For years, the persistent narrative has warned us about the lingering presence of weapons of mass destruction since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. The specter of bio-weapons, such as anthrax and smallpox, has haunted the corridors of governmental concern despite the absence of any recent mass-casualty attacks associated with biological weapons in the United States.
However, the absence of direct biological assaults on the Homeland doesn’t necessarily diminish the ongoing threat we face daily. According to numerous security experts, the threat may be more formidable today than at any point in our history, propelled by advancements in medical, social, and geopolitical sciences.
It is crucial to recognize that the United States remains a prime target for various rogue nations and terrorist organizations. While many cannot execute large-scale attacks, they recognize the vulnerability in the vast U.S. infrastructure, making smaller, stealthier intrusions particularly attractive. This is where the potential for a biological attack comes into play – a threat that could be unleashed anywhere in the United States long before detection occurs.
A little bit of history
Terrorist factions such as ISIS and nations like Iran persistently seek avenues to instigate fear through the deployment of biological weapons. While prevailing wisdom assumes secure storage of these hazardous agents in developed nations like the United States, Russia, and Great Britain, the reality is more intricate.
Historically, the procurement of biological weapons was thought to be exceptionally challenging, providing a semblance of security. The Cold War era witnessed active pursuit by both the United States and the Soviet Union of expansive biological weapons programs, escalating the biological arms race. The deconstruction of the Soviet bio-weapons program in 1991 revealed its vast scale, surpassing that of the United States.
The Soviet Union, during World War II and the Cold War, weaponized at least eleven bio-agents, including anthrax, plague, botulism, the Marburg virus, and smallpox. This extensive effort comprised 52 secret production sites and over 50,000 individuals. Notably, weaponized smallpox was produced at a staggering rate of 100 tons per year, with agents genetically altered for increased resilience.
Ken Alibek, a pivotal Soviet scientist who defected in 1992, disclosed alarming details about the Soviet bio-weapons program. His accomplishments included creating a “battle strain” of anthrax and the world’s first “Tularemia bomb.” According to Alibek, if a war with the U.S. occurred, a bio-attack targeting major American cities, particularly with anthrax, was planned.
The agreement between the United States and Great Britain to cease biological warfare efforts faced uncertainty with questionable Russian compliance, and the destruction of Soviet bio-agents remains undocumented. Compounding concerns is the disappearance of many Soviet scientists involved in the program, along with substantial quantities of produced agents. The fear is that these scientists and stolen bio-agents might have entered the black market, potentially ending up in the hands of entities like Iran or ISIS. The consequences of disseminating these bio-agents or the knowledge to produce them would be devastating to U.S. interests worldwide.
Recent use of biological weapons of mass destruction
Instances in recent history shed light on the use of biological weapons of mass destruction, extending beyond mere terror to encompass political manipulation and assassinations. In 1984, cult leader Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh poisoned salad bars in The Dalles, Oregon, with salmonella to sway a local election, marking the first and largest deployment of biological weapons in the United States. The 2001 anthrax attacks, targeting political figures and TV personalities, remain the sole such incident in the U.S. since then.
In 2017, Kim Jong-nam, half-brother to North Korean President Kim Jong-un, faced assassination in a Malaysian airport using the VX nerve agent, implicating North Korea despite denials. This event underscores a disconcerting shift where entities beyond terror groups and rogue nations may engage in bio-terrorism, complicating detection and national response capabilities.
While historical use of weaponized biological agents is noted, recent instances of state-sponsored biological or chemical attacks are limited. Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad’s use of sarin gas during the 2017 and 2018 Syrian civil war stands as a chilling example. Large-scale biological attacks are rare due to challenges in extensive bio-agent dissemination. Although the U.S. may endure an emotional impact, its advanced healthcare system prevents complete devastation.
The likelihood of another major power launching biological or chemical weaponry is slim unless a full-scale world war ensues, leaving terrorist organizations and rogue nations as potential dispersers. The effectiveness of a biological attack in America lies in its capacity to instill fear and panic. Bio-agents operate silently and unseen, causing initial damage before healthcare professionals identify the disease outbreak, amplifying the terror’s impact on the affected masses.
The spread of biological weapons
It is imperative to grasp that an attack within the United States has the potential to seriously jeopardize our nation’s infrastructure and stock markets. Rick Ball, chairman of Vantage Point Consulting and an expert in security readiness, orchestrated a 2010 exercise simulating a biological attack on Fair Oaks Farms, a major dairy supplier in Indiana.
Situated in Indiana, Fair Oaks Farms houses 32,000 dairy cows and produces 2.5 million pounds of milk daily, sufficient for the 8 million residents of both Chicago and Indianapolis. Ball’s exercise indicated that, theoretically, a biological agent dispersed through the farm’s distribution services could result in the death of several thousand U.S. residents consuming the infected milk. The stakes are remarkably high, with estimates suggesting that less than 1 gram of botulinum toxin could poison 100,000 citizens, and 10 grams could affect nearly 600,000.
A broader perspective reveals the historical correlation between disease outbreaks in livestock and produce markets and their impact on financial and commercial infrastructure. The mid-1990s mad cow disease outbreak in Europe severely impacted Great Britain’s beef industry, with lingering effects still visible today. Recognizing commerce as America’s lifeblood, terrorist organizations might exploit vulnerabilities in the Midwest’s agricultural defense network.
