A new report released in Washington, D.C. in December 2004 analyzes the U.S. response to the threat of bio-terrorism in the wake of the September 11th, 2001 terror attacks. The report says the nation has made progress but still has more work to do. How serious is the worldwide threat of biological and chemical weapons?
The devastating results of chemical weapons use were first seen during World War One, when Germany used poisonous chlorine gas against opposing forces in the trenches, destroying their respiratory systems on contact.
Michael Krepon is the founding president of the Henry L. Stimson Center -- a Washington, D.C. institution devoted to promoting
international peace and security. Mr. Krepon says, "Thankfully, many countries learned important lessons after W.W. One when chemical weapons were used extensively on the battlefield and there was such a reaction, negative reaction that international efforts tried to establish global standards against the use of these weapons. Those standards are in existence today."
The standards were included in a treaty banning the use of chemical weapons in 1997. Before there was a formal agreement, Iraq used chemical weapons against Iran and Iraqi Kurds during the Iran-Iraq war, in the 1980s.
Victoria Samson is a weapons expert at the Washington, D. C. Center for Defense Information. Ms. Samson says, "Iraq did use chemical weapons against its own people and against the Iranians during the Iran-Iraq war and so they most definitely had a large stockpile of chemical weapons, and while they had them out in the field during the first Gulf War, I don't believe they ever used them. Because the United States had made very clear at that point that should Iraq use chemical or biological weapons against U.S. troops, the United States would react with all forces it had."
There were concerns going into the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 that Iraq might have biological as well as chemical weapons. In the end, it apparently did not. In fact, biological weapons have rarely been used.
But, soon after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, letters containing the Anthrax bacteria were sent to five American media outlets and the offices of two U.S. senators. Five people died from inhalation-anthrax infections and 22 others developed skin-borne anthrax infections after coming into contact with the letters. There has been no final determination of who was responsible, or if it was the work of a terrorist or terrorist group.
A terrorist group was responsible for a 1995 chemical weapons attack in Tokyo. Twelve people were killed and thousands more were wounded when a Japanese Buddhist group, Aum Shinrikyo, released poisonous Sarin nerve gas into a subway. The attack caused havoc and psychological trauma in Japan.
But even though there have been a few high-profile incidents, they are the exception, as experts Michael Krepon explains: "Chemical and biological weapons are a worry, but it's not easy to produce these weapons and disperse them in ways that they will have mass effects. So, many different skills are required and fortunately most terrorist organizations do not have all the skills that are required."
Victoria Samson further explains, "It's extremely difficult for non-state actors such as terrorist groups to develop completely chemical weapons or biological weapons. These are extremely technical, highly advanced sort of things."
Ms. Samson notes there remains a remote possibility that a terrorist group could obtain and use some sort of chemical or biological agent to demonstrate its strength, and perhaps deploy it against civilian targets in a relatively crude manner. "What you have to look at though, is a chemical or biological agent being put on, let's say, a barge and towed into a port somewhere. We don't really have a lot of protection against that. They're working to focus on detecting those kinds of agents, but they're a long ways away from that. I think that's really where the threat exists for those kinds of weapons."
Since the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks, the U.S. has stepped up its efforts to better detect chemical and biological weapons and to protect against them. But it's a challenge. The facilities used to produce the components of chemical and biological weapons may also be used for legitimate purposes.
In 1998 the United States bombed this pharmaceutical plant in Sudan, believing it was making an ingredient in nerve gas and was somehow linked to Iraqi chemical weapons projects, something that was never proven.
Most weapons analysts say the threat posed by chemical or biological weapons is far smaller than that of nuclear weapons -- or small arms -- which are generally defined as weapons that can be carried by one or two people. Those weapons kill far more people than the more feared chemical and biological "weapons of mass destruction."