Briefing on Bioterrorism
Communicated by the Government Press Office
16......The Government Press Office, hosted a briefing by International
Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism (http://www.ict.org.il) today at
Beit Agron in Jerusalem with senior researcher Dr. Ely Karmon, Health
Ministry (http://www.health.gov.il/english.htm) Center for Disease Controls
Prof. Manfred Green, Health Ministry Medical Administration Director Dr.
Yehuda Baruch and Tel Aviv University Interdisciplinary Center for Technological
Analysis and Forecasting (http://www.eng.tau.ac.il/~ictafweb/) Director
Dr. Yair Sharan.
Dr. Ely Karmon:
ladies and gentlemen. Ill open this panel by trying to resolve what
is bio-terrorism, what is the danger as we see it at our institute, and
in order to understand it I will try to give a short
About bio-terrorism, it must be stressed at the beginning that very few terrorist groups have attempted to acquire biological weapons or agents. Fewer of them have even tried to use these agents in order to stage attacks. The number of incidents involving the use or attempted use of biological agents is extremely small. When we think about the overall terrorist activity in the world, and also, it is known that until last week when the first victim of anthrax died, in fact nobody died of bio-terrorism. There were several people who died of bio-crimes, there were several people who were individually assassinated by biological agents but until last week, people were only injured by biological agents used by terrorists. The most important incident happened in the US in 1984 in Oregon when an Indian-based cult used salmonella in order to poison the residents of some small city and then tried to thereby influence the vote in local elections. Aum Shinri Kyo, the famous Japanese cult, is the only group known to have shown real interest in developing aerosol dissemination abilities.
Our institute, together
with ICTAF, has carried out a research project on what we call non-conventional
terrorism and what the Americans call weapons of mass destruction
I mean chemical, biological and nuclear terrorism. We have a data base
as a result of this project and we know, in our institute, of only 41
incidents of bio-terrorism between 1970 and 1998. But there was a steady
increase in the number of these incidents in the 1970s with 10 incidents.
I speak about incidents and not attacks. Incidents includes also interest
in acquiring agents.
I would like to stress that in 1998 and 1999, there was a campaign, a real campaign, of anthrax threats in the US. In 1998, there were 33 threats, including mailed letters. In 1999, there were 46cases of threats of anthrax, also some of them through letters, but no one really used anthrax. And I think, that this was in the background of the famous syndrome of the Gulf War, which was discovered in soldiers, US servicemen, who returned from Iraq, and all the publicity that was given to this problem.
Aum Shinri Kyo, the
famous cult that I spoke about, according to the most recent research,
again in the US, had a technically inept biological weapons program which
was led by a doctor, a trained
Now what about Osama Bin Laden? It is well-known, according to the media for the past six years that Bin Laden was involved in an effort to acquire weapons of mass destruction along with the capabilities to develop himself, or with his people, such weapons. According to information published by Corriera Della Sera, in May 1998, Osamas representatives bought three chemical and biological agent production laboratories in the former Yugoslavia and also received radioactive material from Ukraine. According to this information, the first factory has already been set up in a well-equipped camp near Kandahar. There was also information that he wanted to acquire nuclear bombs in Kazakhstan. An Arabic newspaper claimed in January 1999 that Bin Laden and the Iraqi regime had arrived at an agreement to fight together against the US, including cooperation in the fields of producing biological and chemical weapons in Bin Ladens laboratories, with the assistance of Iraqi specialists. But all of this detailed information was never confirmed by detailed sources and Bin Laden himself has responded once to a question by Time in January 1999 asking him what he thought about such weapons and he said, Acquiring weapons for the defense of Muslims is a religious duty. If I have indeed acquired these weapons, then I thank God for enabling me to do so. And if I seek to acquire these weapons, I am carrying out a duty. It would be a sin for Muslims not to try to possess weapons that could prevent the infidels from inflicting harm on Muslims.
Now, about the anthrax
campaign. It is clear today that this is a terror campaign, no doubt.
I read today that there are over 12 incidents in three states, in Florida,
New Jersey and New York, and in
We have information about a recent case in Italy. We have received information that a group of Algerians were arrested. They were active in Britain, Germany and Italy and plotted to use tins of tomatoes to transport cyanide. The theory is that the group wanted to spread the poison in an American government building. But this is a chemical, not biological attack.