While farms and restaurants may lack robust security against biological attacks, the nation’s surveillance capabilities are unparalleled. Dispersing biological agents is challenging due to their susceptibility to natural conditions like moisture, wind, and temperature. Most terrorist organizations lack advanced equipment for storing, producing, and disseminating significant amounts of biological agents. Their strength lies not in large-scale attacks but in striking at the heart of America’s Western ideals through smaller attacks at social gatherings, ball games, concerts, and schools, instilling terror in the hearts of most Americans.
It can happen even in the United States
How could a large-scale attack be most effectively launched? First and foremost, the accessibility of lethal agents needs careful consideration. Rick Ball highlights the significant shift brought about by the emergence of the ‘dark web,’ providing easy access to illegal substances like fentanyl and carfentanil. These substances, potent and dangerous, can be obtained for as little as $300 from Chinese sellers using Bitcoin and shipped via the USPS, showcasing just the beginning of the biological threats available.
Agents from the Soviet Union’s breakup, such as anthrax, smallpox, botulinum, and the plague, are still actively circulating in the world’s black market, facilitated further by the dark web. Ball underscores the need for constant vigilance, emphasizing the unpredictability of individuals’ ‘tipping points’ in accessing deadly information and substances.
Secondly, for a large-scale biological attack to succeed, it must be widespread, silent, highly sustainable, and possess a high mortality rate (25 to 45 percent of the target population). These characteristics parallel infectious respiratory diseases like the seasonal flu or SARS. Striking a balance is crucial; a mortality rate too low would limit damage, while one too high could impede the virus’s spread, causing it to burn out quickly.
The prospect of weaponizing a novel flu virus presents a worst-case scenario, potentially surpassing the impact of deliberate nuclear devices. Historical pandemics, such as the 1918 Spanish influenza, claimed between 50 and 100 million lives worldwide. If a similar flu pandemic were deliberately manufactured today, the toll could reach up to 350 million, with at least 2 million being American. Deliberately releasing such a virus in an international airport or sporting event could lead to weeks or months passing before its global circulation is identified, with little hope of containment.
Recognizing the signs of a biological attack
What steps should the average citizen take to prepare for the potential of a biological attack on the Homeland? While not all of us are experts in biology or epidemiology, certain signs can alert us to potential issues in our community.
SIGHT: If your instincts tell you that something is amiss, it’s worth paying attention. For instance, observing crop dusters flying between skyscrapers in downtown Los Angeles or witnessing plumes of smoke weaving through buildings should be recognized as out-of-place. Individuals appearing out of sorts at gatherings or schools, along with large groups exhibiting similar signs of sickness at public events, are also cause for concern.
SMELL: Certain smells can be indicators of potential threats. While the scent of freshly cut hay is normal in the countryside, the same smell in downtown Atlanta could signal the release of a chemical agent. Other scents associated with chemical and biological weapons include fruity, musty, and pungent chemical smells.
SOUND: Unusual sounds in urban environments, like large pops in downtown Chicago, could signify various things, such as dropped boxes, a muffler backfire, or a small explosion that might release a biological agent. It’s important to note that large explosions, unless from a chemical plant, would typically incinerate any biological agent, making them an unlikely source.
DEDUCTION: When hospitals and emergency rooms in a specific region start filling up with a large number of people exhibiting similar symptoms, it suggests the possibility of a disease epidemic. This could range from a relatively benign outbreak of E. coli to a more sinister scenario, such as a targeted release of the plague. Being attentive to such patterns is crucial for timely recognition and response.
Stay or Go?
In the event of a bioterrorism agent release, government officials would likely advise communities to shelter in place until the threat subsides, lasting from several hours to days in the immediate aftermath of an attack. Being prepared with a 72-hour kit containing essential supplies becomes crucial during this period. In the context of an attack, “sheltering in” entails having sufficient food, water, and supplies to avoid community gatherings and grocery stores.
While there’s a common thread in disaster plans, the specifics differ based on one’s location—whether urban or rural—and the region they inhabit. It is essential to tailor disaster plans accordingly.
There are instances, however, when sheltering in place might not be the optimal choice, and “bugging out” becomes necessary. Government officials may recommend that affected residents leave their community temporarily. Preparing a backpack or mobile kit with the core four essentials—shelter, water, fire, and food—for three days is a critical step in preparedness.
This mobile survival kit, known as a “Bug Out Bag,” should contain everything needed independently of stores, utilities, and the grid. It serves as a fundamental resource for evacuating one’s home during a large-scale disaster, including a bio-terrorism attack, if so instructed.
We go forward, no matter what
In an era marked by increased natural disasters, school shootings, and international terrorism, society finds itself in tumultuous times. Despite these challenges, life is meant to be lived without succumbing to fear.
Understanding the probabilities of bio-terrorism attacks in the nation is a crucial step in emotional preparedness. By taking these small steps, society can proactively address fears and be better prepared.
The biological threat to the United States exists both in our minds and in reality. Acknowledging the presence of unseen monsters, often visible only through a microscope, should not cripple our minds with fear. Instead, fear can catalyze to mentally and physically prepare for a bio-terrorism attack, whether from a domestic terrorist or a foreign entity.
While we navigate an insidious world, the horizon, though seemingly bleak, carries the hopeful expectation that peace can prevail even amid lurking menaces. Fear, when harnessed appropriately, can guide us toward a state of preparedness without hindering our ability to live life to the fullest.
You may also want to check this: