A Brief, Non-Comprehensive Survey of Bioweapons, Biowarfare, and Bioterrorism History in Light of the Coronavirus Pandemic

Excerpt 1 of 5, adapted to stand alone, from a May 26, 2020 SPECIAL REPORT on coronavirus

By Brian E. Frydenborg (LinkedInFacebookTwitter @bfry1981)

Bernard Lowe: We retired the two hosts in question.  You taught me how to make them, but not how hard it is to turn them off.

Dr. Robert Ford: You can’t play god without being acquainted with the devil.  There’s something else bothering you, Bernard.  I know how that head of yours works.

Lowe: The photograph alone couldn’t have caused that level of damage to Abernathy, not without some other, ah, outside interference.

Ford: You think it’s sabotage?  You imagine someone’s been diddling with our creations?

Lowe: It’s the simplest solution.

Ford: Ah, Mr. Ockam’s razor.  The problem, Bernard, is that what you and I do is…so complicated.  We practice witchcraft.  We speak the right words.  Then we create life itself…out of chaos.  William of Ockam was a 13th century monk.  He can’t help us now, Bernard.  He would have us burned at the stake.

—Westworld, “Chestnut,” Season 1, Episode 2 by Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy (2016)

A frustrated health worker, Coco Tang, in the normally bustling Times Square, Manhattan, New York City, one night late in April (Photo: Coco Tang).

SILVER SPRING—As the world witnesses the terrifying spiraling effects of the gaping void in competent early-intervention leadership in what looks to potentially and likely be the worst global pandemic since the misnamed 1918 “Spanish” flu killed as many as 100 million people (up to six percent of the world’s population at the time), perhaps the biggest fear we should harbor has little to do with actual coronavirus. 

Part of why this virus and its disease is so terrifying is that it is new and confounding, with varied effects.  It might roughly be thought of as a megaflu/superpneumonia-like whole body virus, but even that description does not do justice to the novel (i.e., new) coronavirus, also known as SARS-CoV-2, about which there is quite a lot (so much) we do not know and for which there is currently no vaccine and against which no vetted medicine has yet proven in rigorous testing to be effective, nor even safe to use (remdesivir, the antiviral drug seems to speed recovery from the virus and has just been given a special exception by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration [FDA] for emergency use, still has not been properly tested, has not been formally approved by the FDA, and may damage the liver).   Even with a viable vaccine in the future, this is a rapidly branching, evolving, and mutating virus, and the coronavirus family of viruses has proven exceptionally difficult for vaccines, with the FDA never having approved an effective human-use vaccine for any type of coronavirus.  In short, there is no guarantee that such an initial vaccine or any vaccine would provide mass protection anywhere near the degree to which we would hope.

Yet just imagine that the current disease rapidly spreading was actually far worse and far deadlier than COVID-19, the sickness brought about by coronavirus and now creating so many fatal complications for so many people and hospitalizing so many others all around the world. 

Such a mental exercise would hardly be just an act of imaginative fiction: Richard Preston—author of the famous 1990s bestselling seminal book The Hot Zone that awoke the national consciousness of America to the threat of emerging infectious diseases—and other numerous experts and public figures have raised the alarm about potential pandemics for years, with Preston himself just recently warning that the next pandemic could easily be worse than this current coronavirus one.

Going back to our thought experiment, now imagine this even worse disease ravaging humanity was no act of nature, but a deliberate act of war or terrorism.

The horrible reality is there are, in fact, far worse things out there that mother nature has in store for us than this coronavirus, and, even scarier, as is always the case, is man’s perversion of nature.  As Iain Pears wrote in his poetic novel The Dream of Scipio: “…we are worse than beasts. Animals are constrained by their limitations and their lack of imagination. We are not.”

And in this case of perverting nature, we are talking about the weaponization and modification of infectious diseases by humans—as servants of governments or terrorists—to kill people, many people, in no way discriminating between military and civilian, adult and child, strong or weak, healthy or sick.  And in a world where such a threat exists, and where a natural pandemic has exposed glaring weaknesses that must be addressed, a dramatic change in policy is warranted.

