CBC In Depth
Bio-chem threat
CBC News Online | February 18, 2004

A suspicious package arrives at an office. Security is called. And one of the first things a security officer, a police officer, a firefighter has to check is � what kind of threat is in the package? Is it one of the oldest means of terror – a bomb – or does the package contain a biological or chemical threat?

Security authorities around the world report increasing worry about the kind of threat posed by biological or chemical attacks. In the language of the security bureaucrat, the threats are usually combined into the term CB (from Chemical Biological, it is also sometime called CBN for Chemical Biological Nuclear). Sometimes the slang term bio-chem is used.

Biological and chemical attacks are appealing to all kinds of terrorists, from so-called �rogue states,� through small independent terrorist cells with some kind of grievance, to individuals with a grudge.

A report by CSIS, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, notes one of the principal advantages of CB weapons for terrorists is their extreme toxicity, which at least theoretically provides the capability for mass-destruction attacks using comparatively small quantities of agent. Certain biological agents are the most toxic of all, approximating the lethality of a nuclear explosion in terms of the potential number of casualties caused. An attack using chemical weapons, while generally less destructive, could still cause thousands of casualties.

As well as the danger from the weapons, CSIS notes, the chemical and biological weapons have certain other advantages for a terrorist:

  • they are undetectable to traditional anti-terrorist sensor systems (and hence by conventional countermeasures);
  • the time-lag (in many cases) between release of an agent and its perceived effects on humans, allowing the perpetrator(s) to escape;
  • in at least some cases, the lack of an agent "signature," enabling an assassin, for example, to disguise the cause of death;
  • their adaptability to small demonstration attacks as an indication of resolve and ability to carry out the threat of a much more devastating attack;
  • their capacity – unobtainable by other means – to inflict heavy casualties on the military forces of a state or to seriously damage its economy;
  • the degree of sheer terror (and hence societal disruption) that may be instilled in a target population, due to the particularly insidious nature (microscopic, colourless, and/or odourless) of the agents in question;
  • the relative ease and cheapness of their production or other acquisition, particularly in comparison with nuclear weapons

The CSIS study warns, �Early warning systems do not exist� and �There is no reliable method of prior detection....[T]he first knowledge of an attack will be a large number of casualties."

The intelligence agency does say, however, that security services can take a number of precautions to limit the risk. These include intelligence gathering that tries to identify and monitor terrorist groups, that monitors the activities of state sponsors of terrorism, and that monitors microbiology equipment and culture orders from non-institutional buyers. The report also recommends a wider definition of intelligence-gathering, including studies that would distinguish between natural outbreaks and deliberate biological attacks, and pre-attack disaster planning, including listing the number of available hospital beds and specialized medical personnel.

Counter-acquisition strategies include a Western power demonstrating "the will and the weaponry" to destroy a biological warfare facility, or threatening the use of CB and/or nuclear weapons against the state sponsor of a Bio-Chem terrorist attack. The report also recommends training customs officials "to the degree possible" to recognize biological agents, and training local police and law-enforcement officials "to recognize the warning signs associated with the clandestine production of chemical or biological weapons.�

Passive protection includes developing new detection technologies, preparing for the evacuation of populations, and continued research, development and stockpiling of vaccines and antibiotics.

Long term protection policies could include more secure packaging of food and pharmaceuticals, building disinfectant systems into air-conditioning units of large buildings, new filter systems for buildings, development and distribution of advanced individual protective garb such as masks or hoods, better and more widespread chlorination of public water sources, and restricting access to heating and cooling systems, "supplemented by regular microbiological analyses."

Bio-chem Incidents

1968 - The Yippies threatened to �space-out� the delegates to the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, and everyone else in Chicago as well, by dumping LSD into Lake Michigan.

1969 - At a teach-in in England a professor puts the formula for making VX on a blackboard in front of hundreds of radical students. VX is considered the most deadly of chemical warfare agents. After the incident the formula is widely circulated.

1972 - Members of a U.S. right-wing group known as the Order of the Rising Sun, "dedicated to creating a new master race,� are found with 30 to 40 kilograms of typhoid bacteria cultures for use against water supplies in Chicago, St. Louis, and other Midwestern cities.

