Spores: The Threat of a Catastrophic Attack on America

In 2001, shortly after the September 11th attacks, letters containing a highly virulent strain of anthrax were mailed to addresses in Florida, New York, and Washington, D.C.  Five people died, and to this day the source of the attacks remains a mystery. One positive result of the 2001 anthrax attacks, however, was that the U.S. government conducted a threat assessment in recent years on the possibility of new terrorist attacks against America with anthrax weapons, but the assessment report is ified and unavailable to the general public. To fill the vacuum, ExecutiveAction developed its own threat assessment: Spores: The Threat of a Catastrophic Attack on America.  The ExecutiveAction monograph relies on open-source material and interviews with policymakers and scientists. It updates what the United States already knew about al Qaeda’s past efforts to build an anthrax weapon, and the organization’s ability to do so now.  It also examines not only the challenges terrorists face to develop or gain access to an anthrax weapon but also America’s preparedness to respond in the event of a strike. Three dramatic scenarios are provided in the monograph that demonstrate both the U.S. vulnerability to a terrorist attack with a small amount of anthrax and the potential devastation – in terms of casualties and economic harm – that probably would result from such an attack. Below are some of the key findings of the monograph:

  • The United States faces a high risk of an attack by terrorists armed with some type of an anthrax weapon.  Al Qaeda sought to build such a weapon in the late One gram of anthrax shut down the U.S. Senate’s Hart Office Building for five months in 2001; the decontamination costs reached tens of millions of dollars 1990s, but was disrupted by the war in Afghanistan.  Since then, the terrorist organization has regrouped and now has a new safe haven in Northwestern Pakistan, where it is attempting to restart its program to develop non-conventional weapons, including anthrax.
  • Doctors and other educated professionals are joining the frontlines of the jihad against the West.  These professionals have both the financial resources and scientific expertise needed to build at least a crude anthrax weapon, which requires minimal laboratory equipment and access to a lethal strain of Bacillus anthracis, the bacteria that causes anthrax.
  • An anthrax weapon does not have to be elegantly “weaponized” to be effective.  As long as virulent anthrax spores enter a victim’s lungs, they can replicate and produce death.
  • A terrorist attack with only a small amount of anthrax can cause significant casualties and severe economic harm.  One gram of anthrax – i.e., about as much as could be contained in a sugar packet – shut down the U.S. Senate’s Hart Office Building for five months in 2001; the decontamination costs reached tens of millions of dollars. 
  • No one died from the mailings to senators because the anthrax was quickly detected and everyone in the building received antibiotics, which are effective if taken soon after exposure. 
  • The most easily recognized symptoms from an anthrax infection – aches, fever, and a cough – do not normally appear for several days.  By then, the disease has progressed to the point that antibiotics are largely ineffective.  Had the attack on Capitol Hill not been detected until symptoms appeared, it would have been too late for treatment with antibiotics and many people would have died.
  • Today, more than six years after the United States experienced an attack with anthrax, the nation remains largely unprepared for and defenseless against a new attack.
  • To protect against a future anthrax attack, the United States must have available, beforehand, not only antibiotics but also therapeutics (which provide protection after antibiotics lose their effectiveness) and a vaccine.
  • Time is of the essence. Even after the government awards a contract for an anthrax therapeutic or a new vaccine, it can take years to complete the required manufacturing, conduct safety and efficacy trials, satisfy FDA (Food and Drug Administration) requirements, and produce and stockpile the drugs required in the quantities likely to be needed.
  • Procuring therapeutics and a new vaccine will reduce the potential severity of an anthrax attack. Although costly, the expense involved is far less than the cost of the economic damage that probably would result from a single attack involving only a small amount of anthrax.

The conclusion is both obvious, and compelling: To protect the United States from a potential terrorist attack, Congress and the Administration should immediately review the progress made to date and then take all of the steps necessary to accelerate efforts to prepare for a potential second strike that would be much more devastating, in every respect, than the first one.

Neil C. Livingstone
Neil C. Livingstone

Dr. Neil C. Livingstone, chairman and CEO of ExecutiveAction LLC and an internationally respected expert in terrorism and counterterrorism, homeland defense, foreign policy, and national security, has written nine books and more than 200 articles in those fields. A gifted speaker as well as writer, he has made more than 1300 television appearances, delivered over 500 speeches both in the United States and overseas, and testified before Congress on numerous occasions. He holds three Masters Degrees as well as a Ph.D. from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. He was the founder and, prior to assuming his present post, CEO of GlobalOptions Inc., which went public in 2005 and currently has sales of more than $80 million.



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