- The Washington Times - Friday, January 15, 2010

By Daniel M. Gerstein
Naval Institute Press, $25.95, 288 pages


If the Nigerian Christmas crotch bomber had been infected with a deadly biological disease rather than wearing an explosive diaper, he likely would have caused a pandemic of worldwide proportions. Every person on the ground in Amsterdam and Detroit would have in turn become an unknowing terrorist weapon. Passengers leaving the plane in Detroit and changing planes likelywould have infected people in a wide variety locations through the United States and Canada.

This is the inadvertent impact of globalization on the potential use of biological warfare by international terrorists described by Daniel M. Gerstein in his book “Bioterror in the 21st Century.” He points to a chilling autobiography by one of Osama bin Laden’s sons, in which the son notes the anguish he and his brothers and sisters felt at watching their pets used for biological weapons experiments. This is a very real threat.

There are three elements of weapons of mass destruction. Chemical warfare is the easiest for terrorists to employ but has the least potential to inflict terror on the grand scale desired by the likes of bin Laden. Nuclear weapons are very hard to do for terrorists, although they have the greatest potential for horror. Biological weapons have a high potential to create large-scale casualties while being somewhat easier to turn into weapons than nuclear material. The operative word here is “somewhat.” Effective biological warfare is extremely difficult to conduct, as Mr. Gerstein points out.

Mr. Gerstein begins with a history of biological warfare and takes us through the tangled world that finally led to the anthrax attacks of 2001. Along the way, we come to understand why biological agents have not been used in conventional warfare more often. Targeting has been difficult, and they usually are slow-acting in taking effect. However, they historically have been nondiscriminatory. Infectious diseases pose a threat to one’s own troops, reducing their tactical value, and noninfectious ones have limited strategic value.

The book points out that much of this potentially can change in the near future. Nanotechnology has the potential to make biological weapons much more selective of their targets, and globalization makes distribution much easier and faster. These, combined with the tendency of emerging biological agents to have dual uses, for both benign and hostile purposes, make them much more attractive as weapons of terror than as conventional weapons of war by nation-states.

In one scenario that Mr. Gerstein postulates, innocent biotechnical researchers are conned by terrorists posing as colleagues to give up secrets pertaining to peaceful purposes in order to speed the terrorists’ development of a very serious biological weapon. At the end of the book, the author gives some policy recommendations. They are common sense, and most have appeared in other reports. Policy wonks looking for footnotes for research should turn to the last chapter.

The author has credible experience in the field and several books under his belt on the subject. However, this is not a book for those only casually interested in bioterror. It has a number of difficult-to-read charts that apparently are lifted from lectures the author has given on the subject; these give it a textbooklike feel, and perhaps that is intended. If it is intended as a textbook, the author’s advocacy of gaming theory as the primary tool for the analysis of biological-defense courses of action weakens its capacity in that area.

Gaming theory has its limitations, and it tends to push the user toward quantification of existing tools rather than critical and creative approaches to deal with both deterrence and mitigation of terrorist uses of biological weapons. This reviewer would have been more comfortable with a menu of approaches to include red-team (alternative analysis) war gaming as a way of giving us a menu of options for dealing with the problem. Mr. Gerstein handles this by putting a tutorial in an appendix. The book will appeal to a limited audience. Despite the inclusion of gaming theory, it probably could be used as a text in a college or war college course in arms control.

Perhaps the most frightening thing about this subject is that the most likely terrorists in the near future are not near illiterate peasants. They are generally well educated but disaffected young Muslim men whose job and marital ambitions seem limited in their parent societies. Some are trained biochemists and biotechnical experts, exactly the kind of people bin Laden is looking to let loose on his next batch of pups

Gary Anderson is a retired Marine Corps officer who teaches a course in alternative analysis (red teaming) at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University.

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