Let’s imagine something.
Let’s imagine you are a budding terrorist. One with plenty of motivation, plenty of spleen to vent, but with little money and no access to sophisticated weaponry. Let us furthermore imagine that you would want to inflict casualties and/or damage on a large scale, but that you are no Mohammad Atta and you have no desire to give your life in whatever cause it is that motivates you.
What are your options?
Hijack a plane and ram it into a skyscraper? It’s been done, there are too many obstacles to repeat it (especially if you’re a freelancer) and besides that it has the important objection that you will not be around to inspect your handiwork after the successful completion of your mission.
Run amok with a gun? Even assuming that you can get hold of a suitable firearm, ammunition, and the training to use it to maximum effect, your career is likely to be short and not of much moment. Even killing twenty or thirty people, like John Allen Muhammad the Beltway Sniper, will not materially affect your target, not unless you manage to assassinate some senior leader, and these leaders are usually not as irreplaceable as they like to imagine.
A bomb? Where are you going to get hold of suitable quantities of explosive? Even ammonium nitrate and diesel oil can’t be bought nowadays in bulk without raising suspicion, for the excellent reason that they can be used to make the sort of explosive which Timothy McVeigh used to blow the Alfred E Murrah Building in Oklahoma City to smithereens. I’m not even going into the problems of finding detonators or the know-how to make sure you don’t blow your own sweet little self to pieces. You’re practically an amateur terrorist, remember. And unlike the London Tube bombers, you want to live to fight another day.
So, what are your options? There is a startlingly simple one, one you can manufacture in your kitchen sink, using material available from your local science shop. You can even use it if you’re Al Qaeda. And you can even use it to devastate your target and remain undetected.
That option is bioterrorism.
Germs that prey on us have shared space on this planet with us since we evolved from pre-apes. They are everywhere. Some strike every day; some disappear for many years to make sudden attacks. They have been harnessed to the cause of healing and to the cause of destruction. And sooner rather than later they will reveal themselves to be the terrorist’s biggest friend.
Consider a germ. Virus, bacterium, protozoan or fungus, it’s tiny, can (except for viruses) usually be grown on a culture medium in a petri dish you can keep on your shelf or in your fridge, and transported easily and unobtrusively. And it's safe. You can't blow yourself up or shoot yourself accidentally, and nosy neighbours won't get suspicious either. All you need to protect yourself would be a disposable surgical mask and a pair of latex gloves. Even if you’re raided by the police, all you have to do is pour the evidence down the loo and you’re home free. What more does a good little terrorist want?
Quite a lot, actually.
If you want to launch a bioterror campaign, you would want to decide your target. Is it the enemy’s population or its economy? If the former, you would best attack them with communicable disease germs, of which more anon. If you would want to attack the economy, a good idea would be to attack crops (food crops or cash crops, including livestock and poultry) either alone or with a concomitant attack on the population.
So, you have decided to attack the populace of the enemy. What would you need?
Disease comes in many forms, of which the most lethal forms are not always the most useful. If you want to cause a real big mess, you would want a disease that is highly communicable (should not infect you, though – not that communicable), not too easy to treat, and, very importantly, does not manifest itself or kill too quickly. This is because you want asymptomatic infected people to move around and infect a large number of people before they develop symptoms and succumb. Therefore it would be unwise to use diseases like Ebola virus or Lassa, since these kill extremely quickly, the afflicted will be dropping like flies where they stand, and the disease would be swiftly localised and quarantined. Another advantage of diseases that are not too lethal is that very large numbers of hospitalised people will more effectively cripple the target's society and economy than an equivalent number of deaths. Patients require a lot of care, and will especially overload an already creaky healthcare system in a Third World setting.
On the other hand if the disease, like HIV, hangs fire for years, your campaign is in effect a non-starter, quite apart from the problem of passing it on.
There are germs you can get hold of that can do the job for you – SARS, for example, or cholera emptied into communal water supplies, or smallpox, if one could "liberate’ a sample from one or other of the only two laboratories in the world which still have stocks, or the king of them all, bubonic plague, which has an almost unique reputation for mass extinction of human life and which would also inflict crushing economic damage. One factor has to be kept in mind – biological warfare is always a hit and miss thing. Very seldom will you get to achieve much by small scale dissemination of germs to individual targets – the 2001 anthrax attacks in the US, although notorious, inflicted almost no actual damage. The suffering inflicted on the enemy is cumulative and will take time to show up. Patience is essential.
Of course, now, if your facilities are a mite more sophisticated you might go for genetic engineering of your bioweapons. This would be directed towards enhancing the virulence and resistance to treatment of whatever germs you want to use.
But if you really want to inflict sophisticated damage on the foe, you would be advised to go for the enemy’s economy, not for the population. Here your target would be the enemy's agricultural produce, in the shape of cash crops or food crops (including animal products like poultry). Of course your attack would be target specific - you would tailor it to the actual basis of the target economy. One great advantage of this method is that you can actually go about your business for a long time, even years, without your enemy even suspecting that they are under attack. They can literally be starved into a state where a more conventional assault will provoke surrender.
Let's suppose a state which produces tobacco as a cash crop, wheat as a food crop, and poultry for meat and eggs. Your putative group (and this form of attack will require a much higher level of sophistication, though far less than is normally thought - a well equipped college postgraduate lab ought to be able to handle it) will adjust its tactics accordingly. For the wheat you will use wheat rust, which is a fungus (bacteria rarely affect plants). And for the tobacco? Nothing simpler! Just get hold of tobacco mosaic virus, which is obligingly capable of being crystallized, and rub it along with a little water on tobacco leaves, stand back, and watch the fun!
If your enemy grows cotton or potato, you can even enlist insects such as the boll weevil or the potato stem borer. The possiblities are endless, though, of course, you will have to do all this on a large scale...
And for the poultry? If you can get hold of bird flu virus, H5N1 or any other subtype, inject it into poultry or even into migratory birds which nest in the enemy's territory. Done!
Isn't it just brilliant?
Of course, this isn't actually as eyeball-catching and TV worthy as a suicide bomber...
H'm. Maybe you'd better strap on an explosive vest and settle for martyrdom after all...