COVID-19: Is Bioterrorism on the Rise Now?

State of Emergency

Against the backdrop of the still ongoing global struggle to tackle the novel COVID-19 pandemic and its various impacts, some terrorist organizations and affiliates already seem to draw their strategic lessons from the destabilizing effects the crisis has revealed. Not only do they study the immense psychological and economic effects of regional lockdowns and curfews throughout the globe, but also widespread governmental anticipatory miscalculations. Without doubt, the novel coronavirus has brought the world to a screeching halt.

False or late reactive measures as partially became evident in the case of UK and later even more in the US (gradually also in Sweden), where underestimation by political decision-makers, who initially thought that herd immunity within a short period at low damage was a possible exit strategy, paved the way to systemic failure in some of the affected states. This kind of strategic ignorance led to substantial costs, in particular to mass casualties due to SARS-CoV-2 and fatal overstretching of hospital capacities as seen in Italy. The majority of states around the globe suddenly found itself in a state of emergency. Significant damage caused by wrong preventive assessments and consequential desperate attempts to contain the virus, but also undeniable deficits in public communication, reveal a menacing lack of resiliency among some Western societies that are severely hit by this pandemic, at least in the civic perception. However, one may well scrutinize in retrospective if governmental containment measures (ranging to strict curfews and restrictions of basic rights) were purposeful and adequate in relation to the undisputed goal to balance health care necessities and economic consequences. No matter how each individual tends to answer this question, it is undoubtedly clear that the disruptive emergence of COVID-19 marks a turning point with respect to geopolitics and any kind of security policy, with terrorism of any ideological background and phenotypical texture being explicitly included.

Beneficiaries of Weakness

Recent postings in ISIS’s weekly Arabic language Al-Naba magazine initially suggested that COVID-19 was a “divine punishment against communist China”. For Europe, according to Al-Naba, the virus constituted a retribution for “crusader nations” and ISIS cautioned its sympathizers in the Levant against any travel to affected countries while urging those already present in Europe to carry out attacks. At the same time, ISIS-allied Boko Haram claimed the virus to be a “punishment for those who disobey Islam”. Not less, in a recent communiqué, al-Qaeda cast the coronavirus striking the Muslim world as a consequence of “our own sins and our distance from the divine methodology.”

For ISIS, the spread of the coronavirus disease however manifests a long-desired opportunity to capitalize on, and for the following reasons also a unique occasion to launch attacks against the West:

  • The peoples of the world and especially the “crusaders” (the West) allocate massive resources to fight the spread of the pandemic. Therefore, their security forces are tied to public safety and civilian assistance duties;
  • the fear of an economic hardship that will hurt the poor as a result of the markets decline;
  • the possibility of chaos and anarchy that will be manifested in an increase of attacks against people and property.

In the wake of the pandemic state of exception, ISIS and other significant groups are thus very likely developing new medium-term strategies evoked by deep and disruptive change due to pandemic virus exposition. The heavily preoccupied and weakened Western societies (subsidiarity of counter-terrorism measures due to necessary bundling of resources in the security sector, concentration on pandemic mitigation, paralysis of various health care systems, etc.) offer a perfect target. Terrorist strategists have already recognized this situational vulnerability and established it as a basis for operative planning. Moreover, due to constant observation of the destabilizing impact that the virus has on the security establishment, terrorists have taken into account the manifold opportunities to attack us using bio-weapons with such agents as bacteria (germs), toxins and viruses – bioterrorism in its purest form. This symptomatically involves the intentional release or dissemination of biological agents for the sake of doing harm to humans and to destabilize societies. In extreme cases, once willful dissemination reaches a global extension, it may lead to the breakout of a pandemic. Basically, it is difficult to gather sophisticated biotechnologies and to spread viruses, but their impact would transcend any conventional assault using firearms or IEDs. Above all, as our quite dilettante response to COVID-19 shows, we are not prepared for anything like that.