With your permission,
I would like to take an optimistic to all these happenings regarding non-conventional
terrorism and to begin with by stating that if you study the literature,
you will find two very common axioms regarding non-conventional terrorism.
One is that it is very easy for terrorist groups to acquire, develop &
get their hands on non-conventional weapons, mainly chemical and biological.
The second axiom is that if they will apply on the population, we will
see a huge number of casualties. Now the result of our study was that
these two axioms are not so simple. First, it is very difficult for terrorist
groups to produce such weapons. And secondly, if they will apply such
weapons they will have developed by themselves, the number of casualties
wont be big. We even said that using conventional weapons and means
will pose much more, or many more casualties, than using these kinds of
weapons. If we see what happened on September 11 and what happened in
Japan, you can see that these results are true. The number of casualties
caused till now because of bio-terrorism was very small, not compared
even to what happened on Sept. 11. And this leads to another conclusion
that Ely said, that it probably was with the help of states, be it Iraq,
Iran or another one, we dont have any way to say who it was, but
without the help of a state, a very organized and developed infrastructure,
this terrorist group couldnt have in their hands a quality of anthrax
which they have at least in the Florida case. In order to produce such
an agent which will affect people through the lungs, you need a very high
technological capacity. I dont speak about the other cases in which
it was a very crude agent which penetrates through the skin and this could
have happened with lower quality of contamination. These are the first
two points I wanted to make. The next point is that the fact that in a
country like Israel, as well as the US, of course, which has a very developed
and, I think, a very good system of health service, you immediately see
that almost every casualty, every single man or woman that is suspected
to be affected by such weapons, such an agent, is under control. So, if
we look at the half-full glass, we can be quite sure that this threat
can be controlled at least in more developed health systems like we have
here. To sum up, bio-terrorism isnt always very threatening. It
causes very few casualties. I hope it will remain like that. Without the
help of a state, even a Bin Laden group cannot acquire high quality capability
Having read the risk
assessment, I have to stress that my job is not to decide what the possibilities
are, that there will or will not be an attack, rather to assume that there
will be. In other words, we make the preparations to actually deal with
every possible eventuality. Our assumption at the moment is whether or
not there is a realistic evaluation of whether or not the incidents in
the US are bio-crimes or bio-terrorism. We are making the assumption that
this is possibly bio-terrorism and that there is a possibility that behind
this bio-terrorism there may be states involved, i.e. a country that is
supporting it. On that assumption, we assume that basically we should
take into account every possible eventuality. What is probably important
and Ill make a kind of a philosophical comment to start with and
then go on with why in fact biological terrorism and biological warfare
has not really ever been used. It has never really been used.
And then, the next
question would be that if this is not a state-backed project, as has been
mentioned already, then the resources that terrorists would require to
make effective biological weapons need to be considerable and the technology
is not simple. The question then would be what kind of biological weapon
would they use. And they really have the choice of two kinds: One which
is the kind like anthrax which doesnt spread from person to person,
that is limited to the people who have been exposed to the bacteria or
to a biological weapon that could spread to other people like smallpox
or like plague. And in fact the reason why probably at this stage, anthrax
is the favorite weapon is that it is useful in the sense that it limits
itself just to the people who have been directly exposed to it. It doesnt
spread. You can focus it. It is pretty lethal you know unless we detect
that the person has been exposed and then the preventive measures are
really very effective. Whereas if you use an infectious organism which
spreads from person to person, you have very little control as to where
it is going to go. So in fact, in addition to the technology required,
anthrax has many points in its favor. So that its not a surprise
that anthrax has been used and its at the top of the list of any
biological weapons program. We know now that the Soviet Union had very
advanced technology and production facilities for anthrax. So, this is
one of the things we
I would like to add
a few words concerning the aim. The aim of a terror attack, any terror
attack, especially bio-terrorism, is to make terror in the people. That
aim, I think, has been fulfilled in the US and in Israel even. The point
I would like to make is that anthrax is a known disease. There are a few
cases every year in the US. The last case in Israel was in 1986. It is
not highly contagious. It does not pass from person to person as Prof.
Green, only by handling infected material.