How much of a threat is biological terrorism?

In a recent speech given to the Munich security conference, philanthropist and business magnate Bill Gates argued that biological terrorism is the greatest threat posed to the world currently. Intriguingly, Mr. Gates noted that biological terrorism had the potential to inflict a greater number of causalities than nuclear war, with tens of millions being at threat from a single attack. The evidence highlighted by Mr. Gates’ originated from his ongoing funding and drive to improve global health through the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation, which concluded there to be a lack attention given to the link between health security and international security within Western nations. In this sense, Mr. Gates’ is critically referring to the over emphasis placed upon the threat posed by lone wolf terrorism and the ideal of the enemy within, rather than consider the larger and much more problematic threat of biological weapons. On the other hand, can you truly blame western nations for focusing upon lone wolf terrorism over biological terrorism given that it has directly affected the majority of western nations in recent years. Therefore, one must question how great a threat biological terrorism is and whether there is any evidence of terrorist groups trying to procure and use biological weapons in the past.

In the years following the end of the cold war researchers argued that the use of biological weapons over nuclear weapons was far more likely given the differences in size and availability, though many of these studies also noted the volume of international treaties and conventions nullified any states attempts to use such weapons. However, in the post 9/11 security paradigm the global antagonist is no longer a rogue state but rather a multitude of terrorist organisations spread across the globe who are not bound to any international treaties or agreements, thus making the potential use of biological weapons very real. In fact, US and UK intelligence services have in the past noted that the Islamic state have attempted to develop biological weapons in Syria and Iraq. A claim supported by UK minister for security Ben Wallace who contends that terrorist organisations such as Islamic state lack any sense of morality which may be a barrier to the use of biological weapons.

The growth in concerns about the use of biological weapons is primarily resultant of the improvement in technology simplifying the changing of the molecular structure of deadly diseases, along with the emergence and spread of new forms of disease. An obvious example of such a disease would be the Ebola virus which killed 11,310 people and infected 28, 616 people between 2013-2016 in West Africa. Although, a 2015 study conducted by a UK top-secret military research centre in Wiltshire found that Ebola lacked the immediate devastating effect desired by terrorists, however noted that it would effectively spread fear amongst the public. Resulting from these findings, one must question whether the use of biological weapon would be the most effective means of attaining the high number of causalities desired by terrorist organisations and therefore would such organisations consider using biological weapons.

In order to answer the above question, one must delve into the history of biological weapon use in terrorist organisations. Interestingly, upon studying a selection of attempted terrorist attacks using biological weapons there are two consistent similarities found within most examples. These are that they occur within America and are undertaken by white supremacist groups. In these select cases the chemical agents used have ranged from ricin, typhoid and the bubonic plague. All of which have been attempted to be released in a multitude of differing ways such as poisoning the water supply. In this sense, the number of differing toxins and methods of releasing such toxins would suggest that Mr. Gates argument for increasing the attention and spending given to the defence of biological weapons is entirely warranted. Therefore, one must consider Mr. Gates’ warnings over the lack of interest and funding given to biological warfare defence gravely concerning.