At the same time that all this was
going on nonstate actors had been identified by certain U.S. government
officials and by the news media as a new and inevitable BW threat. Many news
media stories and some U.S. government officials declared that a nonstate actor
BW release was imminent. Others stated that there existed a possible national
security concern when they observed the relationships between nonstate actors
and hostile governments with WMD. Some indicated that hostile governments might
be willing to give nonstate actors a BW. The Secretary of Defense, Donald
Rumsfeld testified in May 2002 that, “we have to recognize that terrorist
networks have relationships with terrorist states that have weapons of mass
destruction, and that they inevitably are going to get their hands on them, and
they would not hesitate one minute in using them. That’s the world we live
However, others state that giving a
nonstate actor a BW is not all that easy. To properly transport and release the
BW requires significant amounts of training. Nonstate actors might be friends
one day with a particular government and for any number of reasons decide the
government they got the BW from is now a target. There is always concern that
the nonstate actor could then use the BW on the nation that gave them the BW and
the training (23).
Another argument against the possible
use of BW by nonstate actors is the general agreement in the literature of the
inherent “conservatism” of nonstate actors. These actors might be innovative
in their tactics and weaponry (use planes to destroy buildings, remote controls
to detonate roadside bombs). They may also be willing to take extraordinary
risks in their operations and in weapon selection however, most experts agree
that many nonstate actors prefer to use “tried and true” methods if they can
accomplish their objectives. If a nonstate actor did choose to use BW it would
likely be due to the increasing availability of BW material and the desire of
some nonstate actors to cause mass casualties (32,
When the number of past BW releases
by nonstate actors was determined it also appears that the use of BW is
extremely rare and more likely to be a threat or a hoax than an actual event.
Five different global databases (32, 34-37) have been developed that have
recorded nonstate actor use or threatened use of chemical and biological weapons
from 1900 to 1999. All five databases demonstrate the following (20,
A summary of the Seth Carus’
database (1900-1998) indicated that 25 different nonstate actors have shown
significant interest in biological agents. Eight of these 25 nonstate actors
have acquired or developed BW. Only 5 of the eight are commonly believed to have
used BW since 1960 and only 2 of the 5 have caused significant harm. Inclusion
of the anthrax-containing letter events of 2001 brings that total up to 3
different BW releases that caused significant harm over a long period of time.
However, others argue that the number of hoaxes and FBI investigations of BW
releases have increased dramatically indicating that an actual BW event might be
more likely (30, 32).
Even though the news media and some
governmental officials have directed the general public’s attention to BW as a
serious threat to national security very few examples exist to demonstrate the
use of BW by nonstate actors (8, 30). In 1984, Rajneeshee followers of Bhagwan
Shree Rajneesh contaminated restaurant salad bars (10 restaurants) in and around
Dalles, Oregon with a bacterium called Salmonella enterica serotype
Typhimurium. This bacterium if consumed in high enough concentrations will cause
nausea, diarrhea, headache and/or fever. The group’s nurse, Ma Anand Puja,
purchased the bacterium (Bactrol discs) from a medical lab supply company.
Microbiology laboratories, to meet quality assurance regulations, use these
“Bactrol discs” to keep their licenses. Puja grew the organism and tested
its effects by instructing others in the group to place it in people’s drinks, on doorknobs
and urinal handles in a local courthouse restroom, and on produce at a grocery
store. They then used this bacterium to contaminate the salad bars of 10
restaurants in the area. A total of 751 people became ill following this
group’s actions. No deaths were recorded. The Rajneeshees
believed that if the salad bar releases
were successful contaminating the local water supply could make even more people
ill and might sway a future local election in the their favor (5,
The Rajneeshees never did use their
BW to influence the election because another plan they thought would get better
results was taking more of their time. They started a Share-A-Home project that
encouraged homeless people to settle in their area by giving them shelter. They
would then register them to vote in hopes of influencing their vote and electing
Rajneeshee candidates. Some of the homeless were relatively difficult and it
consumed too much time to grow up enough Salmonella to contaminate the
local water supply (5).
Between 1990 and 1995, a Japanese
sect of the Aum Shinrikyo cult released BW on 10 different occasions in various
locations. They produced two BW, Clostridium botulinum toxin and anthrax.
Even though they released aerosolized anthrax four different times in Tokyo no
one developed anthrax. They also released botulinum toxin on six different
occasions; 3 times in Tokyo, twice in Yokohama and once in Narita. No one was
reported injured by any of the BW releases. Some estimate that this group had up
to $20 million in assets to acquire the appropriate equipment through front
companies they had established. They obtained adequate facilities and had
adequate time to develop their BW. They also recruited and had a member of the
group with training in microbiology to work on development and delivery of BW.
