The threat of biological terrorism and India’s response

Indian Council of World Affairs | Apr 5, 2005

The aim of the present article is to analyse the nature of the threat posed by biological agents and a probable bio-terrorist attack; and Indias' response and needed-strategy to deal with the threats of biological terrorism. "The mismatch between threat assessments and preparedness efforts can be explained partly by the failure of threat assessment methodologies to take into account all of the factors comprising the threat. Single-factor threat assessments, for example, focus either on the terrorists motivations and objectives or on the hypothetical effects of a biological weapon, but they do not indicate which scenarios are plausible or their comparative likelihood."' There is immense merit in this argument.

In the prevailing era of strategic uncertainty, even as the threat of major wars has receded, ironically, new threats have emerged that make Armageddon more, not less, likely. Rapidly growing international terrorism and weapons of mass destruction (WMD) make a potent cocktail. Only a deep survival instinct has stayed the finger off the nuclear trigger and allowed mankind to escape large-scale death and devastation over the last half-century since Hiroshima and Nagasaki. However, the finger on the triggering mechanisms of biological and chemical weapons is unlikely to be that of a ‘rational’ state. In all probability such weapons will often be used by ‘irrational’ non-state actors. This reality makes their threat more difficult to discern accurately and more complex to counter.
The nature of the threat and its likely ramifications must be understood. Between biological and chemical weapons, bioweapons are more potent as small quantities can cause large casualties. Their effects are more persistent and likely to spread quickly over large areas. Unfortunately, due to complacency and inertia and the natural predilection of elected governments to adopt an ostrich-like approach to invisible threats, the international community is ill-prepared to deal with the threat and combat it should it materialize. While the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) prohibits the development, production and stockpiling of biological and toxin weapons and has been signed and ratified by 1o1 countries (16 others have signed but not yet ratified),” it 1s really only a paper treaty that lacks the wherewithal to detect the development of biological weapons, adopt pro-active measures to destroy stockpiles, and combat the diseases that may occur if they are used deliberately or inadvertently. The development of bio-weapons is easy to conceal; unlike nuclear weapons, there are no tell-tale domes sticking out into desert skies. The proposed “Organisation for the Prohibition of Biological Weapons” has also remained a nonstarter despite several years of painstaking diplomatic efforts.2 Clearly, the international community has still not not its act together to fight this threat in a concerted manner.
Organisms and toxins found in nature that can be used to incapacitate, kill, or otherwise impede an adversary are called biological weapons. These weapons are characterised by low visibility and high potency. Accessibility to them 1s not difficult and their means of delivery are relatively easy. Biological weapons are not new in concept; and history 1s replete with examples of their use. Earlier to the 20th century biological agents are known to have been used to deliberately poison food and water with infectious material.
The use of micro-organisms or toxins and the use of biologically inoculated fabrics have been recorded. Arrows were poisoned by dipping them in blood mixed with manure; decaying carcasses were thrown into wells to contaminate them; corpses of plague victims were thrown into cities to induce plague by the Tarter forces during the siege of Kaffa in the 14th century and by the Russians who had surrounded Swedish forces at Reval in Estonia in 1710.
The British gave smallpox-infected blankets to native Americans.
During World War I, the Germans developed anthrax, slanders, cholera, and a wheat fungus for use as biological weapons. They allegedly spread plague in St. Petersburg, infected mules with glanders in Mesopotamia, and attempted to do the same with horses of the French cavalry.’ Research continued and during World War II, the Japanese are known to have carried out bio-weapons experiments on Chinese prisoners and exposed more than 3,000 victims to plague, anthrax, syphilis and other agents. The Americans, British, Germans and Soviets also conducted research in bio-warfare. Since the mid-1980s, terrorist organisations have become the primary users of bio-weapons and several incidents of their use have been recorded. The aim of the present article is to analyse the nature of the threat posed by biological agents and a probable bio-terrorist attack; and Indias’ response and needed-strategy to deal with the threats of biological terrorism.
The nature of illnesses caused by the major agents, the symptoms and locations where they commonly occur and aspects pertaining to the treatment of each disease, the handling of infected patients and the availability of vaccines have not been included in the following as these concern the medical/ health establishment.

