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The extent to which certain biological agents have or thought to have been used in terrorist acts is still a matter of discussion. Undoubtedly, the magnitude of an attack using such a powerful weapon of mass-destruction would provide the terrorist group with a strong means to achieve its hypothetic goal. However, the difficulty in controlling these unpredictable bugs, which could cause a major epidemic, arouses a serious controversy in the potential user. Furthermore, due to the difficulty in claiming credit for an outbreak which can easily be spontaneous, past accounts of this kind tend to be systematically ignored. There have, however, been several publicly-reported incidents, especially in the past three decades, which make biological terrorism a serious menace for the present and immediate future. Ron Purver, a strategist analyst, wrote a recently unclassified report for the Canadian Security Intelligence Service about the likelihood of chemical and biological terrorism (1995, updated 2008). Past reports were gathered and classified according to their degree of seriousness. Thus, the resulting five groups cover: 1) the threat to use biological agents (BA); 2) unsuccessful attempts to acquire BA; 3) actual possession of BA; 4) unsuccessful use of BA; and 5) successful use of BA. Herewith is a miscellany of the most significant cases assembled into groups. Not all of them could be checked with other sources.

In the first set, it is worth mentioning a biologist in West Germany who threatened to put BA in the water supplies of main cities in 1973. It appears that the agents in question were anthrax and botulinum bacilli and he wanted $8.5 million (CBW Info 1999). Also, in October 1981, some protesters claimed to have taken soil contaminated with anthrax from the island of Gruinard and aimed to place it at the British CBW establishment at Porton Down. As of today, it still seems that there are 280 pounds of contaminated earth hidden somewhere in Britain, awaiting further distribution (Gad 2007: 1558). In 25 January 1991, a report in the Cairo newspaper Al-Akhbar during the Gulf War, asserted that Iraq maintained secret agents in Europe ready to use biological, as well as chemical and ordinary weapons, in the capitals of European countries. It was also cited in the Komsomolskaya Pravda of Moscow. Amongst the main targets, there were basic transport facilities, such as airports and railway stations, schools and hospitals (Carus 2001: 101). Precisely that same day, an anonymous terrorist individual/group threatened to contaminate the water supply of the city of Kelowna, British Columbia, with undetermined biological agents.
As for the unsuccessful attempts to acquire BA, in the early 1970s the US left-wing terrorist group
Weather Underground blackmailed a homosexual officer to obtain BA from Fort Detrick. Their intention was to contaminate the water supplies of one or more major American cities. Although the officer gave in, the plot was eventually discovered when the soldier requested “unusual” items (Arizona Department of Health Services 2005). Also, in 1984 two false microbiologists from the Canadian firm ICM ordered BA via telephone from the American Type Culture Collection of Rockville, Maryland. The company declined any responsibility and the FBI arrested the two men when they tried to collect a new order of botulinum toxin (Carus 2001: 101).
Of the cases involving actual possession of BA, it is worth mentioning that members of the US right-wing group Order of the Rising Sun were arrested in possession of 30 to 40 kilograms of typhoid bacteria cultures in 1972. One of the leaders, a 19-year-old university student, was thought to have developed the culture in a Chicago City College lab. The BA was intended to be dropped in the water supplies of Chicago, Saint Louis and other Midwestern cities. Also, in the early 1980s, a safe house for the Red Army Faction was discovered in Paris. It sheltered a lab with which an amount of botulinum toxin had been produced (Carus 2001: 156-7). Finally, in 1983, two brothers were arrested in the north-eastern US who had manufactured an ounce of nearly pure ricin, a biological toxin often used in spy assassinations (Carus 2001: 196).
The instances of unsuccessful use of BA are very sketchy. At an undated moment, probably in the 1970s, Los Angeles Police and the FBI arrested a man who was about to deliver an undetermined BA to the city water system (Livingston 1982: 112). However, even today the case still needs further evidence. In 1976, several businessmen in the US and the FBI Director, Clarence M. Kelley, received sealed letters containing ticks infected with an undetermined agent. However, the parasites were “mashed” by the time they reached their hosts. On 14 July 1977, a man named Stephen Grant Morton was indicted in Denver, Colorado, by a federal grand jury on extortion charges. He was accused of mailing more than 250 threatening letters, including four containing ticks. However, the case against Morton was dismissed at the request of the government (Carus 2001: 121). In October 1978, the Bulgarian defector Vladimir Kostov suffered an attack through a ricin-tipped umbrella but the thickness of the clothes he was wearing frustrated the assassination (Staar 1991: 126). Also, in 1980, CIA agent Boris Korczak saved his life after a similar attack in McLean, Virginia (Carus 2001: 81-2). These two incidents are intimately related to a successful one narrated below.
Lastly, of the examples including a successful use of BA, it is worth naming a German doctor who, in 1915, provided a group of dockworkers in Baltimore with anthrax and glanders to infect 3000 horses, mules and cattle for the Allied troops in Europe. Several hundred soldiers came down with the disease and it is thought that the Imperial German Army supplied the original strain (WHO 2008a: 28). As the incident clearly proves, the line between biowarfare and bioterrorism is extremely thin.
In September 1978, the Bulgarian defector Georgi Markov was assassinated in London through a ricin-tipped umbrella. Blame was put on the Bulgarian Intelligence Service with the aid of the KGB, but their participation is still a matter of discussion. Nevertheless, what is sure is that he was assassinated with a sort of tainted pellet, which was shot into his calf. The event came to be known as the “umbrella murder.” Some recent articles have even named the killer. According to these sources, he seems to be an Italian-born Dane by the name of Francesco Gullino, codenamed
Piccadilly (Staar 1991: 126, Hamilton and Walker 2005, Walsh 2005, Brown 2008, The Economist 2008).
But perhaps the most popular bioterrorist attack occurred in September 1984. The Rajneeshee cult contaminated different salad bars in The Dalles, Oregon, with
Salmonella Typhimorium, with over 750 poisoned and 40 hospitalised (Flaccus 2001, “Trustees” 2002). The cult members hoped to incapacitate so many voters that their own candidates in the county elections would win. Although the scheme failed, the episode spread fear and the economy of the town suffered great losses. In the following years, the population of The Dalles thought without cause that the Rajneeshees planned to spread AIDS. These inhabitants’ fear is still palpable even today, which proves how effective bioterrorism can be in demoralising a particular community or nation.

