GPO Briefing on Biological Terrorism
(Communicated by the GPO)

Jerusalem, 16 October 2001

The Government Press Office on Tuesday, October 16, hosted a briefing by International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism (http://www.ict.org.il) senior researcher Dr. Ely Karmon, Health Ministry (http://www.health.gov.il/) Center for Disease Control’s Prof. Manfred Green, Health Ministry Medical Administration Director Dr. Yehuda Baruch, and Tel Aviv University Interdisciplinary Center for Technological Analysis and Forecasting ) Director Dr. Yair Sharan. Following are excerpts from the briefing:

Dr. Ely Karmon: Good morning ladies and gentlemen. I’ll open this panel by trying to resolve what is bio-terrorism, what is the danger as we see it at our institute, and in order to understand it I will try to give a short historical presentation about bio-terrorism. I’ll try to explain what is known today, or up until one month ago about Bin Laden and his weapons of mass destruction project. I’ll offer some comments on what happened now with the anthrax scare although it is very difficult to analyze it as not much information was presented to the public, and part of it is still secret, and even the FBI is not completely aware of what happened and who is behind it.

About bio-terrorism, it must be stressed at the beginning that very few terrorist groups have attempted to acquire biological weapons or agents. Fewer of them have even tried to use these agents in order to stage attacks. The number of incidents involving the use or attempted use of biological agents is extremely small. When we think about the overall terrorist activity in the world, and also, it is known that until last week when the first victim of anthrax died, in fact nobody died of bio-terrorism. There were several people who died of bio-crimes, there were several people who were individually assassinated by biological agents but until last week, people were only injured by biological agents used by terrorists. The most important incident happened in the US in 1984 in Oregon when an Indian-based cult used salmonella in order to poison the residents of some small city and then tried to thereby influence the vote in local elections. Aum Shinri Kyo, the famous Japanese cult, is the only group known to have shown real interest in developing aerosol dissemination abilities.

Our institute, together with ICTAF, has carried out a research project on what we call non-conventional terrorism and what the Americans call weapons of mass destruction – I mean chemical, biological and nuclear terrorism. We have a data base as a result of this project and we know, in our institute, of only 41 incidents of bio-terrorism between 1970 and 1998. But there was a steady increase in the number of these incidents in the 1970s with 10 incidents. I speak about incidents and not attacks. Incidents includes also interest in acquiring agents. Incidents can be the acquisition of biological agents and not specifically attacks. There were 13 incidents in the 1980s, and 18 between 1990-1998. As I told you, only the Rajneesh cult in Oregon provoked 751 victims, but all the people recovered from the illness. There is another very important research in the US made by well-known biologist Seth Karos from the National Defense College and he made a research on cases from 1900 until 1999. From his database, there have been 142 incidents in the entire period. Of these 142, only 23 incidents of bio-terrorism. The others are either bio-crimes or not completely decided upon. From these 23 incidents, only five saw the actual use of biological materials. By the way, not all the incidents that appeared on Seth Karos’ database are parallel to our incidents so there is some problem of definition but this is not so important for you.

I would like to stress that in 1998 and 1999, there was a campaign, a real campaign, of anthrax threats in the US. In 1998, there were 33 threats, including mailed letters. In 1999, there were 46cases of threats of anthrax, also some of them through letters, but no one really used anthrax. And I think, that this was in the background of the famous syndrome of the Gulf War, which was discovered in soldiers, US servicemen, who returned from Iraq, and all the publicity that was given to this problem.

Aum Shinri Kyo, the famous cult that I spoke about, according to the most recent research, again in the US, had a technically inept biological weapons program which was led by a doctor, a trained molecular biologist with a background in genetic engineering. But still, the main attempts of biological attacks staged and perpetrated by Aum Shinri Kyo, none of them were successful. They tried once, over four hours, to use aerosol anthrax from a high building in Tokyo. Nothing succeeded because in the end, it was discovered that what they developed as anthrax was really a kind of veterinary vaccine and not a virulent strain of anthrax. The same thing happened to the botulin that they tried to produce and the attempts they made against the American naval bases in Yokohama and Yokomura, and also against the wedding of the Japanese Crown Prince and against, I think, the Tokyo international airport. None of them produced any injuries. And this is very important because we speak about an organization that had $1 billion as a budget, trained physicians and chemists. The biological weapons team had very qualified people.

