Friday, April 9, 2010

Chemical or Biological...which one will the terrorists use?

It's impossible to predict what approach a terrorist group might use to launch a chemical or biological attack.
This is what makes it such a frightening threat. It can be anywhere, anytime and in any number of forms. However, there are some clues available to us which can help us understand a little more about the most likely approach.

Nerve agents and vesicant agents (blistering agents) are relatively difficult to produce. The Chemical Weapons Convention makes it hard to buy these agents and the ingredients needed to produce them. This probably rules these two categories out.

On the other hand, a chemical such as phosgene (a choking agent), is easy to find and produce. However, choking agents are volatile and therefore disperse quickly. This means that the terrorists would have to deliver it in a high concentration to have the effect of maximum impact they'd be aiming for. A possible scenario in this case would be to blow up a tanker full of the gas (or a chemicals plant) in a busy area.

Again, however, this introduces complications for the terrorists. The terrorists would need to smuggle a large bomb into a chemical plant or drive a tanker full of toxic chemicals into a densely populated area and blow it up. With the nation on high alert, one would expect that such attacks would be very difficult to execute.

It's possible that terrorists would use anthrax in an attack. If so, a possible approach would be the use of a crop-duster. Why? Because anthrax isn't contagious (it doesn't spread easily from person to person) like most other biological agents. This means that they would need to directly spread the bacteria onto as many people as possible.

However, while the thought of anthrax being poured down onto a city from a passing airplane is chilling, it is unlikely to happen. Such an attack would be detected immediately and those infected could seek immediate medical attention.

Furthermore, it would take a lot of time to release significant amounts of anthrax with this approach, and the US Air Force would have eliminated the threat long before large casualty levels could be reached.  It's worth remembering that you would need to inhale large amounts of anthrax before it becomes fatal. To put things in perspective, wool sorters inhale up to 700 anthrax spores every hour without any consequences -- in order for anthrax to reach lethal levels, you'd need to inhale up to 10,000 spores with every breath.

If the terrorists were to use anthrax, they would most likely release it inside a building where a dense concentration of the agent can be more easily achieved. While this approach would create considerable fear and panic, the casualties would be minimized because those affected could get immediate medical treatment. Again, such an attack would be quite difficult to trigger off.

Another, perhaps more likely, scenario is that the terrorists would initiate the spread of a contagious disease. This would most likely happen unnoticed. Only when more and more people start exhibiting the same symptoms would the alarm be raised. By then the disease may have spread very considerably.

If there's no treatment available for the disease, or if it were a new, more resistant strain of an existing disease, then the fear, panic and death objectives of the terrorist would be achieved. Smallpox would appear to be a prime candidate in this category. However, there are only two living samples of smallpox available in the world. One in a secure laboratory the US and one in Russia. Even though there are some concerns over security at the Russian laboratory, it's still unlikely that the terrorists will attempt to steal the sample and launch a smallpox attack.

It's more likely that the terrorists would take the easier route and spread a contagious disease like bubonic plague. Such an attack would be cheap and easy to launch and would create considerable panic among the general population.

While the effects of such an attack would be very traumatic, the emergency services should be able to move quite quickly to get the situation under control.  Experience tells us that, whatever approach the terrorists use, two things are sure: they will aim to create maximum fear and intimidation and they will aim for a target where they can cause maximum symbolic and material destruction.

That is, after all, the nature of terrorism.

The Decline and Fall of Pax Americana - by Frugal Squirrel is a great ebook which describes a two front attack using biological weapons against America...really great read.

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