Bioterrorism in the 21st Century

Author: Rachel Long, 2018.


“Following the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center, the world shifted its focus to the threat that would radiate for the next several decades: terrorism…”

Photo from Pixabay under Creative Commons.


Following the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center, the world shifted its focus to the threat that would radiate for the next several decades: terrorism. Terrorism, defined as “the unlawful use of violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims,” (Oxford Dictionary, 2017), was not necessarily a new idea for the global community, but the extreme devastation of the 9/11 attacks forced nations to develop innovative prevention plans to avoid similar attacks. While terrorism prevention tactics vary from state to state, a common denominator for most of these prevention programs has been to gather substantial intelligence on active terrorist groups, identify their recruitment strategies, and ascertain how they plan their attacks in order to be able to create prevention strategies, known as counterterrorism strategies. As states began to reevaluate their national security strategies, terrorist groups continued to flourish and update their weaponry, with some resorting to using the “poor man’s bomb,” biological weapons (Hylton, 2011).

The United States has experienced brief bouts of biological weapons use, but in general, the implementation of this type of weapon has been relatively low. However, as was witnessed in the dissemination of anthrax in the United States in 2001, these weapons have the potential to wreak widespread fear. The 2001 anthrax attack generated a flurry of online articles, television specials, and even Hollywood depictions of “contagion” that sought to ignite even more fear of the world about these potential attacks (Bell, 2013). The idea of a bioterror attack is something that is difficult to comprehend given the severity of its potential after-effects. Bioweapons make even the most mundane actions, such as a handshake or a breath “into poison leading to a potentially horrendous death” (Hylton, 2011).

This article will discuss the types of potential biological attacks, analyze how nations have handled this potential threat, and conclude with a list of recommendations as to how the world can better prevent and prepare for a potentially widespread pandemic stemming from terrorists’ use of biological warfare.


Biological Weapons: Varying Types and Usage

Following the 9/11 attacks, the world witnessed a significant rise in modern technologies, scientific information, and weapons capabilities, mostly due to the strong tides of globalization with its accompanying ease of knowledge sharing. The world became more interconnected, with information and technologies being shared at an accelerated rate. With the increase of shared knowledge, the threat of individuals who plan to wreak havoc on the world also increased. Terrorist organizations such as ISIS have continuously abused globalization’s effects by imposing fear around the world. For the most part, their attacks have been on a relatively small scale, but the possibility that they will resort to using higher intensity weapons such as weapons of mass destruction (WMD) looms.

The term “weapons of mass destruction” is used to characterize a “variety of weapons that share two key features: their potential for large-scale destruction and the indiscriminate nature of their effects, notably against civilians” (Reed, 2017).

There are three major classifications of WMDs: nuclear weapons, chemical warfare agents, and biological warfare agents. While nuclear and chemical weapons are usually expensive, difficult to transport, and require top experts/scientists who have the appropriate know-how to assemble them, biological weapons are much easier to create and use, making them more appealing for terrorist organizations. Bioterrorism, defined as the “intentional release of bacteria or viruses into a civilian population to harm that population and, thereby, achieve a political or social end,” is attractive to terrorist organizations because of its simplicity, low cost, and ease of assembly, compared to nuclear or chemical weapons (Walsh, 2014). Aerosols of biological agents are “invisible, silent, odorless, tasteless, relatively easily dispersed, and they are 600 to 2000 times cheaper than other weapons of mass destruction…it has been estimated that the cost of a biological weapon is about 0.05 percent the cost of a conventional weapon to produce similar numbers of mass casualties per square kilometer,” (Wagner, 2017). Given the heightened interconnectedness of globalization, it is relatively easy for terrorists to acquire the materials needed to make these weapons, with most of the supplies needed (which are everyday items that the government would typically not flag as concerning) available on the internet for purchase. This adds to the concerns of the global community.

Another factor making bio-weapon use for terrorists so appealing is the window of time that it takes for the effects of the attack to occur. A terrorist could release an agent in an open space, such as a subway station, shopping mall or airport, and even individuals may not immediately suffer any effects. It could be days, or even weeks for the full effect to occur, thus providing ample time for the attackers to escape (“Introduction to Biological Weapons,” 2013). Another enticing factor for terrorists is the insidious potential to cause a deadly epidemic if the agent used is contagious. Person-to-person transmission has the potential to outrun disease control measures, resulting in “large-scale, possibly catastrophic epidemics,” (Inglesby, et. al., 2000).

