Use of BW by Nonstate Actors 

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 in.” (31). 

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, 33). 

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, 23):

  1. There were an extremely low number of actual biological agent releases. The large majority of these database entries were hoaxes.
  2. The overwhelming majority of actual events were chemical events involving off-the-shelf industrial products that were not synthesized by the nonstate actor.
  3. Many of these events were instances of murder involving one person rather than mass casualty use.
  4. Only one person has been killed in the U.S. between 1900 and 2000 as a result of biological or chemical nonstate actors. If the anthrax-containing mail release of 2001 is included the number of U.S. deaths total 6 from 1900 to 2001.
  5. Except for the preparation of ricin, that is relatively easy to prepare, there have only been a few examples of the preparation of BW in a private laboratory by a nonstate actor.

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, 38). 

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, 8).

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, 20).

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.

The 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 threat analysis”(23).

The 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 suffering (8, 20, 23).

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. All rights reserved. 
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Neal Chamberlain, PhD. A. T. Still University of Health Sciences/Kirksville College of Osteopathic Medicine.

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