A Magazine for the George Mason University Community

Talking about Bioterrorism and International Security

March 21, 2011

By Jim Greif

Greg Koblentz

With terrorism as one of the major security concerns of the 21st century, governments are developing sophisticated systems to defend against the use of biological weapons, such as anthrax or smallpox. The general public understands little about these weaponized pathogens, leading to fear about our vulnerability to such an attack.

Gregory Koblentz, deputy director of Mason’s biodefense degree programs, has written a new book, Living Weapons: Biological Warfare and International Security (Cornell University Press), which helps clear up some of the mystery.

What are some of the challenges in security related to biological weapons?

Unlike nuclear and chemical weapons, biological weapons are composed of, or derived from, living organisms. This unique characteristic is at the heart of many of the security challenges they pose. The diversity of pathogenic micro-organisms and toxins that can be used as weapons provides an attacker with flexibility in planning and conducting an attack and greatly complicates the task of the defender. The ability of pathogens to replicate themselves inside a host enables an attacker to use only a small amount of a biological weapon to inflict mass casualties. The overlap between the equipment, knowledge, and materials required to develop biological weapons and conduct civilian biomedical research or develop biological defenses—what I call the multi-use dilemma—limits the effectiveness of arms control measures, hinders civilian oversight, and complicates intelligence collection and analysis. As a result, it is difficult to verify that biotechnology is not being misused for hostile purposes, exercise effective oversight over biological weapons programs, and obtain accurate assessments of a state’s capabilities and intentions. This is a dangerous and destabilizing combination of characteristics for a technology that is becoming increasingly available throughout the world.

Terrorist activity in the past few years has not included biological weapons. Why is that? Is this trend likely to change?

As we see every day in Iraq and Afghanistan, guns and bombs remain the preferred weapons of terrorists and insurgents. These weapons are cheap, easy to use, and widely available. There are two trends, however, that increase the risk of bioterrorism in the future. The first is the emergence of increasingly lethal terrorist groups that are interested in causing mass casualties. The focus of groups such as Al-Qaeda and its affiliates on causing mass casualties and conducting spectacular attacks is worrisome since it creates an incentive for such groups to explore new ways of causing death and destruction. The second trend is the globalization of the biotechnology revolution, which makes the equipment, material, and knowledge necessary to develop these weapons more widely available. Based on past experience, we are unlikely to receive sufficient warning of a terrorist group that combines the motivation to cause mass casualties with the capability to employ disease as a weapon.

An expanded version of this interview is available here.

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