Bio-weapons Agents

Biological pathogens may be released intentionally or accidentally into the atmosphere. There are some that occur naturally and some that are intentionally developed as tools of warfare to cause disease or death. Human beings can be exposed to these agents through inhalation, skin (cutaneous) exposure, or ingestion of contaminated food or water. the physical symptoms that follow exposure are often delayed and could be confused with other naturally occurring iIInesses. Some biological warfare agents persist in the environment and are capable of causing problems over a prolonged period after their release.
A large number of bio-weapon agents have been identified and listed. Bio-warfare agents comprise bacterial agents, viral agents and toxins. The most dangerous ones are listed be in alphabetical order. Anthrax; Botulinum Toxins; Brucellosis – Cholera; Clostridium Perfringens Toxins, CongoCrimean Haemorrhagic Fever; Ebola Haemorrhagic Fever, Melioidosis; Mycotoxins; Plague; Q Fever; Ricin, Rift Valley Fever: Saxitoxin; Smallpox; Staphylococcal Enterotoxin B; Trichothecene Mycotoxins; Tularemia; and Venezuelan Equine Encephalitis.

Defining the Bio-terrorism Threat

The bio-terrorism threat covers a wide spectrum. It ranges from hoaxes and use of relatively low casualty agents by non-state actors or small terrorist groups to the employment of classical biological warfare (BW) agents that can produce casualties. In rare cases, it may include state-sponsored terrorism. All bio-terrorism scenarios present serious challenges to the international community for treatment of affected patients and for prophylaxis of exposed persons. Another major hazard is environmental contamination that could present continuing threats.
The recent history of bio-terrorism is instructive. Among the recorded incidents of bio-terrorism, there have been a large number of cases that involved contamination of food and water. The deliberate contamination of restaurant salad bars in Oregon by followers of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh in September-October 1984, led to 751 persons being infected with Salmonella typhimurium. During Operation Desert Shield and Desert Storm in 1990-91, the coalition forces led by the United States faced a threat from chemical and biological agents. “Following Gulf War I, Iraq disclosed that it had bombs, scud missiles, 122-mm rockets, and artillery shells armed with botulinum toxin, anthrax, and aflatoxin. They also had spray tanks fitted to aircraft that could distribute 2,000 litres of agents over a target.
In 1992, a Virginia man sprayed his roommates with a substance that he claimed was anthrax and 20 people had to be administered chemoprophylaxis. The Japanese sect, the Aum Shinrikyo, attempted to release aerosolized anthrax from the tops of buildings in Tokyo in 1994. One year later, two members of a Minnesota militia group, which had produced Ricin for use against local government officials, were convicted for its possession. In 1996, a man in Ohio had obtained bubonic plague cultures through the mail and was prosecuted.
Over 20 confirmed or suspected cases of anthrax-related (10 inhalation, 13 cutaneous) bio-terrorism acts occurred in the United States between the September 11 terrorist attacks and November 2001. These cases infected mostly postal workers in New Jersey and Washington DC and media companies In New York and Florida. Letters contaminated with anthrax were handled or opened by these workers. At least five persons died and many more fell sick. At present, 17 countries are suspected of having offensive BW programme.
There is a real threat that biological agents may be used on civilian populations as these are readily available, easy to weaponise and use. BW agents are difficult to detect or protect against. They are invisible, odourless, and tasteless, and their dispersal can be effected silently. Also, the small quantities required to kill thousands of people in densely populated metropolitan areas make the concealment, transportation, and dissemination of biological agents relatively easy. However, the technology is still not freely available, and trained scientists are required to develop, produce and weaponise these WMD.
BW agents can be spread by aerosol sprays, base ejection artillery shells, missile warheads and bombs whose casing opens up to disperse the agent. These can also be spread by food or water contamination. “Variables that can alter the effectiveness of a delivery system include particle size of the agent, stability of the agent under desiccating conditions, UV light, wind speed, wind direction, and atmospheric stability.” As bio-agents are likely to be destroyed or inactivated by a blast, the use of an explosive device to deliver and disseminate such agents is generally ineffective. Another potential threat that poses problems is the possible contamination.of municipal water supplies, but this requires an unrealistically large amount of agent since drinking water has to pass through a treatment plant that uses chemicals to purify the supply. Post-filtration contamination 1s even more difficult to achieve if it is to be widespread.
Aerosolised dispersal of biological agents is the mode most likely to be used by military groups and terrorists. Airborne pathogens can only be effective biological weapons if they are dispersed in an aerosol cloud as fine microscopic particles that are about five microns in size. Only an appreciable dose that can be inhaled and retained in the lungs can cause infection with an aerosolised agent. Advanced weapon systems (e.g. warheads, missiles) are not required for the aerosolised delivery of biological agents. Low-technology aerosolisation methods include agricultural crop-dusters; aerosol generators on small boats, trucks, or cars; and, backpack sprayers. Even purse-size perfume atomizers can suffice for limited targets.