Growing Intent

Western intelligence bodies are registering growing illicit intention to materialize biohazardous assaults, specifically on behalf of terrorist groups. They warn that for the near future we should expect the possibility of engineered bio-weapons being used on a mass scale. The logic behind this vicious threat scenario seems evident: If a mutated flu-virus that has a lethality of less than one percent among those infected can cause global turmoil, what would happen in the case of a real plague? What if there was a virus as infectious as coronavirus but with the lethality of Ebola or smallpox? Nobody knows. But it may be assumed that such a biological agent- frozen or stored, manipulated or in its original form – already exists in labs somewhere in the world – either for the purpose as a bio-weapon or the sake of defense, i.e. retaliation. As of today, it is mostly state actors that have access to biological agents and/or produce them.

According to an instructive report of Harvard’s Belfer Center, “North Korea could produce a ton of biological weapons a year and has weaponized 13 different germs. These included anthrax, cholera, typhoid, yellow fever, botulism, Korean hemorrhagic fever, smallpox and the bubonic plague.” It is worth mentioning that pound for pound, biological weapons are more lethal than nuclear weapons. Only a “gallon of weaponized anthrax (if correctly distributed) could kill every human being on earth”. Once bio-weapons are deployed, they cannot be contained. They spread like COVID-19, with a frightening lethality that transcends the current Corona threat beyond a factor times ten or even more. Therefore, biological weapons can be regarded as “the poor man’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD)”. Producing germ weapons can be maintained on a small scale, without much of an industrial base behind, and by the way also far cheaper than even a single hydrogen bomb. Bearing this in mind, it seems rather advisable to assume that bio-weapons could certainly be used by terrorist groups.

Capabilities?

Are terrorist organizations like al-Qaeda or what is remaining of ISIS in the former “caliphate” and others, capable of either producing or obtaining biological agents? That is the crucial question. Based on open source intelligence reports the answer is “no, but…”. Drawing on existing evidence that attempts to weaponize biological agents were made, we may expect continuing efforts of extremist groups in this regard. In the past, ISIS’ execution of the president of the department of Physics at the Said University, who refused to cooperate with ISIS to develop bio-weapons that should be used against the Iraqi government forces, seems to suggest that the group had already before expressed active interest in developing bio-weapons.

International “bio-weapons experts believe that currently bioterrorists probably lack the biotechnological capability to produce-super pathogens or super pests. However, they could utilize tropical agricultural pathogens or pests as anticrop agents to browbeat worldwide food security. Biological weapons comprise of transmittable agents (pathogens) and toxins. The most terribly destructive bioterrorism scenario would be the airborne dispersion of pathogens over a major population region. Agrarian records show, that the effects of the inadvertent introduction of exotic pests are shocking. The most perilous bioterrorism agents comprise microorganisms that create plague, anthrax, smallpox, and tularemia. Additional diseases that bioterrorists might try to spread are – melioidosis, brucellosis, Q fever, glanders and viral encephalitis.” Without doubt this agricultural dimension of terrorists potentially spreading bio-toxins could be a field where security forces should increasingly put their focus on in the near future, as accessibility and operationalization are less complicated.

However, as initially stated, it is very difficult and requires advanced biochemical skills as well as military know-how / logistics to weaponize or contain biological agents. That has proven evident in the early 2000s, when al-Qaeda failed with its anthrax project due to lacking biotechnological expertise. Therefore, the development of a sophisticated bio-weapon does not seem to be a plausible or sustainable prospect for jihadists. Nonetheless, ISIS or others could resort to much simpler methods in the context of bio-weapons that could also entail a far reaching destructive impact. According to Danny Shoham, from the Begin Sadat Center of Strategic Studies, terrorist groups were discussing the opportunity of “releasing a pathogen in the water system of a European city”. Such a malicious terrorist attack could have disastrous consequences and is almost impossible to prevent.