We do not have to even try hard imagine such malintent: as one example, the FBI has found that American white supremacists want to pass on this very coronavirus deliberately as a bioweapon to target groups they do not like, a clear form of terrorism.  U.S. defense and intelligence officials are also worried about a more organized potential effort to weaponize coronavirus.

Yet the biological threats that have been and could be used as deliberate weapons against us are hardly limited to our currently omnipresent SARS-CoV-2 strain of coronavirus.

And so, as with understanding any issue, a little history is in order, as biowarfare and bioterrorism does not begin or with the above example, nor, sadly, will it end with it.

Like the medieval system before it, science is starting not to fit the world any more.  Science has attained so much power that its practical limits begin to be apparent.  Largely through science, billions of us live in one small world, densely packed and intercommunicating.  But science cannot help us decide what to do with that world, or how to live.  Science can make a nuclear reactor, but it cannot tell us not to build it.  Science can make pesticide, but cannot tell us not to use it.  And our world starts to seem polluted in fundamental ways-air, and water, and land-because of ungovernable science.  This much is obvious to everyone.

—Dr. Ian Malcolm, in Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park (1990)

Premodern Biowarfare

The weaponization of disease goes back to the ancient world.  The behavior of modern primitive tribes dabbing their arrows in decaying biological matter (animal or human), in part, indicates that even before recorded history, humans were likely deliberately trying to infect other humans as a tactic.

The first recorded example is in the fourteenth century B.C.E. with the ancient Hittites—the scourge of ancient Egypt—sending sick animals (rams) to their enemies’ lands the hopes of spreading sickness there.

Ancient Romans and Persians sometimes poisoned the wells of their enemies by dumping dead animals into the water, allowing sickness to spread.

The bubonic plague came to Europe because a Mongol-led army that had been suffering from plague in its siege in the mid-1340s of a Genovese-settlement in Crimea decided to turn their disadvantage to their advantage by catapulting their plague-riddled dead into the city.  When some of the Genovese, fearing the mysterious disease that was afflicting their city under siege, fled to Italy, they brought the plague with them and the rest is history, the history of the Black Death, which spread to all of Europe and had killed at least a third of the continent’s population, some twenty-five million people at a minimum).  The Mongol-led army using artillery to hurl those dead plague-ridden bodies at enemy forces in Crimea was “a landmark in the history of” biowarfare, a technique for which we have decent evidence of repetition a few subsequent times, including 1422 in by the Lithuanians in Bohemia and by the Russians against the Swedes in 1710 and 1718.

Another fairly unique historical example is closer to home.  Besieged by Chief Pontiac’s Native American warriors, it seems a British-led garrison defending Fort Pitt (now Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania) in 1763 gave blankets infested with smallpox as “gifts” to the Native Americans with the intention of infecting them with the highly deadly disease for military purposes.  British forces apparently did something similar in 1789 in Australia with that continent’s Aborigines.

At the height of the U.S. Civil War, one rebel Southern agent (and future Kentucky governor)—Dr. Luke Blackburn, a medical doctor with serious expertise and experience in treating fellow fever—hatched and set in motion a plot to infect Union military positions, Northern cities, and even President Abraham Lincoln himself with the deadly disease by trying to pass on clothing and bedding of people who had suffered and perished from the disease.  The plot was unsuccessful since, at the time, it was not known that people’s fluids did not spread the fever and that mosquitos were the vehicle of transmission.  It seems smallpox may also have been involved, and that aspect might have killed one Union soldier.

Despite suspicions of other similar incidents, evidence is mainly scant for other deliberate uses of biological warfare from this period and the centuries just before and after, with suspicious incidents more often than not seeming to be natural in origin and not deliberate, despite accusations to the contrary.

Modern Biowarfare

Dr. Robert Ford: I don’t think God rested on the seventh day… I think he reveled in his creation knowing that someday it would all be destroyed.

