Government officials say international terrorist groups, such as al-Qaida, are determined to use biological agents against targets in the United States, Europe and elsewhere. Security analysts and public health officials say the key to preventing a bioterrorism attack is increased cooperation among allies.
Since the September 11, 2001 terror attacks on New York and Washington and the mailing of anthrax to several news organizations and members of Congress by an unknown person or persons, the United States has increased spending on bio-terrorism preparedness by 67 percent.
The massive jump in spending comes despite the fact that over the past 20 years, there have only been two other biological or chemical terrorism attacks in the world. They include a 1984 attack in Central Oregon, where a cult spread salmonella bacteria in restaurants in a bizarre incident that sickened 751, and a 1995 attack in Japan where a religious cult unleashed a lethal nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subway system poisoning more than 5,000 people and killing 12.
Georg Witschel, coordinator for prevention and combating international terrorism at the German Foreign Ministry, notes that more conventional terror attacks have killed thousands more. So, he asks, why all the attention on non-conventional terrorism?
"Why are we focusing on CBRN [chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear] terrorism? Why are we focusing on biological terrorism? We do so because it fits very well into the strategy, into the thinking of modern terrorism," he said.
Mr. Witschel, who participated in a bio-security conference sponsored by the European Institute in Washington, says modern terror groups aim at mass casualties and do not differentiate between the victims they are targeting and the local population, as can be seen every day in Iraq.
Additionally, he says, a biological attack with a large number of civilian deaths has a bigger impact in terms of terrorizing a population and disrupting the economic stability of a country than an attack on a so-called hard target, such as an ambassador or general, would have.
According to Charles Gallaway, director of chemical and biological defense programs at the Pentagon, there are some 50 biological agents that could be manipulated and used in a bio-terror attack. Anthrax and smallpox are of the most concern to scientists, he says, but other agents such as botulism or plague pose serious problems as well.
"From my perspective, the good old days of the threat are gone," he said. "And what I mean by the good old days, we used to have a list of classical threat agents and we would just march down that list of agents trying to develop counter measures against each one. Now what we're facing is a whole variety of additional opportunities, new modes of pathogenicity from biological warfare agents."
Mr. Gallaway says while some of the new forms of biological agents may simply be viruses or bacteria that have mutated on their own, there is also a serious threat from agents that are genetically engineered to cause the greatest harm possible.
John Dinger, deputy coordinator for counter terrorism at the U.S. State Department, says there are unique threats posed by bio-terrorism that make it extremely dangerous.
"First, a biological attack would not likely respect geographical boundaries," he said. "We often hear commentary that terrorists don't respect borders. That could be especially true in the case of a contagious agent such as small pox or pneumonic plague. Second, the attack could well be silent, because of that the onset of a bio-terrorist attack would not be known until the infection is already widespread and spreading rapidly. Third, it may be very difficult to identify, let alone apprehend, the perpetrators."
Because of the distinct threats posed by bio-terrorism, Mr. Dinger says the U.S. government devotes most of its counter-terrorism efforts to the three D's: detect, disrupt, and defeat. This is not something the United States can do alone, he says, other nations' help is key.
"The United States recognizes that the success or failure of our global campaign to uncover and defeat terrorism depends on other nations being both willing and able to fight terrorism," he said. "This is not a unilateral effort."
In addition to increased trans-national cooperation on intelligence matters, Mr. Dinger says national governments must convince their citizens that terrorism, the killing of innocent civilians for a political means, is unacceptable.
The defense officials and public health specialists gathered at the conference also said there is much to be learned from recent outbreaks, such as the SARS and avian flu in Asia and the Marburg virus in Angola.