Until recently, supply houses sold a range of virus and bacteria strains to medical researchers.  A 1995 report from the Canadian Security Intelligence Service noted the case of one supplier that was promoting the sale of five toxins for the price of four.  In 1998, Larry Wayne Harris, an activist with ties to the Christian Identity movement and Aryan Nation, bought three vials of the bacterium that causes plague from the American Type Culture Collection in Rockville, Maryland - the same company that sold anthrax to Iraq in the 1980s.  Harris, who was arrested after he talked openly of employing biological weapons and made threatening remarks to US officials, successfully ordered the bacterium on stationery from a fake laboratory.

Rules on the sale of viruses and bacteria were tightened after Harris's arrest and again following the new anthrax cases, but they are not airtight.  The Rajneeshees obtained their salmonella agent from a medical supply house and could potentially still do so today since that agent is not on the control list.

Of course, delivering a biological weapon is far more complicated than producing or obtaining a toxin.  The Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo had ample financial and technical resources, including a PhD microbiologist, but failed in more than a dozen attempts to spread biological agents such as anthrax and botulinum toxin.  (The Aum had better success with chemical weapons.  In 1995, it released the nerve agent sarin in the Tokyo subway, killing 12 persons and injuring thousands.)

Still, Carus of the OHS warns that the technological sophistication of terrorist groups is growing and that there are countless potential delivery systems.  The most likely means would be aerosolisation - which would make a domed stadium a perfect target - but a biological agent could also be used to contaminate prepackaged food or water supplies.  A less discussed though far simpler means of biological terrorism would be to target livestock (for example, with African swine fever) or grain (with pathogens such as rice blast or wheat stem rust).  That wouldn't produce human casualties, but it would have an enormous economic impact and is far easier to do than creating a biological weapon for use against humans.

As the current anthrax investigation continues, most analysts expect to see a new upsurge in bioterrorism.  In the past, terrorist groups feared that committing mass murder would delegitimise their cause.  That appears to be less the case today; and American extremist groups, such as neo-Nazi outfits, typically don't care much about public opinion.

But the main reason for the fear of new attacks is all the attention focused on biological terrorism in the wake of the anthrax scare.  The notoriety gained by the Aum and the well-publicised arrest of Larry Wayne Harris both prompted a spike in bioterror incidents, and the copycat effect is likely to be especially great today given the "success" of the person or group behind the recent anthrax attacks.  "I am absolutely convinced that [this] will spawn more incidents," says Cheryl Loeb of the Monterey Institute of International Studies.  "The longer the perpetrators go free the more likely it will be to inspire more attacks, as people see they can get away with it."

Source: © 2002 by The American Prospect, Incorporated.  Preferred Citation: Ken Silverstein and David Isbenberg, "Homegrown Horror:," The American Prospect vol. 13 no. 1; 1 January 2002 - 14 January 2002

See also:

bulletThe Anthrax Killer - I don't know what's scarier - not knowing who mailed the anthrax letters, realising that there appear to be multiple people perfectly capable, perhaps even eager, to do it, or thinking multiple scientists have been unfairly accused of this, will never be charged, and so can never be found innocent.
bulletPlague Wars - several articles, including one about Australians creating a killer virus - by accident...
bulletWhat Is Life?  Can We Make It? - To what did the SUNY researchers choose to award the honour of being the first synthetic organism?  They selected a virus that scientists have spent decades trying to eradicate, a cause of human disability and death: polio...

In looking online for articles and books about bioterrorism, I ran across the following:

21st Century Bioterrorism and Germ Weapons - US Army Field Manual for the Treatment of Biological Warfare Agent Casualties

Anthrax, Smallpox, Plague, Viral Fevers, Toxins, Delivery Methods, Detection, Symptoms, Treatment, Equipment

by the US Department of Defense

Some of the diseases covered include:

bulletQ fever
bulletVenezuelan equine encephalitis
bulletviral hemorrhagic fevers
bulletclostridium botulinum toxin
bulletclostridium perfringen toxins
bulletstaphylococcal enterotoxin B
bullettrichothecene mycotoxins

For each disease, this book provides general information, agent delivery method, environmental detection, prevention, clinical presentation and symptoms, diagnosis, treatment, control of patients, contacts, and treatment areas, and medical evacuation.

It also includes medical management data, military facilities, definitions, abbreviations and acronyms.  This up-to-date manual was prepared July 2000.  It is "a source of current information on the diagnosis and treatment of potential biological weapon casualties."

See also:

bulletIn the section on Terrorism, five books (for laymen) dealing with the threat of bioterrorism as currently perceived, Plague Wars: The Germ of a Modern Idea.

For pages on several types of natural disasters - including lightning strikes, tornados, hurricanes, volcanoes, floods, global warming and more - as well as some great tree photos, clicking the "Up" button immediately below takes you to the Table of Contents page for this Environment section.

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