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6 November 2023

Introduction & Details

Bioterrorism is a form of terrorism which involves the intentional release of biological agents such as bacteria, viruses, toxins and other biological substances, with the implicit intent to harm or instil fear in a population. This form of terrorism is distinct from other more well known forms as it relies upon living organisms or the byproducts of production of these organisms as weapons (Hummel et al., 2022).

As a tactic, bioterrorism relies upon the inherent ability of biological agents (viruses, bacteria, diseases, etc.) to spread and multiply, often with the intent to have an engineered delayed onset of symptoms. This makes it extremely challenging for governments or militaries to detect and control as the effects may not manifest immediately. Simultaneously, this allows for the potential widespread dissemination before an effective response can be implemented. Bioterrorism can target a multitude of groups including the civilian population, the military and police forces of a country, as well as the agricultural system. Attacks on the agricultural system, also known as 'agrobioterrorism', is a subtype of agro-terrorism and is effectively a separate tactic which is often used to damage a country's economy and consumer confidence in national products (Wheelis et al., 2002). The method of spread can vary from contaminated food and water supplies to aerosols sprayed over an area (Newman, 2018).

Bioterrorism can have significant consequences, ranging from loss of life and widespread illness to economic disruption and general social commotion. These attacks can be carried out by lone attackers or large organisations such as cults (Aum Shinrikyo experimented with varying biological agents but, due to non-virulent strains being used, they would end up using the chemical sarin to kill around 20 people). Due to the widespread risks associated with bioterrorism, efforts to prevent these attacks are extremely important to states, henceforth often leading to increased surveillance, the development of vaccines, and also emergency response plans to mitigate the impact of a bioterrorist attack.

Past Uses & Renowned Cases

There has been a history of bioterrorism dating back to the first world war which involved German biological sabotage campaigns aimed at disrupting US, Russian, Romanian and French supply lines (Borden Institute, 2018, p178). However, these were not the first recorded instances of bioterrorism attacks, with one of the first being during the Siege of Kirrha between 595-585 BC in which a biological agent, hellebore (a type of plant), was added to the city of Kirrha’s water supply. This was reportedly so effective and the defenders were so weakened by diarrhoea that they were unable to defend the city from being assaulted and taken over (Nuwer, 2013).


One of the most renowned cases of bioterrorism is the 2001 anthrax attacks in the United States, also known as the Amerithrax attacks. Letters which had been laced with infectious anthrax were delivered to news media offices as well as the U.S. Congress. This attack occurred over the course of several weeks spanning just after the 9/11 attacks, which subsequently overshadowed the anthrax attacks. These letters killed 5 people and infected 17 others. The attacks involved the mailing of several letters which proclaimed “Death to America …. Death to Israel …. Allah is Great” (Greenwald, 2008) and Bruce Edward Ivins (a US microbiologist) became the focus of the investigation after the exoneration of another suspect. He was suspected of being responsible due to a belief that he would stand to gain money due to patents he held for anthrax vaccines (Willman, 2008). Nevertheless, this was highly disputed due to a lack of evidence (Shane and Lichtblau, 2008). Additionally, there were false reports of the anthrax being laced with bentonite, which was a material used almost exclusively by Saddam Hussein in his biological weapons program. This was subsequently disproved (The Washington Times, 2001) with the belief that the Bush administration was attempting to utilise these anthrax attacks in order to gain public support for the invasion of Iraq (Corbett, 2016).


Another bioterrorist attack which occurred on US soil involved the controversial religious movement led by Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh in Oregon, USA, in the 1984 Rajneeshee bioterror attack (NOVA Online, 2002). Near Antelope, the Rajneeshees founded a sizable commune known as Rajneeshpuram, which sparked conflicts with nearby neighbours over land-use issues and ideological differences. The Rajneeshees used voter fraud and intimidation to gain influence in local politics. They committed a bioterrorist act in The Dalles in September 1984 by introducing salmonella germs into salad restaurants in an effort to weaken possible rivals in the upcoming county elections (Miller et al., 2002 p1–34). Over 750 cases of food poisoning were the result of this, which spread panic and grabbed public attention. After police investigations uncovered the Rajneeshees' participation, commune leaders were detained, and Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh later left the country. This was and still is the largest bioterror attack to of have occurred on US soil (NOVA Online, 2002).