Bio-terrorism using microbes and viruses poses a new threat to national security, that is generally not apparent. The relative ease with which they can be manufactured and dispersed, make biological agents an ideal weapon for terrorists. It is for this reason that Al Qaeda operatives have tried to acquire them and it is probably a matter of time before they develop and use these weapons of mass terror. As developing, stockpiling and using bio-weapons 1s relatively inexpensive, compared with the cost of defending against them, “the offence-defence balance in bio-warfare strongly favours the attacker.”’ The security and public health challenges presented by a single terrorist carrying a vial with a biological agent, whether smallpox, Ebola or something even more lethal engineered in a laboratory, are enormous. Itis a sad commentary on the management of human affairs by national governments and their proclivity to procrastinate regarding international cooperation in the face of grave transnational threats that various nations are seeking to counter the threat virtually single-handedly.
The recent anthrax mailings in the US focused public attention on the current problems in national security planning that expectations of future threats are vastly different from what actually occurs. Like the September 11 hijacker attacks, the anthrax attacks, too, had not been foreseen. Michael J. Powers and Jonathan Ban have written: “Rather than planning for a narrow range of least-likely, high-consequence contingencies or focusing only on additional mail-borne anthrax attacks, we must plan for a variety of future incidents – including incidents that cause mass casualties and mass disruption. In fact, planning for a variety of more likely, middle- to low-casualty incidents, while simultaneously being prepared for low-probability, high-consequence incidents is perhaps the most significant challenge facing planners.”
The authors are of the view that the cornerstone of preparedness against future bio-terrorist incidents, regardless of their nature or scope, must be a national public health system capable of detecting, assessing, and responding to a broad range of contingencies. While there can be no argument about this recommendation, what is necessary before the process of crisis management starts 1s an effective, viable and responsive intelligence system to provide timely warning of an impending attack and identify the likely sources of that attack so that a police and, if necessary, military effort can be mounted to eliminate the threat. As in other maladies, prevention is better than cure.
Powers and Ban further argue that assessments of the bio-terrorist threat are often narrowly focused on single factors.
“The mismatch between threat assessments and preparedness efforts can be explained partly by the failure of threat assessment methodologies to take into account all of the factors comprising the threat. Single-factor threat assessments, for example, focus either on the terrorists motivations and objectives or on the hypothetical effects of a biological weapon, but they do not indicate which scenarios are plausible or their comparative likelihood.”’ There is immense merit in this argument.
Powers and Ban recommend consideration of four key elements of the threat: “The who (the actor), the what (the agent), the where (the target), and the how (the mode of attack). The interaction of these components determines the direction and impact of a bio-terrorist attack. “The more casualties bio-terrorists seek to inflict, the more difficult it will be for them to assemble the necessary combination of these components. Thus, the level of risk declines as the level of desired casualties increases because the attack scenario becomes less likely.” It is certainly not easy to launch major bio-terrorist attacks that result in large-scale casualties but it must be accepted that this can be done with extensive preparations. Terrorist organisations have time on their side and, while the intelligence agencies and the police must succeed every time in their surveillance and counterterrorism efforts, the terrorists need to succeed only once.
Recent advances in the life sciences have brought to the fore fresh concerns about the negative spin-offs of the ongoing bio-technology revolution.” The new-found ability of modern science to mutate DNAs combined with sophisticated in-vitro fertilisation techniques could enable rogue elements to develop improved biological weapons.
indications of a possible BW attack include the following:
– Disease entity that is unusual or does not occur naturally in a given geographical area.
– Multiple disease entities in the same patients, indicating that mixed agents have been used in the attack.
– Large numbers of both military and civilian casualties when such populations inhabit the same area.
– Data suggesting a massive point-source outbreak.
– Apparent aerosol route of infection.
– High morbidity and mortality rates relative to the number of personnel at risk.
– Illness limited to fairly localised or circumscribed geographical areas.
– Low attack rates in personnel who work in areas with filtered air supplies or closed ventilation systems.
– Sentinel dead animals of multiple species.
– Absence of a competent natural vector in the area of outbreak (for a biological agent that is vector-borne in nature).
A major weakness in correctly assessing the threat of bioterrorism is the possibility of anonymous attack. Such an attack by a third party could even trigger a war between two nations and, therefore, needs to be consciously guarded against by instituting confidence building measures (CBMs).
“Biological threat assessments must take into account not only capabilities that are challenging to monitor but also intentions that are even more difficult to discern.” Information on intentions can be gleaned only from apprehended senior members of terrorist networks as they are the ones who may have knowledge of functional details. It is difficult to obtain international and domestic support for a coordinated approach to countering the threat of bioterrorism unless credible intelligence is available.