Now what about Osama Bin Laden? It is well-known, according to the media for the past six years that Bin Laden was involved in an effort to acquire weapons of mass destruction along with the capabilities to develop himself, or with his people, such weapons. According to information published by Corriera Della Sera, in May 1998, Osama’s representatives bought three chemical and biological agent production laboratories in the former Yugoslavia and also received radioactive material from Ukraine. According to this information, the first factory has already been set up in a well-equipped camp near Kandahar. There was also information that he wanted to acquire nuclear bombs in Kazakhstan. An Arabic newspaper claimed in January 1999 that Bin Laden and the Iraqi regime had arrived at an agreement to fight together against the US, including cooperation in the fields of producing biological and chemical weapons in Bin Laden’s laboratories, with the assistance of Iraqi specialists. But all of this detailed information was never confirmed by detailed sources and Bin Laden himself has responded once to a question by Time in January 1999 asking him what he thought about such weapons and he said, "Acquiring weapons for the defense of Muslims is a religious duty. If I have indeed acquired these weapons, then I thank God for enabling me to do so. And if I seek to acquire these weapons, I am carrying out a duty. It would be a sin for Muslims not to try to possess weapons that could prevent the infidels from inflicting harm on Muslims."

Now, about the anthrax campaign. It is clear today that this is a terror campaign, no doubt. I read today that there are over 12 incidents in three states, in Florida, New Jersey and New York, and in Nevada. Who is behind the campaign? Bin Laden is clearly the major suspect because this campaign is completely parallel to the attacks by the suicide-hijackers on September 11. But more and more specialists have evaluated that there is probably some Iraqi involvement, either directly or indirectly, because of the very high quality of the viruses used. And also because of the motivation of the Iraqi regime to attack the US.

I must also stress that what we know from the history of bio-terrorism, most of the incidents happened on American soil. A large part of these incidents were perpetrated by very small groups or cells or individuals which, ideologically, belong to the radical right-wing in the US, including an attempt to poison President Clinton with cyanide two years ago. So, I want to be very, very careful, but we must also take into consideration after what happened in Oklahoma City that perhaps somebody is holding on to the Bin Laden bandwagon. What about the modus operandi? We see clearly that these are individual, but symbolic, attacks: people from the media, politicians and Microsoft, which is a leading hi-tech company in the US. The attack against Microsoft is very strange because according to the media at least, the envelope used went to Malaysia, returned to the US, and was kept for several weeks and not opened. So it was probably from before September 11 and it is completely different from all the other envelopes which were sent either from Florida, New Jersey or Nevada. So the Microsoft case, in my opinion, could imply that what happened was not in Malaysia, as it was presented, this perhaps involves somebody in a post office who put material into the envelope when it came back to the US. It is not also clear when the first attacks took place. Perhaps the first case, the man who died in Florida, began before September.

We have information about a recent case in Italy. We have received information that a group of Algerians were arrested. They were active in Britain, Germany and Italy and plotted to use tins of tomatoes to transport cyanide. The theory is that the group wanted to spread the poison in an American government building. But this is a chemical, not biological attack.

Dr. Yair Sharan: With your permission, I would like to take an optimistic to all these happenings regarding non-conventional terrorism and to begin with by stating that if you study the literature, you will find two very common axioms regarding non-conventional terrorism. One is that it is very easy for terrorist groups to acquire, develop & get their hands on non-conventional weapons, mainly chemical and biological. The second axiom is that if they will apply on the population, we will see a huge number of casualties.

The result of our study was that these two axioms are not so simple. First, it is very difficult for terrorist groups to produce such weapons. And secondly, if they will apply such weapons they will have developed by themselves, the number of casualties won’t be big. We even said that using conventional weapons and means will pose much more, or many more casualties, than using these kinds of weapons. If we see what happened on September 11 and what happened in Japan, you can see that these results are true.

The number of casualties caused till now because of bio-terrorism was very small, not compared even to what happened on Sept. 11. And this leads to another conclusion that Ely said, that it probably was with the help of states, be it Iraq, Iran or another one, we don’t have any way to say who it was, but without the help of a state, a very organized and developed infrastructure, this terrorist group couldn’t have in their hands a quality of anthrax which they have at least in the Florida case. In order to produce such an agent which will affect people through the lungs, you need a very high technological capacity. I don’t speak about the other cases in which it was a very crude agent which penetrates through the skin and this could have happened with lower quality of contamination. These are the first two points I wanted to make.

The next point is that the fact that in a country like Israel, as well as the US, of course, which has a very developed and, I think, a very good system of health service, you immediately see that almost every casualty, every single man or woman that is suspected to be affected by such weapons, such an agent, is under control. So, if we look at the half-full glass, we can be quite sure that this threat can be controlled at least in more developed health systems like we have here. To sum up, bio-terrorism isn’t always very threatening. It causes very few casualties. I hope it will remain like that. Without the help of a state, even a Bin Laden group cannot acquire high quality capability and you can draw your own conclusions. The defense system of the health system is very well-prepared to cope with the result of such a threat.