—Westworld, “Les Écorchés,” Season 2, Episode 7 by Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy (2018)

It is in the twentieth century that we see the first large, organized, national-level government biowarfare programs.  Scientific advances in the late nineteenth century gave humans far more knowledge and ability to combat human disease but also to manipulate potential bioagents, including for military use.  Seeing what was to come, there were two international declarations coming out of Brussels in 1874 and 1899 banning the use of poison weapons on the battlefield, but there were no enforcing or inspections mechanisms. 

Germany during World War I by far had the biggest biowarfare program, though not much was put successfully to use as their culmination was in small and ineffective covert attacks targeting mainly animal populations crucial to war efforts in enemy nations using glanders and anthrax (a bacterial agent that can infect both people and animals but that is not contagious, i.e., able to spread person-to-person, so its spread is limited by where those using it as a weapon deploy it).  France engaged in research but did not attempt to implement any of it.

The use of chemical weapons on the battlefield during World War I—such as mustard gas, chlorine gas, and phosgene—produced a revulsion that led to have their use banned on the battlefield, along with that of bioweapons, with the 1925 ratification of the Geneva Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use in War of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or Other Gases, and of Bacteriological Methods of Warfare, though their research and production were not banned.  The Protocol also had no binding enforcement or verification provisions, but still, here, we had the first explicit ban on the use of bioweapons in war for signatories.

All the major powers in World War II would engage in bioweapons research programs, the Western Allies, in particular, investing energy into anthrax research and production.  These programs often focused more on targeting beasts of burden and livestock, which were still so crucial to both the transportation and feeding of armies.  The efforts were not a top priority, and a joint U.S.-UK-Canadian anthrax program was never finished.  Despite concerns of a German bioweapons program, it seems the Nazi regime never prioritized such weapons.

It was Imperial Japan’s government that, by far, had the most extensive program during the war, led by Imperial Army Units 731 and 100 and one that ran for years, staffed by thousands of people in twenty-six centers and performing live experiments on prisoners that killed thousands of them, testing twenty-five different bioagents to see the effects of diseases on both prisoners and even, without their knowledge, Chinese civilians.  Up to 600 prisoners were killed per year in bioagent testing at just one of these facilities.  Outside of the biowarfare facilities, the Japanese Imperial Army dumped cholera and typhus into over 1,000 wells in Chinese villages to study the effects of the diseases.  Japanese planes dropped plague-carrying fleas onto Chinese cities or had agents spread the same to Chinese rice fields and roads.  The effects were so devastating that plague outbreaks were still killing tens of thousands of Chinese several years after World War II had ended.  The Japanese also used bioagents against Soviet troops, but available information on the effects of these attacks are inconclusive and these attempts may have been ineffective.  At the very end of the war, Japan was exploring a plan to spread plague into California using submarines and Kamikaze pilots, but the war ended before the plan’s start date of September 22, 1945.  One major member of the program even published scientific articles on his “research” in respectable journals and just referred to the human victims as “monkeys” to hide the atrocities.  While the Soviets convicted some Japanese biowarfare program personnel of war crimes, the U.S. offered amnesty and freedom to all the relevant staff under their jurisdiction in exchange for the data on their experiments.

This bring us to the U.S. program, which became much more robust after World War II, though its main beginnings were at Fort Detrick, Maryland, in 1943.  Activity increased in response to the Korean War and grew rapidly over the next few decades, becoming quite robust, producing many tons of bioagents and weapons systems to deliver them.  This reflected the Cold War-era shift from bioweapons being conceived of more as tools of sabotage to weapons of mass destruction (WMD).  In particular, the U.S. Air Force would have some of its aircraft equipped with highly sophisticated aerosol delivery systems such that a single B-52 bomber attack run could spread a biological agent over some 10,000 square miles while other systems for fighter-bomber aircraft could disperse bioweapons over 25,000-50,000 square miles in a single run.  Besides lethal bioagents, incapacitating and anti-crop agents were also major priorities.  Production capacity at just one major facility—the Pine Bluff Arsenal—would be 650 tons of bacterial agent a month, though that level of production never occurred.

