Superempowed Bioterrorists

John Robb argues that “rampant globalization (infrastructure/connectivity in travel to economics to communications)” has “radically improved the ability of small groups to conduct warfare. We see the results of this in Iraq, Afghanistan, Nigeria and other garden spots around the world.”

He sees bioterrorism, rather than the acquisition of a dirty nuclear device by terrorists, as the most likely catastrophic threat because “the critical materials necessary for the development of nuclear bombs still reside primarily within state control due to the difficulty of their manufacturing. So while globalization may make these materials more accessible — in that it is easier to acquire, manipulate, and deliver nuclear materials than ever before — it is still difficult and likely not something that could be repeated with any frequency.”

By contrast, “biotechnology is improving at rates equal or better than Moore’s law.” As a result, “very soon, in less than a decade, the technologies necessary for individuals to build catastrophic pathogens will be cheap and widely available.” He cites Robert Carlson’s “The Pace and Proliferation of Biological Technologies” and its warning that “work that used to require a PhD a couple of years ago is now accomplished by lightly trained technicians.”

Not exactly cheery stuff but likely correct. The only good news is that biological agents remain very difficult to employ successfully, making it more likely that would-be terrorists will kill themselves than large numbers of innocents. Still, it seems likely that a successful biological attack will happen sooner rather than later.

FILED UNDER: Science & Technology, Terrorism, , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Alex Knapp says:

    By contrast, “biotechnology is improving at rates equal or better than Moore’s law.” As a result, “very soon, in less than a decade, the technologies necessary for individuals to build catastrophic pathogens will be cheap and widely available.”

    I did a paper in college on this topic about 10 years ago, and the same breathless experts were THEN predicting “catastrophic agents” within 10 years. It’s 10 years later, and we still haven’t seen them.

    From a pure cost-effectiveness perspective, it’s way easier to manufacture conventional explosives, chemical weapons or even a dirty bomb than it is to manufacture bioagents and, more importantly, an effective delivery system for said agents.

    The fact of the matter is that America would be really tough to hit with any kind of significant biological attack. The first reason is geographic–Americans are pretty spread out from each other, from our work, etc. The second reason is cultural–Americans are second only to the Japanese when it comes to personal hygeine, and compared to most other cultures, we don’t do a lot of touching of strangers–tending instead to standoff in our own personal space. All of these factors severely impact the effective delivery of any sort of bioweapon.

    I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the risk of bioweapons is VASTLY overhyped and VASTLY overstated. Additionally, America’s medical resources to deal with a mass epidemic are vastly UNDERRATED.

    Look at it this way: the last severe disease epidemic to hit the United States was AIDS, and even that only hit a relatively small portion of the population and is now pretty much contained. Before that, you have to go all the way back to the flu pandemic of 1918–and medicine has come a LONG way since then.

    The threat of biological weapons sounds cool and scary, but terrorists have much more effecitve and cheaper ways to attack targets in their arsenal. Let’s worry about them.

  2. DC Loser says:

    I’m not so much worried about a BW attack, but rather a biological attack against our food source, the agricultural products we need to live. If our food can be contaminated or be taken away, it’s gonna be real ugly.

  3. legion says:

    While the basic tools of biotechnology may be getting more common, that’s a byproduct of technological innovation, and cannot be stopped any more than you can stop the growing number of bad blogs on the ‘net thanks to easy blog-building tools (present company excepted, of course 🙂

    One of the reasons AIDS hasn’t killed everyone on the planet is that its’ transmission vector (bodily fluids) is too limited – even US culture isn’t quite _that_ sex-driven. One of the reasons Ebola hasn’t killed everyone on the planet is that it incubates & kills too quickly – it burns through hosts faster than they can spread the infection. An engineered bioweapon might kill a mess of people, but I don’t know that we have the understanding to really cause more havoc with such things than we could with conventional bombs, etc. I think DC Loser has it right in that the greater damage would be the economic & social side-effects of a bio-attack, more than the attack itself…

  4. legion says:

    Also, just what is a “superempowered” terrorist? Is Oprah getting into the bioweapons racket?

    “There’s a surprise under your seat…”

  5. cin........... says:

    Bloomberg and Hilly just tested for natural gas. So, why the attacks on the rails in Canada and Chemical manufacturers in the US the same day(classified infrastructures)? This is older than Bill!

    Well, I guess all the dead from the 9/11 dust is okay. No law suits. No money from the goevernment. No tests for anything but natrual gas……….