The report that some forty al-Qaeda terrorists died after the bubonic plague swept through their Algerian training camp has been treated with some glee in the media. But that schadenfreude may be misplaced. One question being investigated is whether the North African fanatics fell victim to the naturally-occurring pathogen or the possibility the group mistakenly released the killer bug while brewing it for terror attacks. This incident provides the Obama administration the impetus to assess whether our nation is prepared for a bioterrorist attack.
The Algerian terrorist franchise, al-Qaeda in the land of the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), is the largest al-Qaeda group outside the Middle East. AQIM has a deadly terrorism record and a declared intention to attack American targets which makes the potential bioterrorism threat credible but not a surprise for American experts.
Last year, Dr. Jeffrey Runge, chief medical officer at the US Department of Homeland Security, told Congress that the risk of a large-scale biological attack on the nation is significant and the US knows its terrorist enemies have sought biological weapons. Runge said al-Qaeda is the most significant threat.
Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden has long shown an active interest in biological weapons. In the late 1990s, bin Laden set-up 19 chemical and biological weapons laboratories in Afghanistan stocking them with deadly pathogens: anthrax, plague, and botulinum toxins. He hired Ukrainian and Russian experts to train his people and, according to then-CIA director George Tenet, bin Laden trained his operatives “…to conduct attacks with toxic chemicals or biological toxins.”
The group’s biological weapons expert, Midhat Mursi al-Sayid Umar, who was reportedly killed by a US missile in 2008, published a 5,000-page encyclopedia of jihad devoted to chemical biological warfare (CBW). Al-Sayid’s manual, which is available in print and on the Internet, provides instructions on how to manufacture rudimentary biological weapons.
The availability of al-Sayid’s CBW cookbook makes it possible for independent jihadist cells like the AQIM to attempt to manufacture rudimentary biological weapons. That’s why it shouldn’t be a surprise when there are attempts to manufacture agents by franchise groups such as the 2003 incident in London where six Algerians were charged with plotting to produce the poison ricin and the 2005 French government claim that al-Qaeda cells in the Pankisi Gorge region of Georgia are producing anthrax bacteria, ricin, and botulinum toxin.
Any bioterror attack on America will likely come from suicidal jihadists armed with small containers of toxins made in remote sites like AQIM’s training camps rather than pathogen-filled bombs launched from rockets, because weaponizing biological agents is very difficult. It requires the manufacturer to isolate the virulent strain, convert it into a weaponized form and then integrate it with a weapon system that can evenly distribute the agent in lethal doses to the intended targets.
A bioterrorist attack would go something like the following. A lone suicidal bioterrorist could cause significant suffering by spreading killer agents in a public place — dumping a vile of anthrax spores in a ventilation system or subway — or even more sinister, contaminate himself with the bubonic plague and then cough and sneeze the deadly plague in a closed area like an airplane or office building.
It could be 36 hours after a terrorist spreads anthrax or up to a week after someone is exposed to bubonic plague before victims become ill with classical symptoms. That’s why health care providers must be alert to identify the threat and notify public officials. Quick action will save many lives, but the cost could be high.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that an intentional release of anthrax by a bioterrorist in a major city could result in an economic impact of up to $26 billion per 100,000 persons exposed.
The AQIM incident came to light when Algerian security forces found the bubonic plague-riddled body of a known terrorist by a roadside. Reportedly, AQIM chiefs fear the highly contagious plague has spread to other terror cells because some of the nearly 1,000 Algerian insurgents abandoned the contaminated camp for others in Morocco, Tunisia and Nigeria.
The Sun, a British newspaper, broke the AQIM story on January 19th. The paper reported that the epidemic began in AQIM’s camp 90 miles east of the capital Algiers. The group turned the camp’s shelters into mass graves and fled, reported the Sun.
The plague, also known as “black death,” is believed to have killed an estimated 75-200 million people in the 14th century. Today, the World Health Organization reports several thousand cases a year, mainly in southern Asia, Africa and Central America.
The killer bug is caused by a bacterial agent, yersinia pestis, which infects rodents, producing blood poisoning. Fleas that feed on the dying rodents carry the toxic bacteria to humans. This may explain how AQIM terrorists contracted the pathogen if not from a terror weapon mishap.
Left untreated by antibiotics, the plague’s symptoms begin with a headache, then chills and fever which lead to exhaustion. The condition may include nausea, vomiting, back pain, soreness in the arms and legs. Swellings, called buboes, which give the bubonic plague its name, appear around the lymph nodes — the neck, arms and inner thighs. They are hard knobs that turn black, split open to ooze pus and blood. The survival rate among the untreated is small.
Both offensive and defensive programs must be in place to reduce the likelihood of a successful bioterrorist attack launched by groups like AQIM or homegrown radicals.
The best offensive effort is to shutdown bioterrorists at the source. That’s why the possibility that AQIM is working on deadly pathogens matters. Our special operation forces working with allies and friendly governments must eliminate threats before they mature.
But trying to stop threats at the source is insufficient. Our borders must be guarded with special biological agent sensors which are still under development. That places the burden on our border guards who must recognize clinical symptoms and deny access or quarantine suspect visitors.
Fortunately, we have in place the beginning of an effective bioterrorist response program. In 1997, Congress passed the Defense Against Weapons of Mass Destruction Act which established the Chemical and Biological Incident Response Force (CBIFR) unit based in Camp Lejeune, NC. The CBIFR is the nation’s self-contained and self-sufficient unit for responding to CBW attacks. Its back-up force includes the National Guard’s 52 weapons of mass destruction civil support teams, but these 22-man units only advise first responders and that’s the nation’s CBW Achilles heel.
Most city fire departments have the responsibility to provide first response to CBW attacks but too often that capability is underfunded. Small cities and towns may have no response capability at all. Besides, few US hospitals can handle a mass casualty scenario and most hospitals have very limited capability to decontaminate patients.
The fact is that America isn’t prepared for most catastrophic disasters. Paul McHale, assistant secretary of defense for homeland defense and America’s security affairs, claims that the nation is only prepared to respond to a pandemic flu and a major hurricane.
Our preparedness for a bioterrorist attack was tested by the September 2001 anthrax contaminated letter incident. A handful of anthrax contaminated letters resulted in approximately 32,000 persons with potential exposures taking antibiotic prophylaxis to prevent anthrax infections and the attack killed five people.
That incident was quickly exposed because it involved congressional officials who are provided special protection. Likely, had the anthrax letters gone to ordinary offices, the attack would not have been exposed as early and many more people would have died.
The Algerian bubonic plague incident should be a wake-up for the Obama administration to reassess its bioterrorism preparedness. Enemies such as al Qaeda and its franchises are almost certainly producing deadly biological weapons and will use them for mass murder. America must be aggressive in defeating the bioterrorist before he attacks and should that fail our network of first responders must be prepared for a potentially catastrophic attack.
Mr. Maginnis is a retired Army lieutenant colonel, a national security and foreign affairs analyst for radio and television and a senior strategist with the U.S. Army.