Purpose of Use & Details

The purpose behind employing bioterrorism as a tactic or strategy is based on its potential to cause widespread fear, panic, and disruption on a large scale (Croddy, 2002 p78). Compared to conventional and more widespread forms of terrorism, biological agents have the potential to spread quickly and often have delayed symptom onset, making them very difficult to identify and contain. This innate trait enables bioterrorists to potentially do harm to a sizable number of people before authorities can build a successful defence or utilise any in-place responses. Additionally, biological agents can target not only human populations but also animals and crops, with devastating effects on food supplies and economies. The psychological impact of a bioterrorist attack can be profound, eroding trust in public institutions and sowing fear and uncertainty among affected communities and can even lead to a large number of civilian victims of bioterrorism to suffer from PTSD (Green et al., 2018). In some cases, bioterrorism may be used to achieve political, ideological, or religious objectives, or to destabilise societies by exploiting vulnerabilities in public health infrastructure. Overall, the aim of bioterrorism is to use the unique characteristics of biological weapons to spread fear, turmoil, and disruption, ultimately serving the purposes of the terrorists.

Technical Analysis

Bioterrorism is the deliberate release of biological agents which are usually manufactured in a laboratory setting (although it can still be done and has, on some occasions, indeed been done at home) such as bacteria, viruses, toxins, or fungi. This tactic is different from conventional forms of terrorism due to its use of living organisms or their by-products to inflict harm.


Following is a technical analysis of the stages which usually occurs when a bioterrorism attack is to take place.


1. Nature of Agents


The nature of the agents which are involved is often chosen to allow for the highest spread and the potential to cause harm. This may involve choosing a disease which will cause large amounts of fatalities such as anthrax or smallpox if it is to be weaponized. It could also include a pathogen which Is extremely infective towards certain types of crops in order to spread and cause widespread economic damage.


Biological agents can include bacteria, viruses, toxins, and fungi. Each has distinct characteristics, modes of transmission, incubation periods, and susceptibilities to treatment. The diverse range of available diseases and pathogens makes bioterrorism a more accessible form of terrorism due to the ability of groups to create and source diseases from laboratories and even the local environment.


Moreover, bioterror agents are chosen for their ability to cause disease in humans or animals. Some are highly infectious, while others may have a delayed onset of symptoms. This delayed onset of symptoms will allow for a higher spread of the chosen pathogen and can lead to a higher death and injury toll.

2. Production and Weaponization

The production and weaponization of the pathogen chosen to be involved in a bioterrorist attack is often the most difficult stage for a group as this requires, usually, a high level of expertise both technically and scientifically, for the stabilisation and creation of diseases is often a difficult procedure. This was seen with the doubt over whether or not the amount of silicon found in the anthrax pathogen involved in the 2001 anthrax attacks was engineered and it was eventually decided that it must have been done in an advanced laboratory, as subsequent attempts to recreate the specific type of anthrax failed (Epstein, 2010).


Creating and weaponizing biological agents typically requires a high level of scientific expertise, as well as specialised equipment and facilities. This is one reason why bioterrorism is associated with state-sponsored programs or individuals with advanced knowledge. This is shown prominently with the example provided above that the Bush administration attempted to place the blame for the anthrax attacks in America on Saddam Hussein’s biological weapons program.


The substance being used may be processed into a form that is appropriate for dissemination after cultivation. Depending on the agent, this can come in the form of aerosols, powders, or liquids. This is shown in the variety of ways in which groups or individuals have attempted to commit bioterrorist attacks. These range from the inoculations provided to horses by the German saboteurs in WW1 (Borden Institute, 2018, p178) to a spray device or even an explosive device (Newman, 2018).


3. Dissemination


The dissemination methods of the biological weapons or pathogens involved in a bioterrorist attack vary widely and this can have a greater effect on how effective the attack is. These methods can involve aerosols being sprayed over an area or into a closed off space and it can also involve the infection of food supplies (Miller et al., 2002 p1–34).


The chosen delivery method affects the spread and effectiveness of the biological agent. Aerosols are often preferred for their ability to reach a large number of people through inhalation. However, dissemination of food based, or water-borne biological agents could potentially lead to a higher death count (Green et al., 2019).


Weather conditions, terrain, and population density also play a crucial role in the spread of a biological agent. Wind patterns can affect the dispersion of aerosolized agents and could lead to a higher spread.


