Exaggerating the Threat of Bioterrorism

Proliferation Analysis
The threat of bioterrorism has been greatly exaggerated. There are fewer state bioweapons programs today than 15 years ago and to date, no state is known to have assisted any nonstate or terrorist group to obtain biological weapons.
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The threat of bioterrorism has been greatly exaggerated. There are fewer state bioweapons programs today than 15 years ago and to date, no state is known to have assisted any nonstate or terrorist group to obtain biological weapons. Milton Leitenberg is one of America’s leading scientific experts on biological weapons.  He is a senior research scholar at the University of Maryland and has been writing in the field for nearly 40 years.  His report “Assessing the Biological Weapons and Bioterrorism Threat,” published by the U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute provides a much-needed antidote to the pervasive exaggeration of the bioterrorism threat.

Leitenberg notes at the beginning of his report:


For the past decade the risk and imminence of the use of biological agents by nonstate actors/terrorist organizations—“bioterrorism”—has been systematically and deliberately exaggerated. In the last year or two, the drumbeat had picked up. It may however become moderated by the more realistic assessment of the likelihood of the onset of a natural flu pandemic, and the accompanying realization that the U.S. Government has been using the overwhelming proportion of its relevant resources to prepare for the wrong contingency.


Leitenberg points out that there are fewer state bioweapons programs today than 15 years ago and “to date, no state is known to have assisted any nonstate or terrorist group to obtain biological weapons.”  Additionally, “there is no justification for imputing to real world terrorist groups capabilities in the biological sciences that they do not possess.” 


According to Leitenberg, the exaggeration of the threat developed as “bioterrorism” became an all-encompassing term for any biological weapon use, be it by state or non-state actors.  He writes, 


That simple switch in language made it easy to transfer levels of state capability to “terrorists.”  Everything became and was referred to as “bioterrorism.” This wiped out any discrimination, or attempt to discriminate, between the relevant capabilities of state programs and existing terrorist groups as they are known to date. 


The perceived threats were blown out of proportion:


The possibility of incidents involving low numbers of casualties evolved in 2 or 3 years to “mass casualty” terrorism, and in several more years to “Apocalyptic Terrorism.” Generic terrorist groups…were endowed with the prospective ability to genetically engineer pathogens. Yet the resources and capabilities available to states and to terrorist groups are vastly different. 


His carefully written monograph puts the bioterrorism threat in context with other pressing problems, such as malaria, tuberculosis, and HIV/AIDS (that together kill 5 million people a year), diarrheal diseases (kill 3.5 million a year), and smoking (kills 5 million people a year) – not to mention the massive casualties from a possible pandemic flu outbreak. 


Leitenberg systematically dissects the inflated assumptions behind scenarios used as the basis for bioterrorism gaming exercises in the US.  For example, the 2001 Dark Winter exercise, a scenario involving aerosolized smallpox, “used a person-to-person secondary transmission rate (RO) of 10, three times the historical average of three.”  The 2005 Atlantic Storm exercise made “grossly misleading assumptions” about the ease of creating and then dispersing the same biological agent, again a dry powder smallpox preparation, a feat that neither the US nor Soviet BW programs ever achieved. 


Is bioterrorism, as Dr. Tara O’Toole, head of the Center of Biosecurity at the University of Pittsburgh says, “one of the most pressing problems that we have on the planet today.”?  Leitenberg concludes, “No.  Absolutely not.”


This is a must-read for all who want to understand the interplay of biological weapons, terrorism and global threats. 


Related Links: 


Assessing the Biological Weapons and Bioterrorism Threat,” Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College (December 2005)


Bioterrorism, Hyped,” LA Times op-ed by Milton Leitenberg (17 February, 2006)


Bioweapons,” Book Review of Leitenberg’s book The Problem of Biological Weapons (2004) 



End of document

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Source http://carnegieendowment.org/2006/03/16/exaggerating-threat-of-bioterrorism/47g2

In Fact



of the Chinese general public

believe their country should share a global leadership role.


of Indian parliamentarians

have criminal cases pending against them.


charter schools in the United States

are linked to Turkey’s Gülen movement.


thousand tons of chemical weapons

are in North Korea’s possession.


of import tariffs

among Chile, Colombia, Mexico, and Peru have been eliminated.


trillion a year

is unaccounted for in official Chinese income statistics.


of GDP in oil-exporting Arab countries

comes from the mining sector.


of Europeans and Turks

are opposed to intervention in Syria.


of Russian exports to China

are hydrocarbons; machinery accounts for less than 1%.


of undiscovered oil

is in the Arctic.


U.S. government shutdowns

occurred between 1976 and 1996.


of Ukrainians

want an “international economic union” with the EU.


million electric bicycles

are used in Chinese cities.


of the world’s energy supply

is consumed by cities.


of today’s oils

require unconventional extraction techniques.


of the world's population

will reside in cities by 2050.


of Syria’s population

is expected to be displaced by the end of 2013.


of the U.S. economy

is consumed by healthcare.


of Brazilian protesters

learned about a massive rally via Facebook or Twitter.


million cases pending

in India’s judicial system.

1 in 3


now needs urgent assistance.


political parties

contested India’s last national elections.


of Egypt's labor force

works in the private sector.


of oil consumed in the United States

is for the transportation sector.


of Chechnya’s pre-1994 population

has fled to different parts of the world.


of oil consumed in China

was from foreign sources in 2012.


billion in goods and services

traded between the United States and China in 2012.


billion in foreign investment and oil revenue

have been lost by Iran because of its nuclear program.


increase in China’s GDP per capita

between 1972 and today.


billion have been spent

to complete the Bushehr nuclear reactor in Iran.


of Iran’s electricity needs

is all the Bushehr nuclear reactor provides.



were imprisoned in Turkey as of August 2012 according to the OSCE.

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