Reports surfaced in early January that approximately forty Al Qaeda members in Algeria died from plague after the deadly bacteria escaped from a surreptitious laboratory where they were attempting to weaponize the disease. Although there has been no official confirmation that that is exactly what happened, it is clear that something out of the ordinary did occur in Algeria at that time, and the reports are part of a mounting body of evidence, both circumstantial and confirmed, that Al Qaeda is attempting to acquire weapons of mass destruction – most likely, in this situation, a bio weapon.
It has long been an article of faith that the United States and its allies would get an early warning – through an accidental release or an outbreak of some unusual disease – about the possible misuse of bio agents. Accidental releases are not common, but they have occurred a number of times in the past – most notably in 1979 in the region around a Soviet biological weapons facility in Sverdlovsk, where there was an accidental anthrax release that killed 68 people. The Soviets, of course, denied not only that anthrax had caused the fatalities but also that the facility was engaged in the production of biological weapons – in contravention of the Biological Weapons Convention. The incident remained a matter of controversy during the Reagan administration, but after the fall of the Soviet Union the Russians ultimately acknowledged what happened.
After the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001, the U.S. intelligence community found substantial evidence, in Afghanistan and elsewhere, that Al Qaeda was indeed working on acquiring biological weapons – and, according to the 9/11 Commission, the effort was more advanced than previously believed. Although Al Qaeda had investigated the possible use of other dangerous agents, including plague and even ebola, its more immediate goal seemed to be to create a fully stable and weaponized strain of anthrax.
Ebola, however, is a hemorrhagic fever and one of the deadliest diseases in the world – also one of the most contagious. The good news is that there is no known incidence of it being successfully weaponized, and many experts believe that, because it outruns its hosts so quickly, it also dissipates quickly and therefore does not expand beyond a certain critical mass. The Japanese Am Shinrikyo cult – which carried out the 1995 Tokyo subway attack using Sarin (a G Series nerve agent) – tried to acquire an ebola culture but ultimately gave up and moved onto more conventional bio agents.
The Economics of Weaponization and Related Factors Weaponized anthrax also represents a formidable scientific challenge, so it is not surprising that Al Qaeda may have focused on plague – most likely bubonic plague, which was known as the “Black Death” in the Middle Ages, is considerably easier to develop, and can be created in a modest laboratory with commercially available equipment. Plague is still a problem in Africa, so it would not have been too difficult for Al Qaeda to have acquired a sample culture. Plague also would require less scientific expertise than trying to create weaponized anthrax or smallpox.
In that context, it should be remembered that Ayman al-Zawahiri (Al Qaeda’s number-two man after Osama bin Laden) is not only a trained medical doctor with a master’s degree in surgery, but also the son of a pharmacologist and a chemistry professor. In addition, he is known to have had an interest in biowarfare – and, interestingly, spent time in Russia in the 1990s. According to the former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko, al-Zawahiri received training from the FSB, the successor organization to the KGB, and was the FSB’s principal connection to Al Qaeda. Litvinenko, of course, became internationally famous, belatedly, when he was murdered by a dose of plononium-210, an extremely rare and costly radiological agent that, it is believed, had been slipped into his food in a Soho sushi restaurant in London.
Plague is disseminated via a “vector,” most commonly an infected flea carried by a rat, which is known as the reservoir host. Traditionally, the best way of controlling the plague has been the creation and implementation of effective rodent-management programs. Largely for that reason, most Western countries are believed to be – thanks to their modern hygiene standards and medical facilities – far less at risk from plague than are the so-called “lesser developed” countries of Africa, Asia, and Latin America.
Mounting Evidence Plus a Mountain of Evidence In addition to hard drives, floppy discs, and material gleaned from interrogations, the United States has accumulated a great deal of evidence related to Al Qaeda’s continuing, and apparently increasing, interest not only in bio weapons, but also in chemical and radiological weapons (especially RDDs, better known as Radiological Dispersion Devices – i.e., “dirty bombs”). Among the more substantive evidence confirming this theory are some NBC (nuclear, biological, and chemical) protective suits seized by British police during a raid on a Finsbury Park mosque in 2003. In addition, Jordanian authorities claimed to have thwarted a major chemical attack in 2004, and there have been credible reports that Abu Musab Zarqawi, Al Qaeda’s late leader in Iraq, had managed to acquire or develop ricin, one of the three deadliest substances on earth (the others being plutonium and botulinal toxin).
Although difficult to deliver to a widely dispersed group of human targets, ricin, a derivative of the lowly castor bean, is an excellent assassination weapon and may have been used by the Soviets to murder several heads of state and other leading Third World politicians. Another telling clue is that Al Qaeda in Iraq hired two chemists in 2004 and tasked them with trying to develop crude chemical and biological weapons. Fortunately, U.S. Marines discovered their laboratory (in Falluja) before any weapons had been manufactured. The Marines did find materials, however, that could have been used to make hydrogen cyanide. Other U.S. troops discovered caged dogs and other animals that they believed were going to be used by Al Qaeda as “guinea pigs” to test either chemical or biological weapons.
Future Threats: No Longer “If” But “When” Jihadists believe that Muslims have a religious duty to wage an “offensive jihad” against infidels, and there seems to have been no lessening of Muslim antipathy toward the West in recent years. Many observers believe, in fact, that the threat of a Jihadist attack employing weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) is growing rather than receding, despite the recent presidential election in the United States and the dramatic growth of homeland-security precautions against terrorism. Former U.S. Senator Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) said even prior to 9/11 that the possibility of a terrorist WMD attack against the United States is no longer a question of “if” but “when” such an attack might occur.
Nunn’s statement was echoed by former Vice President Dick Cheney in an interview two weeks after leaving office. According to Cheney, there is a “high probability” of a nuclear or biological attack against the United States within the next few years. That chilling possibility is backed up by a study cited by Gary Ackerman, research director of the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, in which respondents indicated that they believe there is a thirty percent probability of a WMD attack against the United States within the next five years. (The “probability” estimate grew to nearly seventy percent when the time period was increased to twenty-five years.)
It is now popular in some circles to believe that the war on terrorism is all but over and that Al Qaeda is and will remain hunkered down in the mountains along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border and for that reason is no longer a “real threat” to U.S. security. But if the reports coming out of Algeria are true, and Al Qaeda is in fact experimenting with plague and/or other diseases as a potential weapon, the Obama Administration needs to aggressively address the potential threat posed against the United States by a terrorist group armed with one or more WMDs.