Thursday, January 15, 2015

Charlie Hebdo: Should Europe worry about Mass Casualty Bio-Terrorism?

“Al Qaeda in the Maghreb is probably the most operationally capable affiliate in the organization right now.” 

--Roger Cressey, a former senior counterterrorism official at the National Security Council under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush Source: 
Virus - Public Domain
Source: CDC
While it may be a bit early to reflect on the Paris massacre of media staff at Charlie Hebdo and the Jewish market, the tactics are textbook conventional terrorist tactics used against innocent civilians. As analysts pour over data to discover cells and develop profiles of potential loan wolf perpetrators is Europe at increased risk of chemical or biological agents being used in conventional attacks? 

In 2009 the Washington Post published an article entitled: "Al Qaeda bungles Arms Experiment." The article posited that a biological weapon accident had occurred noting: "the accident killed at least 40 al Qaeda operatives, but [ ] the mishap led the militant group to shut down a base in the mountains of Tizi Ouzou province in eastern Algeria." "AQIM, according to U.S. intelligence estimates, maintains about a dozen bases in Algeria, where the group has waged a terrorist campaign against government forces and civilians. In 2006, the group claimed responsibility for an attack on foreign contractors. In 2007, the group said it bombed U.N. headquarters in Algiers, an attack that killed 41 people." Source:  It is difficult to surmise from public domain reports if this particular case was one of accidental exposure or work on plague, which is endemic in the region. What remains concerning about AQLIM is their repeated stated intent to develop and use biological weapons in Europe. While some speculate that his is the purview of state actors and would not likely be used in a terrorist attack, there is an increasing sense of concern that this might well be on the horizon. 

"Plague ( ) is a naturally occurring disease caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis. This bacterium is found in rodents and fleas that infest them and exists in many parts of the world including the western United States. According to the U.S. CDC, there are 1000 to 3000 cases of plague diagnosed in humans every year; between five and fifteen of those cases occur in the United States. Y. pestis can infect humans in three ways. The bacteria cause pneumonic  plague when inhaled, though pneumonic plague can also occur when plague bacteria from another form of transmission infect the lungs. Bubonic  plague results when the bacteria enter through a break in the skin (such as a flea bite), and septicemic plague occurs when the bacteria multiply in the victim's blood (usually after being infected by one of the other types). In general, a flea bite is the primary form of infection, and if 
the infection is left untreated, it can evolve into a case of pneumonic or septicemic plague." Source:

Bubonic and septicemic plagues are not normally spread from person to person. Pneumonic plague can be contagious if a person inhales respiratory droplets containing the bacteria from an infected person, which usually requires close contact with the infected individual. Y. pestis is a fragile bacterium and does not last long in sunlight or after it is dried. Plague is treatable with antibiotics, which are especially effective if administered early. Wearing a simple surgical mask can protect a person from pneumonic plague infection. Like many biological agents, there are great challenges associated with producing and employing large quantities of a virulent biological agent. Certainly, plague can be obtained from the environment in a place where it occurs naturally, such as Algeria, but taking that bacterium and producing a large quantity of it in a virulent form and then disbursing it in an efficient manner is another matter entirely." Source:

Three things stand out  when we conider the likelihood of AQ using in particular plague as a bioweapon in the statements above. First, it is unlikely that AQ would use plague for a number of reasons not least of which that their highly educated microbiologists certainly are aware that yersinia pestis is not highly transmissible and weaponizing it to increase virulence or at the edges of their scientific capability modifying to make it so is extremely remote. Secondly, AQ microbiologists would certainly select a pathogenic agent for which there was no treatment available and finally, while terrorists may have the capability to manufacture quantities of biological warfare agents Category A agents, manufacturing large quantities is considered an obsolete past time by most bio-defence experts as BW can be deployed in small quantities where the quality not the quantity is important. Manufacturing large quantities of BW agents is generally considered a state activity prohibited since 1976 under the BTWC. 


So how likely is AQ to posses and deploy a biological warfare agent in a terrorist attack in Europe? My answer would be that while the risk remains relatively low, it is not zero and one attack with BW is akin to an airline going down, it kills a lot of people at once. We should better ask why Al Qaeda has highly trained microbiologists, where did they receive their training and how do we interdict this both with AQ as well as state offensive weapon programs which might be transferred to terror cells. Our current understanding of BW and synthetic biology may well mean that the technical thresholds we thought were a safeguard against the use of weaponized biological agents by terrorists, may be a false sense of security. AQ's microbiologists are likely to select agents for which there is no known treatment, highly transmissible and infective and which can be deployed in small highly concentrated quantities in areas such as transportation infrastructures where exposure to sunlight and UV is limited.  As shocking at the terrorist attack in Paris was we must remain vigilant that AQ will continue to up the ante and BW may well be on the horizon. 

Dr.Jill Bellamy is an internationally recognized expert on biological warfare and defence. She has formerly advised NATO and for the past seventeen years has represented a number of bio-pharmaceutical and government clients working on procurement strategy between NATO MS and Washington DC. Her private government relations consultancy Warfare Technology Analytics is based in the Netherlands. Dr. Bellamy's articles have appeared in the National Review, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The Sunday Times of London, Le Temps, Le Monde and the Jerusalem Post among other publications. She is a CBRN SME with the U.S. Department of Defence, Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Defence Information Analysis Center and CEO of Warfare Technology Analytics.

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