European Affairs

U.S. forces advancing into Afghan cities found computer files left behind by Al Qaeda members and a laboratory under construction during the Enduring Freedom campaign in 2001/2002. In October 2001, five U.S. citizens died from exposure to anthrax contained in letters sent through the mail, although the perpetrator remains unknown and a terrorist background has not yet been proven. Given that the attacks so far represent only a minimal fraction of the overall number of terrorist acts in the last 20 years, why are we so concerned? There are a number of reasons why we should be.

The likelihood that modern terrorists will use weapons of mass destruction is increased by their desire to inflict high numbers of casualties. Unlike most of the more “traditional” social-revolutionary and ethno-national terrorist groups in the 1970s and 1980s, groups like Al Qaeda do not differentiate between victims among the general population and selected targets such as political or military leaders. The victims themselves have no particular importance for the terrorists, except as part of a communication strategy. In fact, an attack against a large number of civilians may have an even bigger impact in terms of terrorizing the population and disrupting political and economic stability than attacks on so-called “hard targets,” such as political leadership structures or the military. In other words, from the terrorists’ point of view, an attack is most “successful” when it kills the greatest number of people.

So far, most major terrorist attacks have been committed with conventional means, particularly bombs and improvised explosive devices. September 11 represented a new qualitative development because civilian airliners were turned into deadly, high-energy weapons. There is, however, no doubt that using chemical, biological or radiological (CBR) weapons in an attack would help to further terrorist objectives, either by causing mass casualties and/or by instilling even greater terror because of the particular nature of these weapons. Even if such an attack produced lower casualties than a conventional explosion, the perception of the particularly inhuman character of such devices, the fear of their contents and their possible long-term consequences (such as contamination or the spread of mass diseases) gives such attacks a new, frightening dimension and would probably cause widespread panic.

It is precisely this new dimension that is desirable from a terrorist’s point of view, since terrorists need to sustain a high, possibly escalating level of violence to achieve their targets. Targeted states and societies tend to be able to cope with certain levels of violence. In addition, in most countries, comprehensive security measures have been introduced to prevent conventional terrorist attacks. “More of the same” often increases the resilience of a society facing such attacks instead of breaking its resolve. The coercive effects of terrorist acts increase considerably, however, with a sustained high rate of incidence, high casualties and particularly escalation, including the use of new kinds of attacks.

Factors that generally limit the usefulness of CBR weapons for armed forces, such as the risk to their own forces, the contamination of territory to be occupied or defended and the threat of retaliation, do not apply to terrorists, at least not to suicide terrorists. Unlike armed forces, terrorists do not aim at occupying another party’s territory in order to defend their own. They do not operate in large units and their own survival is often not essential. Also, time is not of the essence, since Al Qaeda and related groups have a very long-term agenda and ­ unlike military forces ­ do not need to concentrate troops at a given time to score a victory or prevent enemy invasion. Technically and financially, the obstacles to producing or acquiring CBR weapons may be considerable, but not insurmountable. The same is true for transporting and dispersing them. Other factors that suggest a clear increase in the threat include:

“Information about biological weapons is often easily accessable through the Internet”

  • Information about biological weapons and the science and technology associated with them is widely scattered in libraries and other document depositories all over the world. It is often easily accessible through the Internet

  • The rapid advance of new technologies in genetic manipulation and biotechnology greatly simplifies development processes and techniques, which once required complex equipment and considerable technical skill.

  • Terrorists have become more sophisticated and are often highly educated, frequently with university degrees in science.

Biological agents might be used by various groups. The most dangerous seem to be large organizations that are well funded, such as Aum Shinrikyo, and possibly even state-supported. Since Al Qaeda has lost its territorial base and state sponsoring is declining, the probability of a very high-impact attack is low. Small groups or individuals, however, may well be able to attack limited targets like buildings or aircraft, and might use biological pathogens in murder plots or simply to cause confusion and panic. The anthrax attacks in the United States and subsequent worldwide hoaxes are examples of this.

