Related Dscussions:
  • Preventing a WMD September 11: Intelligence/legal challenges associated with one vial of a bioagent and the potential intercontinental spread of contagion.

October 2002 - Updated December 2013

Contact: Stephen M. Apatow
Founder, Director of Research & Development
Humanitarian Resource Institute (UN:NGO:DESA)
Humanitarian University Consortium Graduate Studies
Center for Medicine, Veterinary Medicine & Law
Phone: 203-668-0282
Email: s.m.apatow@humanitarian.net
Internet: www.humanitarian.net

Url: www.H-II.org


Before the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks on September 11, 2001, many international security specialists claimed terrorists were simply not interested in creating mass fatalities.  Before the October 2001 anthrax attacks in Florida, Washington, and New York, many specialists also insisted that public fears that terrorists would use weapons of mass destruction were unwarranted. [1]  Today, no one doubts that terrorists might be interested in mass destruction terrorism.

Efforts to address the global threat that now exists lies in the tools of nonproliferation, namely the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) and Comprehensive Threat Reduction (CTR).

Recently, in a direct breech of the NPT, both Pakistan and India conducted nuclear tests (1998) and now possess nuclear weapons that have required direct attention regarding their safety and security in terms of unauthorized or accidental use or accessibility to theft or seizure by terrorist groups. The complexity of containment of nuclear weapons, materials and expertise sought by proliferators requires direct action of the international community to prevent terrorist factions or unstable states from possessing nuclear weapons.  The window of vulnerability for large quantities of fissile materials (Russia's inventory through 2007) encompasses the need for counter terrorism efforts to block the formation and activities of large scale international terrorist organizations.  Current U.S. Nonproliferation programs in the former Soviet Union [2] include:

  • Material Protection, Control and Accounting (MPC&A) Program (DOE): Improving Security of 603 tons of nuclear weapons material at 53 sites and for 1000's of navel n-weapons.
  • Mayak Fissile Material Storage facility (DOD): The construction of a secure facility for 50 tons of weapons plutonium.
  • Aktau-BN-350 Breeder Reactor Project: The security of 3 tons of high quality Pu in spent fuel.
  • HEU Purchase Agreement - "Megatons to Megawatts" program (U.S. Enrichment Corporation - USEC): Purchase of 500 tons of weapons grade uranium over 20 years, blended down to non-weapons usable nuclear power plant fuel.
  • Plutonium (Pu) Disposition (DOE): The elimination of 34 tons of Russian Weapons Pu by irradiating materials as mixed oxide fuel in Russian nuclear power plants.
  • Pu Production Reactor Shut Down Agreement (DOE): End annual production of 1.8 tons (total) or weapons plutonium at three remaining Russian production reactors, while providing alternatives.
Today, the Biological weapons threat demands the development of a robust national and international infrastructure.  The creation of an advanced pathogen, either accidentally or deliberately, could pose a major threat to the well being and even the survival of the human species. [3]

In January, 2001, Australian scientists developing a contraceptive vaccine for controlling field mice populations sought to enhance the vaccines effectiveness by inserting the gene for the immune regulatory protein interleukin-4 (IL-4) into mousepox, which was being used as a carrier virus.  IL-4 is a substance that is normally produced in mice, but insertion of the IL-4 gene into the mousepox genome unexpectedly transformed the normally benign virus into a virulent strain that shut down the immune system and killed all the animals in the experiment.  In addition to rendering mousepox lethal in mice genetically resistant to the virus, the inserted gene made the mousepox vaccine ineffective - the recombinant virus killed even those mice that had previously been vaccinated. [4]  Since human beings possess the interleukin-4 gene, it is possible that inserting this gene into a poxvirus that infects humans, such as smallpox or monkeypox, could create a lethal strain that would be resistant to the existing smallpox vaccine. [5]

Current threats involving the deliberate reintroduction of smallpox as an epidemic disease would be an international crime of unprecedented proportions, but it is now regarded as a possibility. [6]  Without intervention, each person infected with smallpox could infect between 10 and 20 others in a society that had not been immunized. Epidemiologists refer to this number as the "transmission rate" of an epidemic.

A transmission rate of 20 means the first 50 victims could infect 1,000 others, and these "second generation" cases could infect 20,000 more, who would infect 400,000, and so on. The sixth generation of such a mathematical progression would be 160 million and if such a hypothetical epidemic were to occur with smallpox, that number of cases would be reached in approximately 10 weeks after the first case appeared.

The impact of a bioterrorist incident presents the challenge of mass casualties, the closure of roads, airports and waterways causing interstate and international commerce to potentially grind to a halt as containment and control becomes the priority. As economic scenarios in the global war against terrorism are assessed, the significance of a bioterrorist incident with an agent such as smallpox would present a catastrophic geopolitical challenge.


