Weapons of Mass Destruction

Chemical and Biological (CB) Agents as Weapons

The bombings of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City and the World Trade Center in New York, as well as ongoing terrorist attacks as the car bombs just last month have made it very clear that it is necessary to prepare for the effects of terrorism. Similarly, the sarin gas attacks in Matsumoto and later at the Tokyo Metro in the 1990s by the Supreme Truth religious cult and the anthrax attacks in 2001 added another level to coping with terrorism. With many different biological and chemical weapons possible, it is necessary to somehow narrow down the viable options for preparedness. To do so, specialists have to answer such questions as "How easy is it to obtain the agent" and "How easy is it to deliver such an agent to the largest number of people?" The Center for Disease Control states that the list of agents that could pose the greatest public health risk in the event of a bioterrorist attack is short: anthrax, botulism, plague, smallpox and tularemia. These could cause a "considerable public health challenge" in respect to having the ability to limit the number of casualties and control the damage done to cities and the United States as a whole.1 the major problem is not being prepared.

A number of possible lethal chemical and biological (CB) agents, such as a variety of insecticides, industrial chemicals and powerful toxins, may not be very difficult to obtain or produce. Supply houses for research scientists sell deadly pathogens. A situation in the former Soviet Union also demonstrated how a person can steal CBs from research laboratories or military stock houses. "Nor is it inconceivable that a state sponsor of terrorism...would be willing deliberately to provide terrorists with CB weapons or materials, if it could convince itself of "plausible deniability" while using a surrogate group to inflict a devastating blow on an enemy"2. In addition, with the right knowledge, it is possible for someone to develop one's own agents with limited and low-cost equipment. CB agents can readily be synthesized by a skilled chemist if the ingredients are available. The procedures for synthesis are readily available and even downloadable from the Internet. Although there has been an international embargo on many of the chemicals that are needed, it does not apply to intra-country shipment3

When she was the assistant director of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, Kathleen C. Bailey went to a number of different pharmaceutical companies as well as firms specializing in biotechnology and became completely convinced that it would be very easy to develop the necessary agents with only $10,000 worth of equipment and a 15x15-foot room. She says that it is not difficult to cultivate trillions of bacteria with equipment no more technically advanced than an agent for fermenting beer a protein-based culture, gasmask and a plastic over-garment.4

Not even two months after the subway attack in Tokyo, Larry Harris, a lab technician in Ohio, ordered three vials of the bubonic plague bacterium Yersinia pestis from American Type Culture Collection, a Maryland biomedical supply firm. To obtain the bacteria, Harris just needed a credit card and false letterhead. He was caught only because he called the firm four days after placing his order to find out what was causing the delay. The company contacted federal authorities because it was concerned about his impatience and seemingly unfamiliarity with laboratory techniques. Found to be a member of a white supremacist organization, Harris pled guilty in federal court to mail fraud. In part due to this situation, an antiterrorism law was passed that now requires the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to more closely monitor shipments of infectious agents.5

It appears, then, that it is not very difficult to obtain and make the CBs. Once made, however, the terrorist must find the way to attack the most people in an undetected method. Disseminating CB agents may be more difficult than making them. For example, the popular scenario of poisoning a city's water supply does not appear very feasible, given the large agent quantities required and the various filtering or purification processes. Many of the worst agents,…