Experts consider the so-called “dirty dozen” toxins and diseases to be the most suitable biological agents for terrorist attacks, since they have properties that allow for release or dispersion. These are bacteria (Anthrax, Plague, Tularemia, Glanders and Meliodoses, Brucelloses and Q fever), viruses (Smallpox, Viral Encephalitis, and Viral Hemorrhagic Fevers) and toxins (Botulinum, Ricin and Staphylococcal Enterotoxin B). Among them, anthrax and smallpox seem to have the greatest potential for mass casualties and civil disruption, not least because of their high lethality.

Some biological agents like anthrax are particularly attractive to terrorists because they are stable in aerosol form and fairly easily dispersed, for example through heating, ventilation and air conditioning ducts, as well as being suitable for large-scale production. It would be very difficult to procure smallpox virus. If, however, it were obtained and released, smallpox could cause a public health catastrophe because of its high communicability.

Meanwhile, measures are being taken in Germany, in the European Union and in NATO to deal with the rising threat. In Germany, the first responsibility for public order, as well as for public health, lies with the 16 federal states (Länder), and the central government has a mostly subsidiary responsibility. The central government, however, has primary responsibility for civil protection in cases of national emergency, such as intentional manmade disasters, attacks by foreign powers or major terrorist operations involving CBR weapons. The central government and the states have accordingly developed a new multi-stage strategy for protecting the civilian population. Risk categories have been established, depending on potential threats and population densities, and special task forces are being set up to deal with biological or chemical attacks. Information systems are being better coordinated and, under certain conditions, states may call on the federal army for assistance.

In order to guarantee immediate, countrywide access to expertise in bioterrorism, a Center for Biological Security has been established in Berlin, together with an Outbreak Investigation Team that can be dispatched to any state at very short notice. A new Federal Agency for the Protection of the Population, established in May 2004, is responsible for preparing crisis management plans and measures to protect critical infrastructures. The agency’s duties also include helping to inform the public, encouraging research and development and providing education and training. Other initiatives include the establishment of a joint working group to prevent the outbreak of smallpox, which is also drawing up national influenza protection plans.

The Federal Government is preparing the establishment of biological task forces in cooperation with a number of scientific research institutions and is helping the states to improve their capacities, for example by supplying them with more than 370 vehicles for detecting CBR and nuclear weapons. Germany also now has a national, decentralized depository of smallpox vaccine, more than enough to vaccinate everybody living in Germany. Stocks of appropriate antibiotics have been replenished and a new satellite-based alert system has been created to warn the population via radio about potential dangers, including terrorist attacks.

But Germany is not limiting itself to national measures. The European Union has established an information and rapid alert system for biological and chemical attacks and threats that is connected to national networks. This allows all EU member states to inform each other in real time about biological and chemical attacks and to exchange information about how to counter them. The EU countries have also adopted a solidarity program aimed at improving cooperation in preventing biological and chemical attacks and mitigating their consequences. The program covers areas such as civil protection, health, food, the environment, sensitive industries and transportation.

NATO has also adopted a number of measures to strengthen protection against terrorists using CBR or nuclear weapons. Major elements are an international data base of existing resources in NATO member states, such as protective gear, detection equipment, vaccines and antibiotics, as well as an action plan for improving prevention and the management of the consequences of an attack.

Georg Witschel is Federal Government Commissioner for Combating International Terrorism at the German Foreign Office in Berlin. He was previously Director of the UN Policy Division of the German Foreign Office. Before that, he was Deputy Director of the Political Department and Legal Adviser in the Permanent Mission of Germany to the United Nations in New York. He also has served as Deputy Ambassador and Head of the Economic Department at the German Embassy in Ljubljana and as Political Counselor in Tel Aviv.


This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number VI, Issue number III in the Summer of 2005.