A um Shinrikyo’s terrorism of 10 years ago has traditionally been viewed though a domestic political prism, one that saw the act as the outgrowth of a uniquely Japanese set of circumstances. In fact, Aum was a harbinger of the future: It was less interested in political theater than killing large numbers of people and intimidating the Tokyo government. The assault exposed vulnerabilities in responding to a bio-terror attack. Remarkably, many of those problems have not been fixed.
On March 20, 1995, five members of the Aum Shinrikyo cult punctured plastic bags filled with sarin nerve gas on Tokyo subways during the morning rush hour in an attempt to paralyze the government of Japan and sow terror in the capital. The attack failed. The cult intended to kill thousands of people; instead, only 12 people died, although 5,000 others were hospitalized.
The Aum attack was the most high-profile bio-terror assault in modern history, but there have been others. A cult in Oregon laced a salad bar with salmonella in an attempt to influence local elections. No one died, but the attack again made plain how vulnerable most communities are. Unknown groups or individuals have sent anthrax and other biological agents through the U.S. and British mail. Again, the number of fatalities has been small, but vulnerabilities were made apparent.
Interpol Secretary General Ronald Noble warns that “there is no criminal threat with greater potential danger to all countries, regions and people in the world than the threat of bio-terrorism.” More disturbing still, law enforcement officials now believe that such an attack is inevitable. Al-Qaeda has said it intends to launch biological attacks.
Terrorist groups have and continue to make efforts to procure biological agents as well as the materials and knowhow that would enable them to make such weapons. Before leaving office, Mr. Tommy Thompson, the former U.S. secretary of Health and Human Services, noted that he could not “understand why terrorists have not attacked our food supply because it is so easy to do.”
A biological attack could take many forms: contaminating food or water supplies, delivering a biological agent to a community, or even sending someone with an infectious disease on a round-the-world airplane trip. One circumnavigation would infect countless thousands of people.
Despite the warnings, most countries are dangerously ill-prepared for biological attacks. Mr. Noble concedes that “there is no crime area where the police generally have as little training than in preventing or responding to bio-terrorist attacks.” Most countries do not have sufficient supplies of vaccines for the viruses most likely to be used as biological weapons, such as smallpox. While some countries such as the United States and France have reserves of some vaccines, they are short of others.
Worse, simulations have shown that governments are reluctant to release their supplies to other affected countries in times of crisis. The World Health Organization has 2.5-million dose stockpile of smallpox vaccine as part of precautions against a biological terrorism attack, but that is hardly sufficient.
The threat of bio-terrorism can only be met by international cooperation and coordination. Germs are indifferent to borders, and the increasing linkages of the global economy ensure that disease, like goods, will be transmitted around the world in a very efficient manner. Just learning how to quickly identify a biological attack is a crucial step in stopping its spread.
Law enforcement agencies must work together to identify threats, and design ways to counter attacks. Intelligence agencies must join that effort. Real success will require input from health professionals, first responders and other agencies. Researchers must be ready to respond to the first signs of an outbreak, to capture and identify contagions and then figure out the best vaccine for them. That work requires facilities that are expensive and hard to maintain.
Interpol has set up a special unit and information center to combat bio-terror, and is sponsoring training workshops for law enforcement professionals. Far more financial and institutional support is needed. Local and national governments must prepare for ways to respond to an attack. International coordination can help distill the best practices and share practical knowledge.
Japan has several programs to help build Asia’s capacity to fight bio-terrorism. It sponsors seminars on crisis management, coordinates among counterterrorist organizations, and helps other governments control the spread of technologies that can be used to develop such weapons. One of the most important things Japan can do is help raise regional awareness of the threat posed by bio-terrorism and thus dispel the attitude that such problems cannot happen here. Aum is proof that it can.
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