Though the U.S. program worked on a wide variety of bioagent research and weaponization, it seems to have focused more on bacterial agents.  In the 1950s and 1960s, mass tests were conducted on unsuspecting American civilian populations, and while the intention was to use harmless agents, sometimes complications produced casualties.  One of the largest examples of this involved the U.S. Navy dispersing into the air off the coast of San Francisco enormous quantities of what it though was a harmless bacteria—Serratia marcescens—over the course of nearly a week in September 1950.  The idea was to see the degree to how an enemy bioweapon might disperse and be spread by releasing it into the air off the coast of a major U.S. city.  The bacteria spread with and into San Francisco’s famous fog and saturated the whole metro area, exposing some 800,000 people heavily to the bacteria unbeknownst to them.  At least eleven people were hospitalized with major urinary tract infections and another man, recovering from prostate surgery, died from heart complications when the bacteria infected his heart valves.  The public would not learn of this test until 1976.  Another major test involved the New York City subway system in 1966.  These were only two of the largest out of hundreds of similar secret U.S. tests carried out on domestic public populations without their consent in the 1950s and 1960s.

Alarmed by the real possibility of biowarfare and the relative ease with which non-superpowers could develop and engage in it, American President Richard Nixon halted the U.S. offensive bioweapons program in 1969 and had the U.S. sign the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on their Destruction (BTWC or BWC) in 1972.  The Convention banned the use of biological and chemical weapons and bioweapons research.  Signatories also committed to destroying their existing bioweapons stockpiles and were prohibited from researching offensive dispersal technologies, though there were no enforced verification or control mechanisms.  Over 100 other nations initially signed along with the U.S., including the Soviet Union, and today, almost every nation in the world is a signatory.

But even as the Soviet Union signed the treaty, it was secretly ramping up its own biowarfare program into overdrive.  The Soviets had had an offensive biowarfare program going back to the 1920s, which greatly expanded in the 1930s and may have approached the Japanese program in scale, but it seems Soviet leader Joseph Stalin’s purges disrupted it.  There is a small number of unverified claims of Soviet use of bioweapons in World War II as well as similar theories that Soviet-backed partisan guerrillas that used bioagents against occupying Germans obtained their bioweapons from the Soviets.  Additionally, it seems some Soviet agents spread typhus-carrying lice in a German-occupied Ukrainian town.  These operations killed dozens of Germans, but, still, in general and certainly compared to the Japanese, Soviet use of biological weapons during the war seems extremely rare and of minimal impact.

The USSR took biowarfare experts from Japan (like the U.S.) and industrial equipment from Germany as booty from the Second World War to help advance their program.  As the Korean War approached and unfolded, Stalin worried that the increasing U.S. bioweapons program would be a real threat to the Soviets, and they continued to lag behind the U.S. likely until the 1970s.  In early post-Cold War years, the Soviets developed weapons programs targeting crop and livestock and even developed sophisticated assassination methods with bioagents.  There was even a plan to assassinate Yugoslavia’s leader Josip Broz Tito using plague, but Stalin died before the plot was carried out.  During this period, fear of the U.S. bioweapons program motivated the Soviets to create a robust system to help spot and stop outbreaks of infectious diseases.

Still, in part because of its subscribing to incorrect biological scientific theories and a stifling bureaucracy, not much seemed to have progressed with the Soviet biowarfare program in the decades after World War II.  Soviet leaders, aware they were lagging behind the U.S., finally deferred to scientific experts (with correct, Western scientific theories backing their thinking) and decided to launch a major new biowarfare program, Biopreparat, that would take off just as the U.S. was winding its program down.  Thus, beginning in the 1970s, Biopreparat became the largest, most advanced biowarfare program in the history of the world, employing up to 60,000 people at its height; the civilian side of the program alone would end up having “10 research and development institutes, 14 production and mobilization plants, and 8 special weapons and facility design units,” and, combined with its military facilities, Biopreparat was capable of producing several thousand tons of biological agents per year.  The program developed technology to have plague, anthrax, and smallpox placed in intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBSMs)—with smallpox, maintaining a constantly refreshed egg-incubated stockpile of twenty tons—keeping some weapons loaded with agents and ready to be deployed or launched, and had the capacity to produce 1,800 tons of anthrax annually.  Overall, Biopreparat worked with about fifty different bioagents, including the highly deadly Ebola-like Marburg virus. 

