How worried should we be about a bioterrorism attack?

Terrorists want to instill fear and there is nothing scarier than a biological attack. But how realistic is it?

Thios piece originally appeared in Homeland Security Today on March 16, 2020

OTTAWA, CANADA — In all my years working in counter terrorism for the Canadian government I came across some real doozies when it comes to attack planning. I heard of cells wanting to launch a raid on a nuclear power plant, poison food on a military base, derail a train and besiege Parliament, behead the Speaker and announce the advent of ‘Al Qaeda in Canada’.

As it turned out, these ‘plans’ were little more than pipe dreams. The wannabe perpetrators had zero chance of carrying off these plots and when it came to actual successful attacks the terrorists ended up using simple firearms, vehicles or knives. Consequently, the death tolls have been low.

It could very well be that Canadian terrorists, at least those of the Islamist variety, are remarkably incompetent. This is of course not the case elsewhere as jihadis have been able to cause mass casualties with more sophisticated weapons such as IEDs.

In truth we have seen this scourge before: the anthrax incidents post 9/11 in the US and the Aum Shinrikyo sarin release in the Tokyo subway in 1995 are the best examples, although sarin is a chemical weapon.

Still, we often see propaganda from groups such as ISIS in which much bolder schemes are threatened. This is done on purpose as widespread fear is one of their goals. They seek to cow us into making bad decisions, some of which actually make the terrorism problem worse.

Nevertheless, a lot of these ideas require a level of knowledge and capability that to date – thank God! – seem to be beyond most terrorists. Sometimes rocket science is indeed rocket science.

Soldiers of the 23rd Weapons of Mass Destruction Civil Support Team decontaminate their protective suits after sweeping the area utilizing special biological and chemical detectors (U.S. Army National Guard photo by Army Staff Sgt. Gregory Camacho)
Which brings me to bioterrorism and other weapons of mass destruction.

This term bioterrorism has been around for some time and refers to the intentional use of pathogenic strains of microbes to cause disease or death. In truth we have seen this scourge before: the anthrax incidents post 9/11 in the US and the Aum Shinrikyo sarin release in the Tokyo subway in 1995 are the best examples, although sarin is a chemical weapon. I also recall seeing Al Qaeda videos in the early 2000s which seemed to suggest experiments with these substances. ISIS too used some chemical weapons albeit not very effectively.

Bioterrorism is often talked about as a weapon of mass destruction, like nuclear and chemical weapons.  Paradoxically,  like low level terrorism that encompasses knives and vehicles, those with intentions to launch bioterrorism or chemical weapons attacks often end up at the lower level end of the spectrum.  This is why toxins, particularly ricin, feature prominently in even the very small number of bioterrorism incidents, several of which have been planned by right wing terrorists in the US. 

How real is the threat? This is hard to nail down. It seems that the technical requirements to successfully isolate, synthesise, weaponise and distribute bioterrorist agents are beyond the vast majority of terrorists and terrorist groups. It would appear that significant know-how and infrastructure – although some believe a ‘basic’ toxin like ricin could be used with somewhat simpler equipment – would be required to do this right, and minimise the danger to the terrorist themselves. After all, we do see incidents in which IEDs explode prematurely, killing only the bad guys.

It could very well be that Canadian terrorists, at least those of the Islamist variety, are remarkably incompetent.

Nevertheless, no country can ignore the possibility. Albeit a low probability event, a successful bioterrorist attack could have a huge impact, both in terms of infection rates and the concomitant panic that would ensue. As we are seeing with COVID-19 – which is NOT by the way a CIA or Chinese bioweapon – outbreaks like these, natural or manufactured, have major effects on our societies.

We also have to take into account the impact of terrorist propaganda and disinformation in this regard. Just as we are seeing references to COVID-19 in some messaging, the threat of bioterrorism can lead some to conclude that terrorists can successfully deploy such weapons. As with all information of this nature these days, this must be scrutinised for accuracy and truthfulness. We cannot give terrorists the satisfaction of seeing their nefarious, but fake, threat posturing have its desired effect on us.

It is thus incumbent on our security intelligence and law enforcement agencies to be aware of this threat and to do everything to minimise it. Should it be an investigative priority? Hard to say although my instincts say no. Yet if intelligence were gathered pointing to a possible bioterror attack I am certain all other investigations would be immediately dropped to focus resources on what could be a catastrophic event.

I hope the relevant agencies have the necessary liaison with experts in this field so that early detection is possible. I am confident they do but I will still be surprised when – or should that be if – an incident of this nature transpires.


When Religion Kills: How Extremists Justify Violence Through Faith (2019)

Christian fundamentalists. Hindu nationalists. Islamic jihadists. Buddhist militants. Jewish extremists. Members of these and other religious groups have committed horrific acts of terrorist violence in recent decades. Phil Gurski explores violent extremism across a broad range of the world’s major religions.

Phil Gurski
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