4. Detection and Identification


The detection and identification of the pathogens involved in a bioterrorist attack is crucial in the efforts of a medical authority and governments to respond to an attack. This process can involve securing samples from the site of an attack. These samples are then taken to a laboratory for analysis, with the aim of determining the nature of the pathogen or identifying the most effective methods for combating it, such as vaccines or other strategies.


Detecting biological agents can be challenging due to their microscopic size, variability, and ability to evolve. Specialized equipment and trained personnel are required for timely identification prior to large-scale infection of the population who may have contracted the pathogen which was used. Moreover, samples collected from the affected area need to be analysed in a controlled laboratory environment to positively identify the agent and enable responses from the government or medical authorities.


5. Effects and Consequences


A bioterrorist attack, which involves the intentional release of biological agents like diseases or toxins, can have devastating effects on both persons and civilizations. A spike in disease and mortality rates, an overstretched healthcare system, and damage to vital infrastructure are all possible immediate results. Anxiety and panic can spread quickly, causing social unrest and disruptions to essential services. The effects of such an assault go far beyond the immediate event; they also include survivors' ongoing health issues, unstable economies, and strained international ties. Addressing psychological trauma and re-establishing trust and confidence within damaged communities are revealed as crucial challenges. Additionally, the need for international cooperation in preventing and mitigating future bioterror threats highlights the necessity for the global community to review security precautions, surveillance techniques, and response procedures.

Depending on the agent used and the effectiveness of dissemination, bioterrorism has the potential to cause widespread illness or death and can also lead to mass panic and this could have further knock on effects. These effects could include widespread looting or even panic buying of essential supplies similar to what was seen during the COVID-19 outbreak when people panic bought supplies due to fears that they would run out (Lufkin, 2020).


6. Prevention and Mitigation


There are several methods for the prevention and mitigation of a bioterror attack, and these vary. Mitigation efforts can be focused on purely mitigating the impacts of an attack after it has occurred, such as vaccines which would be distributed to the impacted areas to be administered by healthcare professionals (or even the military who would have greater capacity to respond to an attack) (National Research Council (US) Panel on Biological Issues, 2002).


Vaccination programs can provide a level of protection against certain biological agents. This step could take longer than others due to the unpreparedness of some states to prepare vaccines for certain pathogens. The US congress passed the Project Bioshield act in 2004 in order to purchase vaccines which would be used in the event of a bioterror attack. This program has acquired millions of doses of varying vaccines, including 28.75 million doses of the anthrax vaccine and also over 100,000 botulism treatment vaccines (Alexander, 2012).


Monitoring for unusual disease patterns, coupled with rapid response capabilities, can help identify and mitigate bioterrorist events. This would involve having systems in place which could detect an event when it occurred and would enable a quick response by the relevant authorities. Furthermore, monitoring and thwarting the activities of groups or individuals with the intent to engage in bioterrorism is crucial in prevention and this is also incredibly difficult, as intelligence agencies would effectively have to intercept communications or purchases by groups involved in an attack.


Governments and military forces have several countermeasures in place in order to combat a bioterror incident as outlined above. This could involve the pre-production of vaccines and other medicines in order to counter the effects of an attack as they occur, such as the BioShield Act passed by the US congress. This Act enables the US to pre-purchase vaccines, namely the anthrax vaccine, from the market in order to create a stockpile (Alexander, 2012). Other countermeasures could involve the linking of varying laboratories across a region in order to more quickly detect and/or investigate a biological pathogen which has been released. This is particularly important for the efforts of governments in combatting a bioterror attack as it has occurred, or even preventing the widespread effects which have been outlined above (Gillman, 2015)


Nevertheless, budgetary issues regarding the funding of research or procurement of vaccines -- or other countermeasure efforts -- can cripple international or national responses to bioterrorism. This was shown with the 2017 US budget proposal under President Donald Trump, in which the actual funding allocated to The Office of Public Health and Preparedness was cut by 9.7 percent. This would massively hurt the US government's efforts to combat a bioterror attack on US soil, as this agency was responsible for tracking the outbreak of diseases (Baumgaertner, 2017). The National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases would also have its budget cut by $65 million (11 percent). The NCEZID is a branch of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) which fights against threats such as anthrax and the Ebola virus. The CDC itself would lose 18 percent of its budget ($76 million) and this would especially harm the US countermeasures against bioterror attacks through a reduction in its real-time monitoring of global infectious diseases. The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) would also lose 18 percent of its budget and this agency oversees response to several infectious diseases such as Zika and the Ebola virus. These budget cuts caused severe concern amongst experts of which Lawrence O. Gostin, the director of the World Health Organization’s Collaborating Center on Public Health Law and Human Rights, stated that “The next weapon of mass destruction may not be a bomb … It may be a tiny pathogen that you can’t see, smell or taste, and by the time we discover it, it’ll be too late” (Baumgaertner, 2017).

