During the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, the media warned breathlessly of “chatter” that terrorists—domestic and international—were planning to exploit and spread the virus. So far no such plots have developed, but a former CIA officer warns that the lessons terrorists have learned from the inept and politicized response to the pandemic, if exploited, may be more dangerous to us than terrorist use of the virus itself.
In his chapter for a new book published by the Center for Security Policy, Defending Against BioThreats: What We Can Learn from the Coronavirus Pandemic to Enhance U.S. Defenses Against Pandemics and Biological Weapons, Charles Faddis argues that the pandemic has exposed several weaknesses likely to be exploited in the future by terrorists planning bio-terror attacks.
Establishing a serious bioweapons program has long been a goal of international terror groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS, although both groups have made attempts with minimal success. In 2009, an al-Qaeda cell in Algeria reportedly was wiped out by bubonic plague in a bioweapons project that went badly for the jihadist group. In 2014, an ISIS laptop captured in Syria revealed proposals surrounding bioweapons, including a fatwa authorizing the use of weapons of mass destruction.
One important lesson terrorists are likely to learn from COVID? The demonstrably weak security of biolabs. As Faddis illustrates, the failure at the Wuhan laboratory, from where COVID-19 is believed to have escaped, is the rule rather than the exception. Poor security is likely to make stealing, rather than developing, a bioweapon the preferred method of future terrorist efforts.
Control over dangerous organisms communicable to humans was tenuous at best. If an organism can escape from a biolab without assistance due to poor practices and shortage in trained personnel and equipment, it also could be stolen. The need for the establishment of an independent bioweapons program by a terrorist group is eliminated if dangerous pathogens can simply be taken.
But the COVID-19 outbreak also shows what can be done with naturally occurring organisms released and spread by normal human to human contact.
As a result, terrorists are likely to realize they have wasted time and effort emphasizing research on weaponizing organisms, when simply spreading a naturally occurring disease through what Faddis calls “biological martyrs,” may be sufficient to cause worldwide disruption. That is particularly true if major air travel and borders remain open due to political reasons, as was the case between Iran and China, and would have been true in the United States as well if President Trump had not taken swift action to close the border despite pressure not to.
The lockdowns and social and political unrest related to the COVID-19 pandemic also make clear that terrorists can achieve significant aims even without the risks and higher security surrounding access to pathogens with high lethality rates. For al-Qaeda in particular, economic devastation has often been as motivating as mass casualties in determining their target priorities.
Much needs to be done to improve U.S. biodefense to combat this threat, particularly when it comes to international cooperation.
Part of the problem, Faddis says, is that for the United States, and many other countries, early detection of pandemics is premised on international cooperation among scientists and policymakers. But the obstructive role played by China and—at Chinese insistence—the World Health Organization (WHO) during the COVID-19 crisis raises serious questions about how we prepare for future pandemics.
As Faddis notes, previous tabletop exercises used by government officials to prepare to control pandemics have assumed all parties are willing and cooperative participants. They rarely consider the possibility that there may be deliberate efforts to spread the disease either by terrorists, or by a state sponsor. In retrospect, that assumption is a disastrous one. He writes,
Encouraging cooperation and information sharing is essential. We dare not, though, rely upon the good graces of hostile regimes for our survival. We should have had blanket intelligence coverage of the biolabs in Wuhan and known about any issues in security or safety in real time. We must do whatever is necessary to ensure that we have that kind of coverage of labs from which future pandemics may emanate.
Another example where competition rather than cooperation rules during a pandemic is in the acquisition of personal protective equipment (PPE). While the United States had programs intended to stockpile PPE for pandemic threats, those stockpiles were substantially depleted under the Obama Administration and had not been restocked.
When the pandemic hit, the United States found itself competing with other nations to acquire the necessary gear. This was complicated by covert Chinese efforts to buy up PPE as well as multiple cases of Chinese companies distributing defective or mislabeled equipment. Faddis emphasizes the need to bring manufacturing of critical PPE back to U.S. shores as a necessary step for defending against the next pandemic.
One truism of the terrorism world is that tactics that work are sure to be repeated. While COVID-19 was not driven by terrorists, events clearly have demonstrated the economic, psychological, and societal impact a major pandemic can create. It would be irrational to assume that terrorists will not attempt to duplicate those results through the lessons they have observed during the current crisis. If we are to prevent such threats, we must learn as well.