In a significant development, France has issued international arrest warrants for Syria’s president, his brother, and two high-ranking officials. The warrants are tied to alleged chemical weapon use in Douma and the Eastern Ghouta district in August 2013, resulting in over 1,000 casualties. Despite Syria’s denial, a joint UN and Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons inquiry confirmed the use of sarin and chlorine by the Syrian government.
Chemical weapons, categorised as Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD), have a haunting historical impact. Crafted to exploit human vulnerabilities, these instruments use toxins and chemicals with the intent to cause rapid death or injury.
Chlorine gas, a pioneering chemical weapon, leaves devastating effects, showcasing the brutality of such arms. Its interaction with lung lining produces Hydrochloric acid, causing internal burns and irreversible damage to vital organs. Most chemical weapons share a common trait of immediate lethality, inducing irritation, blisters, and harm to respiratory organs. Their insidious nature allows them to seep into the bloodstream, causing systemic harm.
The weaponization of chlorine gas during World War I marked a dark era in human history, introducing monstrous inventions. Over subsequent decades, these lethal creations fueled massacres and claimed thousands of lives, setting a troubling precedent for the evolution of increasingly destructive weapons, posing enduring threats to global security. Now, with international arrest warrants issued, the quest for accountability unfolds in the aftermath of alleged chemical attacks.
The Premise of Bio-weapons
Throughout the past century, open sources indicate that over 500 million people succumbed to infectious diseases, with tens of thousands falling victim to the deliberate release of pathogens or toxins. The Japanese, notably during their attacks on China in World War II, played a significant role in these intentional releases. Despite the existence of international treaties outlawing biological weapons in 1925 and 1972, they have proven insufficient to curb countries’ pursuit of offensive weapons research and large-scale production.
The spectre of modified pathogens as potential agents for devastating biological warfare looms large, especially as our understanding of the biology of disease-causing agents—viruses, bacteria, and toxins—continues to advance.
The historical use of poisons for both assassination and military purposes stretches back to the dawn of civilization. The German army, pioneering the use of weapons of mass destruction during World War I, engaged in both biological and chemical attacks. While their forays into biological weapons were relatively small-scale and not overwhelmingly successful, they conducted covert operations involving anthrax and glanders. These operations aimed to infect animals directly or contaminate animal feed in several enemy countries.
In the aftermath of the First World War, with no enduring peace established and fueled by false and alarming intelligence reports, various European countries initiated their own biological warfare programs well before the onset of the Second World War. This historical backdrop underscores the persistent challenges and risks associated with the development and use of biological weapons on a global scale.
Delivery Mechanisms and Technological Progress
Biological weapons, with their potential for widespread harm, have been historically associated with an array of delivery systems. Past programs have engineered missiles, bombs, hand grenades, and rockets, showcasing the versatility of these weapons. Spray-tanks designed for deployment on aircraft, cars, trucks, and boats have also been developed, amplifying the range of potential delivery mechanisms. Beyond conventional weaponry, documented efforts reveal the creation of assassination and sabotage devices, including various sprays, brushes, injection systems, and methods for contaminating food and clothing.
Concerns about the acquisition or production of biological weapons extend beyond state actors. Recent technological advancements have heightened the risk of these weapons falling into the hands of non-state entities, such as individuals or terrorist organisations. The Convention faces challenges in adapting to these evolving threats, necessitating a comprehensive understanding of the latest scientific and technological developments that may be exploited for malicious purposes.
The 20th century witnessed a spectrum of biological weapon use, ranging from criminal acts and targeted assassinations by individuals and groups to state-sponsored biological warfare. Accidental releases of pathogens from laboratories added another layer of complexity to the landscape. Moreover, distinguishing between naturally occurring diseases, accidental incidents, and deliberate use became increasingly challenging, exemplified by false accusations of biological weapons use. As technological capabilities progress, the international community faces a critical imperative to stay ahead of potential threats and bolster mechanisms for prevention, detection, and response.
Bio-weapons and Terrorism
The enduring menace of biological weapons rests on their elusive nature, cost-effectiveness, and ease of production, rendering them an appealing choice for terrorists. Shockingly economical, the estimated cost of a biological weapon stands at a mere 0.05 percent of its conventional counterpart, while still capable of inflicting mass casualties per square kilometre. Utilising commonplace technology found in vaccine production, food processing, and beverage manufacturing, the production of biological warfare agents becomes deceptively straightforward.
Terrorists find a distinct advantage in the elusive nature of biological weapons. The incubation period of potential biological agents spans 3 to 7 days, allowing perpetrators to slip away before government or secret agencies can initiate investigations, providing a crucial lead time.
The advent of accessible and cost-effective gene-editing technologies, exemplified by Clustered, Regularly Interspaced, Short Palindromic Repeat (CRISPR-Cas9), introduces new concerns. This technique enables the modification of DNA sequences, raising fears that amateurs might experiment with creating dangerous bioweapons. The democratisation of such technology accentuates the risks associated with do-it-yourself biology research organisations, where rogue individuals may exploit genome editing for nefarious purposes.
A retrospective analysis reveals the persistent threat of bioterrorism. In 2002, Al-Qaeda was found planning ricin and cyanide attacks across multiple countries, demonstrating the global reach of terrorist networks. Responding to the escalating threat, a National Blueprint for Biodefense was issued in 2015, underscoring the need for comprehensive strategies to counter bioterrorism.
Despite these efforts, the challenge remains multi-faceted. The annual report of the Federal Select Agent Program highlighted 233 potential exposures of select biological agents outside primary biocontainment barriers in the U.S., emphasising vulnerabilities in the current system. While a verification system may prove effective in reducing bioterrorism, the human factor introduces significant risks. Individuals with knowledge of bio-technology facilities, whether employees or lone terrorists with security clearance, can exploit resources without proper oversight. Astonishingly, approximately 95% of accidents resulting from low security have been attributed to individuals with insider access.
As technological capabilities advance, the imperative to fortify global defences against bioterrorism becomes increasingly urgent. Striking a balance between scientific progress and security measures is essential to mitigate the evolving threats posed by biological weapons, ensuring the safety and security of populations worldwide.
(Views expressed in the article are of author’s own and do not reflect the editorial stance of Business Upturn Asia)