If a nation is unprepared for a biological attack, the impacts of bioweapon use may be even more devastating. In their report Assessing the Bioweapons Threat, Crystal Boddie, et. al state that “participants who were especially concerned about the terrorist’s use cited rapid technological advances in the biosciences, ease of acquiring pathogens, democratization of bioscience knowledge, information about non-state actors’ intent, and the demonstration of the chaos surrounding the Ebola epidemic in West Africa in 2014 as support for their views” (Boddie et. al, 2017).  While the genetic engineering of deadly pathogens within terrorist organizations is not necessarily a widespread fear, there is concern regarding the rapid growth of genetic engineering technologies (Tucker, 2017). With the quantity and quality of research increasing significantly every year, the potential for this type of attack has become more realistic. Even though these attacks can take years for terrorists to plan, there remains no doubt within the international community that the appeal for non-state actors to acquire such a weapon is there.

Biological weapons vary and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) groups bioterrorism agents into three separate categories A, B, and C. Category A agents are considered the highest priority due to the ease of transmission and the potential catastrophic effects they could impose. These high-priority agents include organisms that pose a risk to national security because they, “can be easily disseminated or transmitted from person to person; result in high mortality rates and have the potential for major public health impact; might cause public panic and social disruption; and require special action for public health preparedness,” (Center for Disease Control, 2017). Agents/Diseases included in this category include agents such as Anthrax (Bacillus anthracis), Botulism (Clostridium botulinum toxin), and Smallpox (Variola major) (Center for Disease Control, 2017). Category B agents are the second highest priority as they are “moderately easy to disseminate; result in moderate morbidity rates and low mortality rates; and require specific enhancements of CDC’s diagnostic capacity and enhanced disease surveillance,” (Center for Disease Control, 2017). Some agents/diseases included in this category are Brucellosis (Brucella species), food safety threats (such as Salmonella), Ricin toxin from Ricinus communis, Typhus fever (Rickettsia prowazekii), and water safety threats (Center for Disease Control, 2017). Finally, Category C includes “emerging pathogens that could be engineered for mass dissemination in the future because of availability; ease of production and dissemination; and potential for high morbidity and mortality rates and major health impacts,” (Center for Disease Control, 2017). Agents within this category include “emerging infectious diseases” such as Nipah virus and hantavirus (Center for Disease Control, 2017).


International Response

The increasing fear of biological weapon use has forced nations to consider a variety of strategies to mitigate this threat. While there havebeen numerous suggestions made by the global community, they have remained solely as suggestions and not discernable policy change. The notable initiatives within the international community regarding biological weapon prevention are the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), and the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1540.

The Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxic Weapons and on their Destruction, otherwise known as the BWC, was created as a legally binding United Nations treaty to outlaw the use of biological arms (Kimball, 2012). The BWC is the first multilateral disarmament treaty that banned the “development, production and stockpiling of an entire category of weapons of mass destruction,” and further requires members to destroy their bioweapon capabilities or divert to peaceful purposes within nine months of the Convention’s entry into force (“The Biological Weapons Convention”). Under this agreement, signatories are required to provide annual reports on all activities related to biological weapons, such as “data on research centers and laboratories; information on vaccine production facilities; information on national biological defense research and development programs; declaration of past activities in offensive and/or defensive biological research and development programs; information on outbreaks of infectious diseases and similar occurrences caused by toxins; publication of results and promotion of use of knowledge and contacts; information on legislation, regulations and other measures” (“The Biological Weapons Convention”). State parties to the BWC have created a review conference that meets approximately every five years to review and improve upon the treaty’s implementation, however, their endeavors have been largely unsuccessful, as a majority of signatories have “consistently failed to submit declarations on their activities and facilities” (Kimball, 2012).

Another action from the United Nations regarding the prevention of biological weapon use is Resolution 1540. This resolution, focused on the non-proliferation of WMDs (nuclear, chemical, and biological), specifically the prevention of their acquisition, and was passed by the Security Council in 2004. The Council decided that all states shall “refrain from providing any form of support to non-State actors that attempt to develop, acquire, manufacture, possess, transport, transfer or use nuclear, chemical or biological weapons and their means of delivery, in particular for terrorist purposes,” (UN Security Council Resolution 1540”).

This resolution was passed unanimously, which sent a clear message to the international community that the proliferation of WMDs was no longer to be tolerated, and that the Council would reprimand any nation who violated the resolution by funding non-state actors or otherwise supporting their pursuit of WMDs. This resolution led to the creation of the 1540 Committee which provides “critical support for efforts to meet those challenges through monitoring compliance by reviewing country reports and connecting states in need of assistance with available sources of assistance” (Khripunov, 2014).


Country Analysis

Nations have also taken various independent approaches to address the threat within their own borders specifically. However, the level of importance and intensity put onto these prevention programs varies from state to state. This section will analyze a few major nations’ prevention programs regarding the bioterrorism threat, and will also provide recommendations as to how to improve their prevention efforts.