Works cited:

Arizona Department of Health Services. “History of Biowarfare and Bioterrorism.” Arizona Department of Health Services. 2005. Retrieved 9 July 2008.

Brown, Jonathan. “Poison umbrella murder case is reopened.” The Independent. 20 June 2008. Retrieved 10 October 2008.

Carus, W. Seth. Bioterrorism and Biocrimes: The Illicit Use of Biological Agents Since 1900. 28 February 2001. Retrieved 9 December 2008. centercounter/Full_Doc.pdf.

CBW Info. “Anthrax: Essential Data.” CBW Info. 1999. Retrieved 9 July 2008.

Flaccus, Gillian. “Oregon Town Never Recovered from Scare.” The Associated Press. 19 October 2001. Retrieved 9 July 2008.

Gad, Shayne C. Handbook of Pharmaceutical Biotechnology. New Jersey: Wiley, 2007.

Hamilton, Jack and Tom Walker. “Dane named as umbrella killer.” The Sunday Times. 5 June 2005. Retrieved 10 October 2008.

Livingston, Neil. The War Against Terrorism. New York: Lexington Books, 1982.

Purver, Ron. “Chemical and Biological Terrorism: The Threat According to the Open Literature.” Canadian Intelligence Security Service. June 1995. Modified 25 April 2008. Retrieved 9 July 2008.

Staar, Richard F. Foreign Policies of the Soviet Union. Stanford: Hoover Institution Press, 1991.

The Economist. “New Light on Georgi Markov’s Murder.” The Economist. 4 September 2008. Retrieved 9 December 2008.

Trustees of Boston University. “Bioterrorism in History 1984: Rajneesh Cult Attacks Local Salad Bar.” Wbur. 2002. Retrieved 9 July 2008.

Walsh, Nick P. “Markov's umbrella assassin revealed.” The Guardian. 6 June 2005. Retrieved 10 October 2008.

World Health Organization. Anthrax in Humans and Animals. Geneva: WHO Press, 2008.