Lessons for Counter-Terrorism and Policy Recommendations

As the terrorist’s capability and intention (or “motivation”) are reciprocally intertwined factors, no terrorist attack whatsoever will ever take place without one another. Boaz Ganor assumes rightly that “Terrorism is likely to end if one of these factors is neutralized—that is, if a terrorist organization’s operational capability is impaired or if its motivation diminishes.“ Counter-terrorist approaches should therefore, especially when it comes to bio-terrorist activities, much more focus on reducing extremist groups’ capabilities rather than trying to tackle their ideology driven intent, which is way more difficult to master from “outside”.

Sarkar suggests the implementation of a “Bio-Defense System” as had been set up during the Cold War. According to his assessment, existing vehicles and systems “need to be upgraded and installed in major urban conglomerates”, in order to protect the population against deadly disease outbreaks initiated by bioterrorism. He claims further that “essentials of preparation should include developing and stockpiling vaccines and antimicrobial medicines that can be used to defend people against infections triggered by biological weapons; coaching first responders on how to deal with a biological weapons attack, and refining diagnostic laboratory capability and epidemiological capabilities.” This could be a useful preparatory measure, but definitely it has to be supported by a whole of government approach, as for instance intersectional cooperation with health care bodies may be crucial for security stakeholders in particular.

With reference to Austria, a continuous risk assessment procedure for any kind of biological attacks, maintained by all relevant players in the framework of the existing National Crisis and Disaster Management (SKKM) could be implemented. As this governmental crisis management body has a rather responsive quality, its preventive capacity should be further extended and enforced, involving the Austrian armed forces “Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear“ (CBRN) defense unit, but also counter-terrorism and intelligence agencies. In times of globally eroding stability and security, strategic foresight has become more relevant than ever. So has the necessity of a comprehensive approach. Austria, as a small player must make more efforts in this regard both strategy- and comprehensiveness-wise, to compensate for structural deficits that result from its size and relative political weight in the international arena.

At the level of the European Union, the “2010-2015 CBRN Action Plan” is the basis for all common measures to prevent and tackle attacks involving nuclear material and / or biological /chemical substances. Based on the proposition of comprehensiveness it aims at “providing a more robust framework for reducing the threat of CBRN attacks, strengthening security measures, increasing resilience and preparing for an effective response in case of attack.“ The “Action Plan” basically pursues the following four objectives:

  • Reducing the accessibility of CBRN materials,
  • Ensuring a more robust preparedness for and response to CBRN security incidents,
  • Building stronger internal-external links in CBRN security with key regional and international EU partners, and
  • Enhancing our knowledge of CBRN risks.

At a first glance, these objectives absolutely make sense. Still, albeit further elaboration in the Action Plan, its provisions are symptomatically kept open and do not seem very concrete when it comes to measures, especially in the field of counter-terrorism. With reference to a potential terrorist use of biological weapons it declares: “Terrorist organisations have not used …CBRN agents in Europe. Still, there are credible indications suggesting that terrorist groups might have the intention of acquiring CBRN materials or weapons and are developing the knowledge and capacity to use them. To monitor any such kind of illicit activity, sharing intelligence and surveillance data as well as rapid detection are critical to foil a bioterror strike. Consequently, “across-the-board bioterrorism reconnaissance will require combining human resources, laboratory resources, and information supervision in novel, legal, and satisfactory ways that allow for timely detection and categorization of hazards.

Close cooperation among intelligence agencies all across the globe seems to remain a vital element to successfully combat bio-terrorism, a complex and hazardous threat that is substantially gaining significance, following and because of the COVID-19 pandemic crisis. Time does not stop and the historic wheel of terrorist threats is still turning. Maybe faster than ever. Intent has grown as extremism is on the rise and we may fear, that also capabilities will follow soon. Therefore, we as societies should prepare for the next dimension of extremist violence that will very likely encounter us as a new form of conflict