The purpose of all forms of terrorism—including bioterrorism— is to create fear and intimidate individuals, governments, or societies into capitulating to terrorists’ religious, political, or ideological demands. The terrorists’ goal is not to cause massive death or destruction but to inspire panic within a population. Thus, bioterrorism—defined by scientists as the unlawful use, or threatened use, of microorganisms or toxins derived from microorganisms to produce illness or disease in humans, animals, or plants—has become an important issue in the U.S. war on terrorism.
While modern technology has improved the production and distribution of biological weapons, their use is not new. Historical accounts of the siege of Kaffa (a port on the Crimean Peninsula in the Black Sea) in 1346 include a report of an outbreak of plague caused when the attacking Tatars catapulted infected corpses into the city. During the American Revolution, the British tried to infect the Continental army with smallpox and were successful on several occasions. The use by the British and Americans of smallpoxinfected blankets to cause disease among Native American tribes is also well documented. German scientists and military officials targeted livestock during World War I, trying to spread disease among cattle, horses, sheep, and mules shipped to the Allies by neutral countries. The Germans and Japanese used prisoners to experiment with lethal viruses during World War II.
In 1942 the United States began an offensive biological weapons program that intensified and reached its peak during the Cold War. Then-president Richard Nixon ended the program in 1969 and ordered all existing stocks of biological weapons destroyed. The Soviets, however, continued to produce and stockpile lethal biological agents through the 1980s.
Many U.S. scientists and government officials claim that when the Cold War ended and the Soviets finally stopped their biological weapons research, scientists from that country used their knowledge and skills to help other nations develop the biological agents that have become the basis for twenty-first-century bioterrorism.
Most recently, Iraq developed a significant biological weapons arsenal between 1985 and 1991, according to weapons experts. While these agents were not used in the Persian Gulf War, some military authorities argue that they were employed during the Iran-Iraq War. Trace amounts of anthrax and mycotoxins (toxic substances produced by fungi and molds) were found in Iranian casualties during that war. After the Gulf War, Iraq claimed to have destroyed all its biological weapons. The United Nations Special Commission tried to conduct inspections in accordance with the terms that ended the Gulf War, but it was hampered by the lack of Iraqi cooperation and thus could not verify these claims. When coalition forces invaded Iraq in 2003 to rid the nation of weapons of mass destruction, they did not find evidence of biological weapons. However, facilities that produce biological weapons are often difficult to detect because the equipment used is designed for dual purposes—the production of biological agents and the manufacture of other, more benign products. The worldwide concern is that the biological weapons Iraq once possessed were not destroyed but have found their way into the hands of international terrorists. In any event, even if terrorists were unable to buy biological agents from nations such as Iraq, any terrorist organization with access to the Internet and the moderately sophisticated technology can produce biological weapons. Indeed, a bioterrorist attack has had experts worried since before the September 11, 2001, terrorist attack on the United States. As former defense secretary William Cohen said, “This scenario of a nuclear, biological or chemical weapon in the hands of a terrorist cell or rogue nation is not only plausible, it’s really quite real.”
A bioterrorist attack could be catastrophic. According to D.A. Henderson, former director of the World Health Organization’s global smallpox eradication project, a biological agent such as smallpox could be released undetected into a crowded area. Days would pass before victims would begin reporting symptoms and requesting treatment. By then the disease would have spread secondarily to many other people, and a full-scale epidemic would ensue. Further, diagnosing diseases not commonly seen would require time and specialized laboratory facilities. R.J. Bellamy and A.R. Freedman of the Department of Infectious Diseases at the University Hospital of Wales in England maintain that “the majority of physicians practicing today have never seen cases of smallpox, pneumonic plague, typhoidal tularaemia, pulmonary anthrax nor many other diseases that could result from a bioterrorist attack.” Indeed, many doctors and researchers argue that the United States is not prepared for a bioterrorist attack. Bruce Clements, associate director of St. Louis University’s Center for the Study of Bioterrorism and Emerging Infections warns that “we are woefully unprepared.” In addition to the concern over shortages, some doctors and public health officials claim that plans are not in place in most cities for the efficient distribution of the stockpiles of antibiotics and equipment that do exist.
Authors in Opposing Viewpoints: The War on Terrorism debate the issues that surround America’s war on terrorism in the following chapters: Is the War on Terrorism Justified? Is the Domestic War on Terrorism a Threat to Civil Liberties? Will the Domestic Antiterrorism Measures Make Americans Safer? How Is the U.S. War on Terrorism Affecting the World? Not only does the United States face the enormous task of reducing the threats posed by terrorists, including their use of biological weapons, U.S. officials are also subject to criticisms, as the wide range of views in this volume demonstrate.