Even with adequate financial, human and physical resources they were unable to
cause one infection or mortality following several releases of their BW. It was
not until 1995 when they released the chemical agent sarin in the Tokyo subway
did they obtain causalities (13 dead; several hundred injured). This group’s
desire to cause mass causalities with BW's was not fulfilled even with apparently adequate
resources demonstrating the difficulties in developing and deploying BW (5,
In September 2001, it is believed that Dr. Bruce E. Ivins, a U.S. Army medical vaccine researcher, dropped 5 different letters containing anthrax into a mailbox
at 10 Nassar Street, Princeton, New Jersey. The letters were addressed to a
tabloid newspaper, the NY Post, NBC and Senators Daschle and Leahy. Twenty-two
people developed anthrax in five states (New York, New Jersey, Florida,
Connecticut, Washington D.C.). Eleven acquired inhalation anthrax. Five people
with inhalation anthrax died. There were 11 cases of cutaneous anthrax. None of
those with cutaneous anthrax died. The sorting machines in the mailrooms
together with the pore size of the letter’s envelopes also led to exposure of
many postal workers, contamination of several postal facilities and cross
contamination of other people’s mail. More than 30,000 people were treated
with preventative antibiotics (8).
Many feel that public health
officials responded well to this very rare infection. Some believe the response
times to the first case (index case) seen in Florida with inhalation anthrax
could have been quicker however; the rarity of this disease (only 5 human cases
between 1981 and 1999) in the U.S. made a rapid identification less likely.
Several theories of who sent the letters existed. Some believed it was a U.S.
citizen familiar with someone in the U.S. biodefense industry with access to the
anthrax bacterium. Others thought it might be someone with ties
to the Iraqi BW program or some other state-supported BW program. Some still believe that Dr. Bruce Ivins was innocent and that the person or persons who did this are still at large (8,
The political and societal cost of these anthrax-containing letters was tremendous. By November 6, 2001 at least 7,000 false alarms and hoaxes had been reported worldwide. This event led to significant disruption of normal activities, the revision of long-standing procedures in postal offices, and the expenditure of several billion dollars to decontaminate buildings (U.S. Senate Office Building, U.S. postal facilities). The amount of media attention was massive causing large numbers of people to fear that they might be next. Anticipated costs to the postal service to prevent future events are estimated to be around 5 billion dollars. The overreaction of the public was enormous (8, 20).
In 2008, as investigators closed in on Dr. Bruce E. Ivins, he was found dead. Many believe he committed suicide to avoid being arrested. Others believe the case against Dr. Ivins was not strong and they argue that someone else may have been responsible. The FBI and Justice Department officially closed the case in February of 2010. They concluded that Dr. Bruce E. Ivins was the person responsible for the 2001 anthrax release.
fear of nonstate groups using BW has been shown to be a very rare event. Even if
adequate resources are available the ability of nonstate groups to utilize BW to
accomplish their objectives has so far been limited to local areas at best and
as yet unable to result in mass causalities. One analyst Milton Leitenberg
stated that, “terrorist use of a BW agent is best characterized by gross
exaggeration, hype, and abstract vulnerability assessments instead of valid
results of this “hype” have since the 1995 sarin attack in Tokyo caused an
ever-increasing amount of U.S. resources to be redirected to the fight against
these nonstate actors. Not everyone feels this is a good thing to do considering
that every year in the U.S. alone 30,000 people die following influenza
infections, 5,000 people die of food-borne infections, between 44,000 and 98,000
people die due to medical errors. Worldwide 2-3 million people die of either
tuberculosis or malaria each year. Some feel this overreaction to a BW threat is
not good and diverts funds from research and development to find cures and
treatments for well known naturally occurring causes of human death and
Others are concerned that a brain drain of scientists is occurring in the U.S. Large amounts of funds are now available to work on countermeasures to BW (30, 33). Rather than work on common causes of human death and suffering many scientists are now concentrating on ways to prevent, treat and detect rarely occurring instances of BW release. Up to $11.9 billion was allocated in 2004 to develop U.S. biodefenses. Some fear that redirecting the country’s research industry will delay development of cures and treatments for commonly occurring diseases (39).
© 2005 Neal Chamberlain.
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Neal Chamberlain, PhD. A. T. Still University of Health Sciences/Kirksville College of Osteopathic Medicine.
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