According to the paper "Assessing Risks and Crafting Responses" by Michael Barletta of the Monterey Institute of International Studies, the objective of the international community is to prevent NBC related security threats from ever materializing. [7]  This includes:

1. The prevention of unauthorized access to NBC weapons and other capabilities that can be employed for mass-destruction strikes.
2. To craft of mutually reinforcing domestic and international measures in to leverage scarce financial, human, and political resources; avoid creating loopholes or vulnerabilities that terrorists or states seeking NBC capacities can exploit; and to create multiple layers of prevention, deterrence, and defense against mass destruction threats.
3. To craft dual purpose responses that include disease surveillance and public health capabilities that offer societal benefits even in the absence of a deliberate bioweapons attack.  The scientific community also needs to deal with the problem of hazardous research, ideally through self governance.
4. The forceful interdiction to identify, disrupt, and if possible destroy terrorist organizations to prevent transnational groups from again turning prosaic tools of modern life into terrorist weapons.
5. Justice, in the context of  real and perceived violations of human rights, economic justice, political freedom, national sovereignty, and other normative values that have no automatic, direct consequences for international security. In this regard, economic development assistance may serve nonproliferation insofar as aid creates societal benefits that reduce the motivation of subnational and transnational actors to engage in terrorism or acquire mass-destruction weapons.

In conjunction with these objectives, today, the question must be asked:

If a rogue country is in possession of weapons of mass destruction, and the intelligence community has sufficient information that an imminent threat exists for a terrorist attack, does the United Nations and Security Council possess the capacity to prevent the incursion via preemptive action?

In the context of international law, Jayantha Dhanapala, Under-Secretary-General for Disarmament Affairs, United Nations, articulates:

"Perhaps the weakest area of the rule of law now concerns the issue of enforcement. It is a truism that international law lacks the police functions that are found in domestic legal systems -- it is instead a system that still relies largely upon self-help when it comes to enforcement. The ability of the UN Security Council to perform its enforcement responsibilities under the Charter is limited by its need to operate in consensus and by its practical inability to order enforcement actions -- especially involving the use of military force -- against one of its permanent members." [8]


The seriousness of the challenges facing the international community are daunting, but at the present time, a window of opportunity exists for the "peoples of the United Nations" as the ultimate units of international society to focus on the potential of the "Butterfly Effect."  Secretary General Kofi Annan [9] commented on the phenomenon during his acceptance of his Nobel Peace Prize, on 10 December, last year:

"According to scientists, the world of nature is so small and independent that a butterfly flapping its wings in the Amazon rainforest can generate a violent storm on the other side of the earth.  He noted that, for better or worse, the world of human activity also has its own "Butterfly Effect" - human actions can either save the world or destroy it."

The Humanitarian Resource Institute International Peace Center is a collaborative initiative to share information and enhance academic discussion of issues related to Crisis Management/Intervention and the prevention and settlement of conflicts between and within states, with emphasis on policy research and development.


[1] Sagan, Terrorism, Pakistan, and Nuclear Weapons, Stanford University - After 9/11: Preventing Mass-Destruction Terrorism and Weapons Proliferation, Center for Nonproliferation Studies, Occasional Paper No.8, May 2002, p. 46. 
[2] Spector, The New landscape of Nuclear Terrorism, Monterey Institute of International Studies - After 9/11: Preventing Mass-Destruction Terrorism and Weapons Proliferation, Center for Nonproliferation Studies, Occasional Paper No.8, May 2002, p. 11-12.
[3] Andrew Pollack, "Wiuth Biotechnology, a Potential to Harm," New York Times, November 27, 2001; Claire M. Fraser and Malcolm R. Dando, "Genomics and Future Biological Weapons: The Need for Preventative Action by the Biomedical Community," Nature Genetics 29 (2001), pp. 253-65.
[4] R.J.Jackson et al. (2001), "Expression of Mouse Interleukin-4 by a Recombinant Ectromelia Virus Supresses Cytolytic Lymphocyte Responses and Overcomes Genetic Resistance to Mousepox," Journal of Virology, 75 (2001), pp. 1025-10.
[5] Tucker, Regulating Scientific Research of Potential Relevance to Biological Warfare, Monterey Institute of International Studies - After 9/11: Preventing Mass-Destruction Terrorism and Weapons Proliferation, Center for Nonproliferation Studies, Occasional Paper No.8, May 2002, p. 24.
[6] Centers for Disease Control, Smallpox Reference Materials. JAMA, Smallpox as a Biological Weapon: Medical and Public Health Management, Vol. 281 No. 22, June 9, 1999.
[7] Barletta, Assessing Risks and Crafting Responses, Monterey Institute of International Studies - After 9/11: Preventing Mass-Destruction Terrorism and Weapons Proliferation, Center for Nonproliferation Studies, Occasional Paper No.8, May 2002, p. 65-66.
[8] Dhanapala, International Law, Security, and Weapons of Mass Destruction, Under-Secretary-General for Disarmament Affairs, United Nations, 2002 Spring Meeting of the Section of International Law and Practice American Bar Association.
[9] Annan, We Can Love What We Are, Without Hating What - And Who - We Are Not, UN Press Release SG/SM/8071, October 2001. 


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