The United States of America

The United States was forced to address potential biological weapon-based terror attack is something that the nation was forced to address following the 2001 anthrax-laced letter attacks that inflicted fear within the nation for years following. This set of attacks was one of the first instances that the United States had ever faced bioterrorism. These attacks occurred seven days after the September 11 terrorist attacks, which added to public fear. From September 18 to October 9, 2001, deadly anthrax spores arrived at media companies and congressional offices, ultimately leading to five individuals’ deaths from anthrax poisoning, and 22 others becoming infected after exposure (“Timeline,” 2011). These attacks forced the United States government to increase their investments in “prevention, surveillance, and preparation” programs through various agencies such as the CDC, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) (Grundmann, 2014). These agencies conducted preventative research and created preparedness programs, such as the Laboratory Response Network, Hospital Preparedness Program. They also put “sentinel monitoring systems and epidemiological surveillance programs in place for metropolitan areas” in order to decrease the threat of another bioterror attack (Grundmann, 2014).

On July 21, 2004 then-President George W. Bush established Project BioShield, a program that sought to improve the nation’s emergency bioterror preparedness by providing the government with the ability to “develop, acquire, stockpile, and make available the medical countermeasures needed to protect the U.S. population against weapons of mass destruction” (“Project BioShield Overview,” 2016). This was a key component of President Bush’s prevention strategy. When signing the project into law he explained that the United States “refuses to remain idle when modern technology might be turned against us…We will rally the great promise of American science and innovation to confront the greatest danger of our time” (“Project BioShield Overview,” 2016). This program has been relatively successful, given the amount of backup vaccines that have been stored in case of a bioterror outbreak. According to Robin Robinson, director of the countermeasure program at Health and Human Services, there is currently “enough smallpox vaccine in the stockpile to inoculate every United States citizen; enough anthrax vaccine to respond to a ‘three-city attack’; and a variety of therapeutic drugs to treat the infected” (Hylton, 2011). Along with Project BioShield, the American government has invested more than $60 billion since 2001 in order to “develop and distribute air sensors, educating doctors about the symptoms of bioterror pathogens and distributing medical supplies for biodefense to hospitals across the country” (Hylton, 2011). One of the program’s original goals was the creation of an anthrax vaccine; this goal has not been realized. Millions of dollars were spent in order to create a new vaccine that would combat anthrax poisoning, as the original formula, developed by the Army was found to have “serious side effects and [was] never… approved for children” (Hylton, 2011). Additionally, there is a significant lack of new “broad-spectrum antibacterial drugs in the stockpile and no new antivirals,” (Hylton, 2011).

While the United States allocated a significant amount of funding for biomedical research in the past, the Trump administration has shown an interest in lowering funding by cutting relevant programs, such as the EPA and the CDC. To ensure that the nation is prepared for a potential biological weapon based attack, the United States should increase investment in the EPA and CDC, increase intelligence on “foreign state and non-state bioterrorism capabilities,” and reestablish funding towards “biological defense research, crisis management, and threat prevention,” endeavors (Klein, 2017).


People’s Republic of China

In China, the denunciation of biological warfare has a historical motivations. During Japan’s occupation of China from 1937-1945, the nation was a victim of large-scale biological warfare attacks through various “ceramic containers and balloons as biological bombs used to attack Chinese civilians and animals” (“Japan’s Unit 731,” 2016). It is estimated that more than 250,000 Chinese citizens were killed from these attacks, which have left long-lasting scars on Chinese society and are reflected in their persistent nonproliferation efforts (“Nuclear Threat Initiative,” 2017). The nation is a member of the BWC, but under a stipulation that China’s commitments would “cease to be binding in regard to any enemy states whose armed forces or allies did not observe the convention’s provisions” (“Nuclear Threat Initiative,” 2017). Along with being a signatory to the BWC, China has proposed various programs to prevent a potential bioterror attack. Specifically, in June 2007, the Chinese government announced their efforts to establish a “biological security system…to fight against bioterrorism and prevent serious epidemic diseases…including developing vaccines and medicines for genes used in bioterrorism and the physical protective technology and equipment, and establish a monitoring network over bioterrorism” (“Anti-Bioterrorism System,” 2007). China has also established a “national emergency response material reserve system for public health emergencies” which include the increase of the local government’s “resource reserve capacity for epidemiological investigation, medical care and rescue, field management, surveillance and analysis” (“China’s Preparedness,” 2016). China is vocal on their disapproval of biological weapons. For example, at the 1991 BWC Review Conference the Chinese delegation stated, “Of bacteriological weapons, China has always advocated the complete prohibition and thorough destruction of biological weapons and pursues a policy of not developing, producing or stockpiling this type of weapons,” (“Nuclear Threat Initiative,” 2017).