Prof. Manfred Green: Having read the risk assessment, I have to stress that my job is not to decide what the possibilities are, that there will or will not be an attack, rather to assume that there will be. In other words, we make the preparations to actually deal with every possible eventuality. Our assumption at the moment is whether or not there is a realistic evaluation of whether or not the incidents in the US are bio-crimes or bio-terrorism. We are making the assumption that this is possibly bio-terrorism and that there is a possibility that behind this bio-terrorism there may be states involved, i.e. a country that is supporting it. On that assumption, we assume that basically we should take into account every possible eventuality.

I’ll make a kind of a philosophical comment to start with and then go on with why in fact biological terrorism and biological warfare has not really ever been used. It has never really been used. There was an incident in World War I where there was reference to glanders but basically no country has used biological weapons that we know of. We know that the US and the Soviet Union and other countries developed the capability of biological warfare and it’s interesting that there is probably one issue at least that is internationally agreed upon, there is consensus on at least one issue, and that is that we should eliminate disease and promote health. I don’t think that there is a country, that there is a member of the World Health Organization, whose main objective is not to eliminate disease and promote health. In fact, whether countries do or do not sign agreements on biological weapons, there is an agreement that the deliberate introduction of disease is outside of the framework of what we would call a world consensus. In fact, I was at a WHO assembly a few years ago discussing the destruction of the last stocks of smallpox in the US and Russia, and two of the main speakers were from Iraq and Iran. They strongly supported it and came out as promoters of health and against any possible use of biological weapons. So that at least we would have to assume that if a country makes a decision to use biological weapons, they are really taking themselves way out of this one consensus that has withstood the test of time. That doesn’t mean that they won’t do it but it means that it is a major step.

And then, the next question would be that if this is not a state-backed project, as has been mentioned already, then the resources that terrorists would require to make effective biological weapons need to be considerable and the technology is not simple. The question then would be what kind of biological weapon would they use. And they really have the choice of two kinds: One which is the kind like anthrax which doesn’t spread from person to person, that is limited to the people who have been exposed to the bacteria or to a biological weapon that could spread to other people like smallpox or like plague. And in fact the reason why probably at this stage, anthrax is the favorite weapon is that it is useful in the sense that it limits itself just to the people who have been directly exposed to it. It doesn’t spread. You can focus it. It is pretty lethal you know unless we detect that the person has been exposed and then the preventive measures are really very effective, whereas if you use an infectious organism which spreads from person to person, you have very little control as to where it is going to go.

So, in fact, in addition to the technology required, anthrax has many points in its favor. So it’s not a surprise that anthrax has been used and it’s at the top of the list of any biological weapons program. We know now that the Soviet Union had very advanced technology and production facilities for anthrax. So, this is one of the things we need to take into account. Whether in fact, terrorists can produce the material that is being distributed at the moment, it is clear that the technology is available and they can get access to the material. But as I mentioned, it is not necessarily material that is very effective. In other words, you would need dispersal systems that are quite technologically advanced to affect a lot of people. But we have to assume that the possibility exists.

One cannot totally rule out the possibility that this is a bio-crime because this is technically feasible. To distribute envelopes as has been done is, as you can imagine, very simple. Most of these envelopes probably have talcum powder in them with some anthrax material. You have to remember also that they there have actually been two cases where people got sick: the first person, who died, and who must have inhaled considerable quantities of the material, and the second is a woman who was exposed cutaneously, presumably through a cut in the skin, developed a lesion and is being treated and will recover. The baby, as I understand, has been exposed.

We have to distinguish between cases and exposure. Exposure simply means that you have the bacteria on your body. I just have to remind you of the 1950s when there was considerable work on something called ‘wool sorters’ disease. People who work with crude wool, and in studies of them, we know that they were exposed extensively to anthrax, both inhalation anthrax and cutaneous. Only some of them became ill. So the exposure is widespread and in fact it can occur among people who work with meat and cattle and so on. That is exposure, where you detect the bacteria on the person, but it doesn’t mean they have the disease, it doesn’t mean anything, it just means that they have been exposed. The next stage would be whether in fact that bacteria has actually been able to cause disease. And the most common one would be the cutaneous one, the one that affects the skin.

Dr. Yehuda Baruch: I would like to add a few words concerning the

aim. The aim of a terror attack, any terror attack, especially bio-terrorism, is to make terror in the people. That aim, I think, has been fulfilled in the US and in Israel even. The point I would like to make is that anthrax is a known disease. There are a few cases every year in the US. The last case in Israel was in 1986. It is not highly contagious. It does not pass from person to person as Prof. Green, only by handling infected material. There was an epidemic in Zimbabwe in 1978. Out of 10,000 people who got sick, only eight had the lung disease, which is very lethal.