Perhaps most disturbingly, the Soviet biowarfare program even engaged in genetic engineering to create new strains of existing diseases that would be stronger and resist known treatment—man-made super-strains of anthrax, plague, tularemia, smallpox, and others—as well as new agents altogether, combining some of the worst aspects of multiple diseases; by 1991, the program was researching adding genes from Venezuelan equine encephalitis, Ebola, and Marburg into smallpox.

The highly secretive Soviet Biopreparat program was unknown to U.S. intelligence until a member of the program defected to the West in 1989, two others following in 1992, the third being the second-in-command of Biopreparat, who had become terrified of what his program could unleash on the world.

After these revelations, Russia (the Soviet Union was now in the dustbin of history) admitted it had carried out a program in violation of the 1972 BWC treaty and President Boris Yeltsin pledged to end the program, but his pledge was quite controversial within Russian power circles and he faced stiff opposition.  Just a few years later, Russia was backing off some its admissions, and after Vladimir Putin ascended to the Russian presidency in 1999, he changed the official policy of Russia to one that actively and specifically denied that the Soviet Union or Russia has ever had an offensive biowarfare program. 

Russia, then, simply has not come clean on its biowarfare program.  Putin himself even publicly called for developing “genetic” weapons in 2012, and, since then, there has been a frenzy of construction activity at over two dozen old biowarfare program sites, which still remain as secretive and sealed-off as they were during Soviet times.  To this day, little is known about what became of the massive Biopreparat program or its enormous stockpiles.  Even in 2016, the Obama Administration was noting that Russia still had not come clean about what it had done with its biological stockpiles and delivery systems, and it is hard to believe that Russia is not violating the 1972 BWC treaty even today.  Furthermore, with serious security issues at Russian installations and with the immediate 1990s in Russia being something of an insanely chaotic, corrupt Wild West-like environment where it would hardly have been unthinkable that money and bioagents changed hands, we have no way of knowing which struggling scientists might have smuggled bioagents or their designs to which buyers, let alone where elements of Russia’s biological weapons stockpile are today.

In fact, some of the Soviet Union’s smallpox cache seems to have somehow gotten lost and made its way to North Korea during the tumultuous time of the USSR’s final collapse.  And a U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency report from 1994 stated that in the late 1980s or early 1990, the USSR or Russia had supplied North Korea with smallpox, too, which may or not be the same as the stocks of which Russia apparently lost track.  But that rogue nation would also have had its own stocks (though likely less potent) as part of its suspected longstanding biowarfare program, decades old but one about which few concrete details are known due to the secretive and sealed-off nature of the regime.  Despite this lack of information, many experts contend North Korea’s biowarfare program is a substantial and advanced one, and it seems the government of the country’s leader, Kim Jong-Un (if he is still leading, or even alive, amid his current disappearance) is trying to expand its program and bioweapons research and production capabilities.  One North Korean soldier who defected a few years ago tested positive for anthrax antibodies, suggesting (though not proving) the possibility anthrax is an active part of its arsenal.  North Korea’s military is thought to be vaccinated for both smallpox and anthrax, making both those potential bioweapons attractive to them.  And our own troops stationed in South Korea (and in general) are, overall, underequipped and unprepared for a biowarfare attack.  Experts believe the government is more likely to use bioweapons than nuclear ones and, the volatile, desperate, risky, unconventional, and sometimes unpredictable nature of the North Korean regime mean its bioweapons program may be one of the world’s programs that poses the largest threat, not least because a desperate and cash-strapped North Korean government could be willing to sell parts of this program and bioweapons expertise in general to other rogue regimes or non-state terrorist groups (it has supported terrorism across the world in the past), as it has already done with its chemical and nuclear programs and related expertise for Syria, which is also is known to have a bioweapons program.

