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 in response to a possible biological threat during a training exercise at the David C. Canegata Recreational Center and Sports Complex on Sept. 25, 2019. (U.S. Army National Guard photo by Army Staff Sgt. Gregory Camacho)

How Worried Should We Be About a Bioterrorism Attack?

In all my years working in counterterrorism 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.

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.

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 U.S. 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 that 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 U.S.

How real is the threat? This is hard to nail down. It seems that the technical requirements to successfully isolate, synthesize, weaponize and distribute bioterrorist agents are beyond the vast majority of terrorists and terrorist groups. It would appear that a significant infrastructure would be required to do this right, and minimize the danger to the terrorist themselves. After all, we do see incidents in which IEDs explode prematurely, killing only the bad guys.

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 scrutinized 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 minimize 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.

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Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. (www.borealisthreatandrisk.com) and Programme Director for the Security, Economics and Technology (SET) hub at the University of Ottawa’s Professional Development Institute (PDI). He worked as a senior strategic analyst at CSIS (Canadian Security Intelligence Service) from 2001-2015, specializing in violent Islamist-inspired homegrown terrorism and radicalisation. From 1983 to 2001 he was employed as a senior multilingual analyst at Communications Security Establishment (CSE – Canada’s signals intelligence agency), specialising in the Middle East. He also served as senior special advisor in the National Security Directorate at Public Safety Canada from 2013, focusing on community outreach and training on radicalisation to violence, until his retirement from the civil service in May 2015, and as consultant for the Ontario Provincial Police’s Anti-Terrorism Section (PATS) from May to October 2015. He was the Director of Security and Intelligence at the SecDev Group from June 2018 to July 2019. Mr. Gurski has presented on violent Islamist-inspired and other forms of terrorism and radicalisation across Canada and around the world. He is the author of “The Threat from Within: Recognizing Al Qaeda-inspired Radicalization and Terrorism in the West” (Rowman and Littlefield 2015) “Western Foreign Fighters: the threat to homeland and international security” (Rowman and Littlefield 2017), The Lesser Jihads: taking the Islamist fight to the world (Rowman and Littlefield 2017), An end to the ‘war on terrorism ’ and When religion kills: how extremist justify violence through faith (Lynne Rienner 2019). He regularly blogs and podcasts (An Intelligent Look at Terrorism – available on his Web site), and tweets (@borealissaves) on terrorism. He is an associate fellow at the International Centre for Counter Terrorism (ICCT) in the Netherlands, a digital fellow at the Montreal Institute for Genocide Studies at Concordia University, a member of the board at the National Capital Branch of the CIC (Canadian International Council) and an affiliate of the Canadian network for research on Terrorism Security and Society (TSAS). Mr. Gurski is a regular commentator on terrorism and radicalisation for a wide variety of Canadian and international media. He writes at www.borealisthreatandrisk.com.

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