The Challenge of Biological Terrorism
December 1, 2005
The politics and ideology of terrorism have removed past limits on the levels of violence that terrorists are willing to use. Captured Al Qaeda records, for example, clearly show that Islamic extremists have an interest in acquiring biological as well as chemical and nuclear weapons. Biological terrorism therefore poses a threat that is all too real. Truly lethal biological attacks still present many technical challenges, but the ease with which bioterrorists can act is growing. And lethality is only one measure of success--the political, economic, and psychological impact of bioterrorism can easily impose costs far in excess of the number killed or injured.
Still, the fact that a threat exists does not define its probability, the priority it should receive, the kind of response it requires, or the investment in time, expertise, and money that is needed. It is all too easy to "cry wolf" in a post–9/11 world, but the risk of biological terrorism is only one among many. And no matter how dramatic a threat may seem--bioterrorism included--or how lethal it might be, trade-offs have to be made. The years since 9/11 have shown that it is far easier to throw money at a problem than it is to solve one and far easier to focus noisily on the worst case than it is to produce a credible risk assessment. With this study, Anthony Cordesman seeks to provide just such an assessment of biological terrorism--balancing threats, probabilities, costs, and priorities.
Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at CSIS and serves as a national security analyst for ABC News. His many previous books include Iran’s Developing Military Capabilities (CSIS, 2005), The War after the War (CSIS, 2004), and The Iraq War (CSIS, 2003).