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13. Biological weapons and potential indicators of offensive biological weapon activities



I. Introduction

II. What defines a biological weapon?

III. Offensive and defensive biological warfare activities

IV. Ways of identifying weapon-related activities

V. Conclusions


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Rapid developments in science, particularly in biotechnology, could be a driving force encouraging states to pursue a biological weapon (BW) capacity and opening new possibilities for potential future military or terrorist misuse. The free access to genetic sequence data for the human genome and a large number of other genomes, including for pathogenic micro-organisms, is a great scientific resource, but it could pose a significant threat if misused. Researchers now have standard methodologies for altering an organism’s genetic make-up, including modifications to increase antibiotic resistance, heighten pathogenicity, increase aerosol stability or alter epitopes on organisms important for identification/diagnosis. Rapid progress in biotechnology could lead to a new class of biological warfare agents that would be engineered to target specific human biological systems—such as the cardiovascular, immunological, neurological and gastrointestinal systems—at the molecular level, thereby shifting the focus from traditional biological warfare agents.


The combination of the increased movement of people, knowledge and products across borders as well as the greater availability of expertise and information via the Internet has made it easier to acquire BW materials and know-how. In the past five years the threat from biological weapons and bio-terrorism has undergone a marked change owing to the attention given to it by politicians and the media and to a perceived enhanced risk of mass-casualty, transnational terrorism using weapons of mass destruction.


Aerosol dissemination of disease; waterborne diseases that are disseminated via water distribution systems; biological attacks on crops, cattle and the food industry; and product tampering can all harm people or cause economic damage. Agents can also be disseminated using simple technology, but the low efficiency of such methods would not cause mass casualties. Technical knowledge and special equipment would be required to carry out an attack that would cause mass casualties and, thus far, there have been few cases where dangerous pathogens have been used by terrorists. There have been a number of cases where individuals have tried to acquire and use biological agents, but these can mostly be classified as criminal cases rather than terrorism. There have been numerous claims that al-Qaeda and the Taliban have demonstrated an interest in acquiring and using BW but such reports are ambiguous. In addition, there is the risk of the use of biological warfare in armed conflicts by states or non-state actors.


The difficulties involved in gathering reliable intelligence and trying to assess whether a country is pursuing a BW programme have been clearly demonstrated in the case of Iraq. The full extent of its programme has not yet been clarified despite detailed analysis and many intrusive inspections.


These examples of sensitive research demonstrate how difficult it is to distinguish between permitted and prohibited activities under the 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC). All of the examples can be motivated for defensive reasons and thus are permitted. There is, however, the problem of how and by whom these research results are later used. The scientists who work in a bio-defence programme have a crucial role in preventing their research from passing the limits set by the BTWC and in ensuring that ethical codes for scientific work are adhered to and that any drift towards offensive work is prevented, which can occur if oversight and transparency are inadequate. It is also very difficult to externally monitor activities to ensure that no offensive activities are being carried out if visits or inspections are not allowed, although a number of potential indicators can be monitored together with other sources of information. Each potential indicator of offensive activities can, together with other indicators, point towards offensive biological activities. This is why careful monitoring is required.


Transparency in the rapidly developing field of bio-defence research and development is crucial in order to build confidence between states that new technologies are not being misused. One way could be to begin to elaborate further on the BTWC’s confidence-building measures and information exchanges and convert them to mandatory declarations of current and past programmes.



Roger Roffey (Sweden) is Director of Research at the Swedish Defence Research Agency (FOI), Division of Nuclear, Biological and Chemical (NBC) Weapon Defence. He also works at the Swedish Ministry of Defence (MOD) on NBC weapon policy questions. He has been a technical expert for the Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention disarmament negotiations in Geneva and in the Australia Group for 15 years and was a United Nations Special Commission inspector in Iraq. His main areas of study are international developments and arms control related to biological weapons and bioterrorism, and threat reduction initiatives in Russia.