August 1974 - The "Alphabet Bomber" claims he possessed nerve gas and is coming to Washington to kill the president. He also sends toxic material through the mail to at least one Supreme Court Justice.

1976 - U.S. Postal Service seizes a small package, which contains a small charge, designed to explode a vial of nerve gas when the package is opened. An Arab terrorist group is suspected.

1976 - Someone mails letters to executives that say the envelope contained a tick infected with a �dangerous disease.�

1977, 1978, or 1979 - Palestinian terrorists are reported to have successfully spiked Israeli citrus fruit exports to Europe with liquid mercury.

1980 - Police in Paris discover a safehouse belonging to the German Red Army Faction terrorist organization. Inside is an improvised laboratory containing flasks of botulism toxin. A second report says German police found an RAF safehouse that has a stockpile of nerve gas.

May 1983 - Israeli government reports that it has uncovered a plot by Israeli Arabs to poison the water in Galilee with "an unidentified powder.�

1984 - Members of the Rajneesh religious cult in Antelope, Oregon use salmonella to poison the salad bars of local restaurants in an attempt to affect the outcome of local elections. Over 700 people are believed to have become ill. There are no fatalities.

December 1984 - Four people in England are charged with injecting a weed killer containing mercury into a turkey. An anonymous caller purporting to represent the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) claims responsibility.

November 1984 - The ALF in the U.K. claims it has contaminated Mars candy bars with rat poison to protest their manufacturer's funding of research using monkeys. The claim is later found to be a hoax, but millions of chocolate bars are recalled.

1986 - Tamil separatists threaten to poison the tea crop in Sri Lanka with arsenic. No arsenic is found.

1987 - In the Philippines, 19 police recruits died and about 140 are hospitalized after accepting water and sweets from unknown persons.

1991 - According to the U. S. Congress there is a "plot" by neo-Nazi "skinheads" to pump hydrogen cyanide gas into a synagogue. The report says the plot was "thwarted" by "German authorities".

November 1991 - The ALF (U.K.) claims it has contaminated a popular drink, "Lucozade." Five million bottles of the drink are recalled. None are contaminated.

January 1992 - A group calling itself the Animal Rights Militia claims it injected liquid oven cleaner into each of 87 "Cold Buster" bars on store shelves in Edmonton and Calgary. The incident proves to be a hoax. Two bars, those sent to the media, were injected with a saline solution.

December 1994 - The Animal Rights Militia sends notes to two supermarket chains and to the media in the Vancouver area claiming it has injected Christmas turkeys with rat poison. No evidence of contamination is found.

December 1994 - The South African police stop a plot designed to spread the AIDS virus among blacks by sending HIV-positive former guerrillas to patronize prostitutes in Johannesburg.

March 1995 - The Aum Shinri Kyo cult places containers of deadly sarin nerve agent on five trains on three major lines of the Tokyo subway system. Twelve people die and over 5,500 are injured as the gas spreads through the trains. Two of the subway lines are shut down and 26 stations closed.

May 1995 - A white supremacist employed at a lab in Ohio obtains samples of yersinia pestis, the organism responsible for plague. He is arrested and the material recovered before he has an opportunity to cultivate the organism.

December 1995 - A man is arrested crossing the U.S.-Canada border and charged with possession of botulism toxin. He also has guns, 20,000 rounds of ammunition, $89,000, and a large quantity of ricin. The man apparently hanged himself in jail while awaiting trial.


ISSUES: Biowar timeline Biowar dictionary Dirty Bombs Bio-chem threat Anthrax Anthrax attacks post Sept. 11
CANADA: Bioterrorism spending in Canada Winnipeg's fortress of deadly disease
RELATED: Animals and anthrax Chernobyl A biological attack at sea Red Lies: Biological warfare and the Soviet Union

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Chemical and Biological Terrorism: The Threat

Pacific Northwest National Laboratory: Pathogen Detection, Biological Threats

Defending Against Invisible Killers -- Biological Agents

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