Inadequate Indian Response

Technical difficulties make the threat of a catastrophic bioterrorism attack relatively less likely. Only the release of a very contagious or high-quality agent by an efficient dissemination route could result in thousands of casualties. In reality, the number of pathways open to terrorists that would result in catastrophic numbers of casualties are few, and those that do exist are technically difficult. However, the low probability of a catastrophic bio-terrorist attack must not lead to complacence since there is ample cause for concern as “the rapid development of biotechnology and the diffusion of expertise in this field may lower the technical bar over time.”
The strategic discourse in India has a poor track record of scenario-building as a tool in threat assessment. This has been a national failing that needs urgent redressal. Unless the process of scenario-building is undertaken as a matter of course in conjunction with sophisticated mathematical modelling techniques, threat assessment will continue to remain based on worst case analyses. For example, it needs to be recognised that the bio-terrorist threat is not a one-dimensional threat. The National Security Council Secretariat, now under a new National Security Advisor, must make a concerted effort to take on board and groom young analysts trained in scenario-building and analytical-modelling techniques.
Given India’s strategic culture (or, the lack of it!), the government’s response to the threat of bio-terrorism has been grossly inadequate. As India’s decision makers are mired in the Panipat Syndrome,” it is not surprising that there is virtually no recognition of the potential dangers of bioterrorism despite the menace of Pakistan-supported Islamist fundamentalist terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir and elsewhere in the country. The defence services, correctly, do not foresee a large-scale military threat of the use of biological weapons in conventional conflict and are, therefore, not engaged in defending against it. The nuclear threat and, to some extent, the chemical threat are given greater credence by the services. There is widespread international acceptance, in fact, that biological weapons lack military utility. [he US unilaterally renounced the use of biological weapons in 1969. However, this realisation did not prevent several nations from developing and stockpiling biological weapons as they can be used to soften up hardened defences before an assault is launched. If employed in the rear areas of the adversary, they can disrupt lines of communication and paralyse command centres. Hence, their use cannot be entirely ruled out, particularly as part of an asymmetric strategy by a weaker nation against a stronger adversary.
In India the threat of bio-terrorism, often referred to as “a poor man’s atomic bomb”, is perceived to be primarily directed against the civilian population both because the armed forces are relatively better protected and because the aim of the terrorists would invariably be to gain maximum publicity and create a fear psychosis. India’s foremost internal security threat is from Jihadi fundamentalism that is mostly sponsored from across India’s western border by the ISI agency of Pakistan. Individual Islamist terrorist groups based in Pakistan have often threatened to disrupt peace in India; and have succeeded in doing so on several occasions. Bio-terrorism is but a short step to upping the ante by an order of magnitude to dramatically highlight the “cause and gain international attention.
Threats against civilian targets are the domain of the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA). How seriously it takes this threat is a matter of conjecture but its Annual Reports make no mention of bio-terrorism threats. The threat of bio-terrorism requires comprehensive planning and focussing on preparedness and response capacity – integrating of the role of the central government with that of state governments, as well as integration of state and national assets. The government must address the challenge of informing the public and educating the people about the reality of bioterrorism. The support of the people is necessary for early warning, prevention and crisis management. However, such a Campaign must be launched with discretion to avoid causing panic.
This paper has sought to focus on the bio-terrorism threat in India. Parliament and government must give the threat of bio-terrorism appropriate attention. The government must draw up and correctly optimize modalities for dealing with the threat of bio-terrorism, both from a budgeting and structural standpoint. Both preventive and pre-emptive strategies are needed to neutralize perceived threats. These must be formulated, debated nationally and resolutely implemented.