As for other countries, a number had programs rise and fall during the Cold War, and other have clear capabilities of having or jumpstarting a program even if no evidence exists that they current do have a program.  Others still have programs today: Israel, for example, has long had a bioweapons program, but very few details are known about its current status.  China is thought to also have a program, but likely a small one and practically nothing is known about it, with experts emphasizing China’s dual-use capabilities more than actually any robust current program.  Iran is in a similar category.

It is notable that Iraq had a robust program for a number of years not too long ago under Saddam Hussein, one about which we know a lot and that really kicked into high developmental gear from the middle of the Iran-Iraq War until the Gulf War and subsequent demands and inspections from the powers who defeated Saddam’s government and severely disrupted his program at its peak.  At that peak, the program was in its early stages of being operational, but it does not seem the regime ever used its bioweapons.  The earlier DIA assessment from 1994 that concluded Russia had supplied North Korea with smallpox concluded Russia had also supplied Iraq with the virus around the same time, but Iraq likely also had its own stocks and there is evidence supporting the idea it was weaponizing smallpox, perhaps using camelpox research as a cover.  Until the mid-1990s, even under the scrutiny of international inspections, the regime was still trying to salvage its program, but after renewed and intensified international actions, Hussein’s government in 1996 may have largely abandoned serious efforts to reconstitute its biowarfare program.  The post-Saddam era has thankfully seen Iraqi governments that have abandoned all WMD pursuits.


I’ll tell you the problem with engineers and scientists.  Scientists have an elaborate line of bullshit about how they are seeking to know the truth about nature.  Which is true, but that’s not what drives them. Nobody is driven by abstractions like “seeking truth.”

Scientists are actually preoccupied with accomplishment.  So they are focused on whether they can do something.  They never stop to ask if they should do something.  They conveniently define such considerations as pointless.  If they don’t do it, someone else will.  Discovery, they believe, is inevitable.  So they just try to do it first.  That’s the game in science. Even pure scientific discovery is an aggressive, penetrative act.  It takes big equipment, and it literally changes the world afterward.  Particle accelerators sear the land, and leave radioactive byproducts.  Astronauts leave trash on the moon.  There is always some proof that scientists were there, making their discoveries.  Discovery is always a rape of the natural world. Always.

The scientists want it that way.  They have to stick their instruments in.  They have to leave their mark. They can’t just watch.  They can’t just appreciate.  They can’t just fit into the natural order. They have to make something unnatural happen.  That is the scientist’s job, and now we have whole societies that try to be scientific.

—Dr. Ian Malcolm, in Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park (1990)

Besides states, there are, of course, the terrorists seeking to develop and use these weapons.

Besides the occasional partisans/guerillas who, as mentioned, used bioweapons against occupying German troops during World War II, there are, thankfully, only a few major examples of bioterrorism in general throughout history.  In the modern era, there is the strange case of a religious cult in America deliberately poisoning restaurant salad bars with Salmonella in Oregon in 1984, sickening hundreds of people, dozens of them seriously.  While Japan’s Aum Shinrikyo cult is famous for its sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway in 1995, it was also planning to carry out biological attacks before those plots were discovered and foiled.

Just after the September 11th, 2001 al-Qaeda attacks in the U.S., there was the strange incident of the anthrax mail attacks that infected twenty-two people and killed five.  The case was quite murky and the best available explanation is that the attacks seems to have been an example of domestic terrorism by particular a government scientist who was an expert on, and worked with, anthrax, one who committed suicide and whose possible motives have not been definitively determined by investigators but that most likely would seem to have amounted to creating a false flag attack to raise awareness about bioterrorism and boost funding for biodefense.  Even so, the evidence is far from conclusive and some questions remains as to the identity of the terrorist(s), let alone any motives.