Open-Source Intelligence & Field Examples

This documentary, aired on November 13 2001, follows 3 reporters as they delve into the threat of bioterrorism and government involvement in the production of agents such as anthrax which would be used in a bioterror attack.

Works Cited (MLA-style)

Alexander, Kellen. “U.S. Grows Its Biodefense Stockpile.” BioPrepWatch, 18 Sept. 2012,

Baumgaertner, Emily. “Trump’s Proposed Budget Cuts Trouble Bioterrorism Experts - the New York Times | Ghostarchive.”, 28 May 2017,

Borden Institute. Medical Aspects of Biological Warfare. Office of The Surgeon General, 2018, p. 178,

Corbett, James. “Anthrax: The Forgotten Iraq War Lie.” The Corbett Report - Open Source Intelligence News, 1 Nov. 2016,

Croddy, Eric. Chemical and Biological Warfare: A Comprehensive Survey for the Concerned Citizen. Copernicus Books, 2002, p. 78.

Documentary Hub. “Bioterror | Full Documentary | NOVA | PBS.”, 2 Jan. 2022,

Epstein, Edward Jay. “The Anthrax Attacks Remain Unsolved.” Wall Street Journal, 25 Jan. 2010,

Gillman, Stephen. “Fighting Bioterrorism – Europe Works on Master Plan | Research and Innovation.”, 23 July 2015,

Green, Manfred S., et al. “Confronting the Threat of Bioterrorism: Realities, Challenges, and Defensive Strategies.” The Lancet Infectious Diseases, vol. 19, no. 1, 1 Jan. 2019,,

Greenwald, Glenn. “Vital Unresolved Anthrax Questions and ABC News.” Salon, 1 Aug. 2008,

Hummel, Stephen, et al. “A New Age of Bioterror: Anticipating Exploitation of Tunable Viral Agents.” CTC Sentinel, vol. 15, no. 4, Apr. 2022, pp. 1–6,

Kaminska, Izabella. “Bioterror: The Dangers of Garage Scientists Manipulating DNA.” Financial Times, 21 Sept. 2021,

Lufkin, Bryan. “Coronavirus: The Psychology of Panic Buying.”, 5 Mar. 2020,

Miller, Judith, et al. Germs. Simon and Schuster, 1 Feb. 2012, pp. 1–34, 

National Research Council (US) Panel on Biological Issues. Prevention, Response, and Recovery., National Academies Press (US), 2002, 

Newman, Tim. “Biological Weapons and Bioterrorism: Past, Present, and Future.”, 28 Feb. 2018,

NOVA Online. “NOVA Online | Bioterror.”,

---. “NOVA Online | Bioterror | History of Biowarfare (Non-Flash).”, Feb. 2002,

Nuwer, Rachel. “One of the First Known Chemical Attacks Took Place 1,700 Years Ago in Syria.” Smithsonian Magazine, 6 Sept. 2013,

Shane, Scott, and Eric Lichtblau. “Scientist’s Suicide Linked to Anthrax Inquiry - the New York Times.”, 2 Aug. 2008,

The Washington Times. “No Proof of Iraqi Contamination.” The Washington Times, 29 Oct. 2001,

Wheelis, Mark, et al. “Biological Attack on Agriculture: Low-Tech, High-Impact Bioterrorism: Because Bioterrorist Attack Requires Relatively Little Specialized Expertise and Technology, It Is a Serious Threat to US Agriculture and Can Have Very Large Economic Repercussions.” BioScience, vol. 52, no. 7, 1 July 2002, pp. 569–576,

Willman, David. “Suspect Stood to Gain from Anthrax Panic.” Los Angeles Times, 2 Aug. 2008,

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