Despite what China says about biological weapon prevention and nonproliferation, there is speculation within the international community as to whether the nation is being completely transparent about their biological activities. Outside nations, such as the United States, have found reason to believe that China “maintains some elements of an offensive BW capability in violation of its BWC obligations. Despite China’s declarations to the contrary, indications suggest that China maintained an offense BW program prior to acceding to the Convention in 1984” (“Nuclear Threat Initiative,” 2017). The United States has also raised questions regarding the “Chinese Ministry of Defense’s Academy of Military Medical Sciences Institute of Microbiology and Epidemiology’s activities regarding biological research (“Nuclear Threat Initiative,” 2017). It is argued that this facility is used to create potential biological weapon capabilities. While China claims that this facility is dedicated to only providing biodefense research, the US maintains that China is engaging in a “small-scale offensive biological weapons program…and that Chinese entities have transferred controlled biological weapons-related items to nations of proliferation concern, such as Iran” (“Nuclear Threat Initiative,” 2017). Although there is no tangible evidence provided for this charge, this is still a potential threat if the United States’ accusations are correct.

While there are various claims from the Chinese government that the nation has a solid grasp on bioterror prevention, there is no significant research that proves that the nation is totally committed to a biodefense program. It is important that China commit to a “differentiated and coherent strategy to effectively tackle the challenges” that bioterror prevention brings (Huang, 2011).  China should continue their alleged support of nonproliferation by being completely transparent regarding their efforts towards the fighting biological weapons use.


The European Union

On October 19, 2001, the European Union (EU) began to create a program to better prepare member states for a potential bioterror attack—a direct response to the United States anthrax attacks that occurred a month prior. This request led to the creation of the Health Security Committee (HSC), which comprised of “high-level representatives of the Health Ministers of the member states charged with raising the alert, exchanging information rapidly and coordinating health responses in case of an emergency following a deliberate release of biological or chemical agents to cause harm” (Gerstein, 2016).

The HSC is responsible for the creation of the BICHAT program. This program is focused on providing targeted detection and “identification of infectious and toxic agents as well as the prevention and treatment of chemical and biological attacks,” which includes the creation of improved “interagency preparedness in the Commission and the member states relating to different health issues” (Tegnell, A. et. al., 2002). The BICHAT program led to the creation of the European Medicines Agency (EMA), which has produced various guides about treatment options in the event of a bioterror attack (Crosbie, 2007). Along with the EMA, the EU created the European Center for Disease Control and Prevention, which is responsible for “surveillance for diseases and preparedness for pandemics as a result of bioterrorism” (Crosbie, 2007).

A turning point in the EU’s fight against bioterror was the Green Paper on bio-preparedness of 2007, published by the European Commission. The Green Paper addressed how to further avoid bioterror risks and suggested increased preparedness measures(Crosbie, 2007). EU commissioner Franco Frattini, one of many responsible for this paper, explained that although in the past “terrorists used explosives or improvised explosive devices, they may in the future resort to non-conventional means such as biological weapons or materials.” (Crosbie, 2007). He added that complacency “was to be avoided as the death toll and economic impact of such an attack could be much higher than in conventional terrorism,” (Crosbie, 2007). Ultimately, the Green Paper highlighted the need for increased collaboration between member states and the private sector. Specifically, the paper encouraged the sharing of information and best practices with the private sector, such as the pharmaceutical and food industries and encouraged the bio-research community to “become part of the European solution to the problems posed by biological risks” (Casale, 2017).

Overall, the EU has prepared itself for a potential bioterror threat through the creation of various committees and organizations and increased intelligence efforts. To strengthen its preparedness, the EU should increase their involvement within the international community, specifically by coordinating between “the commission and international organizations working in this area such as the World Health Organization” (Tegnell, A. et. al., 2003). The EU should also continue its efforts towards encouraging other nations within the global community to participate in nonproliferation discussions and initiatives.



Over the years, the bioterror threat has been lowered on nations’ list of national security priorities, despite the constantly improving technology that makes carrying out these attacks easier. There are several possible reasons for this. One is the assumption that terrorist groups are no longer interested in these types of attacks. Given the window of time needed for a bioterror incident to actually take full effect, it is difficult for terrorist groups to take responsibility for the attack, potentially making it less appealing for the group (Hylton, 2011). Second, bioweapons are often referred to as the “dirty bomb;” bioweapons’ use has been stigmatized and some groups do not want to be associated with that kind of attack. However, there is a lack of evidence that modern-day terrorist organizations, such as the Islamic State, care about their global image. That said, however, there is little explanation as to why we have not seen a widespread bioterror attack in recent years. Regardless, the threat of bioterrorism must be taken seriously. As technology improves, biological weapon technologies will become more accessible to the average person. In order to prevent a catastrophic event, nations need to continue their efforts towards nonproliferation, not just through diplomatic discussions, but through organized prevention efforts. While it is difficult to predict that weapons terrorist organizations will resort to next, the potential use of biological weapons is a significant threat that requires constant monitoring.



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