Al-Qaeda itself harbored serious ambitions for developing bioweapons capabilities, in particular one major plot in the years before 9/11 focusing on anthrax to carry out a large-scale attack on U.S. soil run by the organization’s second-in-command (and still current leader), the surgeon Ayman al-Zawahiri.  In the months prior to the 9/11 attacks, multiple al-Qaeda operatives were looking into crop-dusting airplanes, a tool that would make an exceptional delivery mechanism for a bioagent.  One of these operatives was Mohammad Atta, a 9/11 ringleader and a successful hijacker on 9/11, who was trying to get a loan to buy a crop duster in Florida but was rejected.  Another was Zacarias Moussaoui, caught before 9/11 and later convicted in court on 9/11 related terrorism charges, thought to maybe be designated as a hijacker (possibly of another plane that was supposed to hit the White House) but also perhaps, instead, to have been tasked with carrying out other attacks after 9/11.  An associate of Moussaoui’s who entered the U.S. with him was detained in possession of biology textbooks while Moussaoui had in his possession crop-dusting aircraft manuals.

After the 9/11 attacks, U.S. forces in Afghanistan would destroy what U.S. intelligence officials said was an under-construction facility to produce anthrax in Kandahar, and anthrax powder was found in Zawahiri’s house in the country.  Zawahiri had even recruited a Pakistani government scientist to work on advancing al-Qaeda’s bioweapons program at that Kandahar lab.  Extremist nuclear scientists in Pakistan also formed an NGO (with a former head of Pakistan’s notoriously-extremist-sympathizing ISI intelligence service and a former head of Pakistan’s Khushab nuclear reactor on its board) that was a front for supporting terrorists, including al-Qaeda and, specifically, bioterrorism plans were found in the organization’s office in Kabul shortly after 9/11.  Al-Qaeda also had a cell in Saudi Arabia that was planning biological attacks.

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s al-Qaeda affiliate, al-Qaeda in Iraq/Mesopotamia—which would later, during the Iraq War, evolve into ISIS—was even trying to develop, train with, and use bioweapons before the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq.

More recently, in 2014, a laptop that belonged to an ISIS operative with an academic background in science was apparently recovered from an ISIS safehouse.  Files on the computer showed the group was putting energy into looking at developing bioweapons and carrying out bioterrorist attacks, with specific documents outlining techniques for testing agents and carrying out attacks in public areas, directing that biological agents be disseminated into the air using air conditioning systems, and explaining how to weaponize plague.  There was also discussion of theological justifications for biological attacks and of the advantages of biological weapons being cheap to create and able to kill large numbers of people.  While its “caliphate” was at its height, ISIS even established a lab in Mosul for chemical and biological weapons research and development that employed a team of scientific experts dedicated to the cause.

Additionally, Kenyan police stopped a anthrax plot with big ambitions in 2016 concocted by an ISIS-linked terror group.  And in 2018, a Lebanese citizen was arrested by anti-terrorism police in Italy for plotting a terrorist attack that would have included anthrax he was seeking to obtain, taking ISIS for inspiration.  Overall, European officials worry that ISIS attacks utilizing bioagents are being planned for European targets and could be executed soon, perhaps even using drones.

In the end, the novel-coronavirus should be a wakeup call for a number of reasons.  First, we can consider this something of a dry run for how we would handle a deliberate bioattack with even a mildly deadly infectious disease (and know that we failed and do must do much better).  We can also think of this as a wakeup call for the need to prepare far more for biodefense, either a bioterrorist attack or an attack launched with a bioweapon from a hostile state, because it is certain that those considering using bioweapons will take much hope and inspiration from the devastation COVID-19 has visited upon us, and even those on the fence will likely be inspired to dabble more with bioweapons.  Considering the dark history of bioweapons, biowarfare, and bioterrorism even before the coronavirus era, and considering the rapidly advancing technology that makes bioweapons research and development ever more accessible, we cannot continue with our current biodefense postures in a world where coronavirus is clearly a game-changer.

© 2020 Brian E. Frydenborg all rights reserved, permission required for republication, attributed quotations welcome

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