The threat of bioterrorism in the post-cold war environment

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  • Published On: 02-12-2023

The threat of bioterrorism in the post-cold war environment: Comparing the preparedness of the US and EU

Aum Shinrikyo’s 1995 nerve agent sarin attack on the Tokyo subway led to an increase in the number of writers and scholars predicting similar and more serious attacks involving biological weapons of mass destruction (Smithson, 2009). Bioterrorism became a distinct possibility by the 1990s due to the exponential development of biology which made it possible for terrorists to develop bioterrorism weapons of the kind that were not thought possible before (Garrett, 2001). Indeed, since the 1990s, there has been a growing since of the possibility of use of biological weapons instead of conventional weapons for the purpose of mass destruction (Betts, 1998). A contrarian viewpoint is also provided by O'Neil (2003) who argues that there is a tendency in literature on terrorism and weapons of mass destruction to exaggerate the scope of the threat of WMD terror attacks and assuming that it is only 'a matter of time' when such attacks would be carried out. O'Neil (2003) argues that while such terrorism attacks are possibility in the real sense, there is an exaggeration on the ability of terror groups to carry out such attacks while ignoring that it is challenging to acquire WMD capabilities for delivery against targets. While O'Neil (2003) does provide this contrarian argument, he does note that the possibility of such attacks should not be ruled out. Thus, even if the literature has tended to exaggerate the possibility of terror attacks of this nature, it can be argued that there is a case made out for governments to formulate measures and responses to such kinds of terror attacks. It should be also noted that while bioterrorism attacks may be rarer as compared to traditional attacks, the impact in terms of human life may be as or more critical due to the use of biological weapons, which makes it important to draft responses to such attacks by the government (Kamp, Pilat, Stern, & Falkenrath, 1999)

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A criticism of the literature on the bioterrorism and other forms of new terrorism is made by Parachini (2003) who argues that there is a tendency to over emphasise on the unique challenges of WMD terrorism without drawing scarce resources and focus away from the more basic but essential activities to stop terrorism in the first place. Parachini (2003) argues that it is not necessary that terrorists will have recourse or even access to new forms of weapons like biological weapons and there is a need to create general responses to terrorism. However, on the other hand due to the increase in possibilities of bioterrorism as well as specific events like the Anthrax attack in 2001 in the US, there has been a strong argument made for the development of responses to counter such attacks that are based on the specific nature of bioterrorism (Ostfield, 2004). As bioterrorism is a specific kind of terrorism, an argument is made that responses to it must be derived from the specific nature of the challenges and issues involved in it (Chyba, 2002; Ostfield, 2004). The principal argument made by Chyba (2002) is that there is a need to formulate an effective strategy to address the special challenges posed by biological threats and one that does not come from misplaced analogies to nuclear or chemical weapons but recognises the specific and peculiar challenges that are involved in bioterrorism. This article also notes the significance of the preparedness of domestic defences in the light of the anthrax attack in 2001 in the US (Chyba, 2002). Ostfield (2004) makes a distinction between bioterrorism and other forms of terrorism to make the argument for having specific responses that are aimed at countering bioterrorism. Ostfield (2004) notes that intentional release of biological pathogens which is peculiar to bioterrorism is distinct from other forms of terrorism by being silent, low in cost and easy to replicate in multiple sites, without any geographical boundaries to limit the possibilities of impact. Bioterrorist attack can be conducted simply by one person transmitting the infectious agent to another. In these respects, bioterrorism attacks are not the same as nuclear and chemical attacks and due to this reason, it is not appropriate to group bioterrorism into categories like "CBRN" or Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear terrorism (Ostfield, 2004). Importantly, Ostfield (2004) notes that there are distinctive foreign policy ramifications of bioterrorism that need collaborative working between the foreign policy establishment and public health leaders and others addressing national security.

Perception of threats from bioterrorism have come to be identified with specific forms of attacks, one of which is through water contamination (Forest, Howard, & Sheehan, 2013). There is some concern that the American public water systems are vulnerable to attack from chemical and biological threats and that even if such threats are challenging to carry out, it is possible to carry out such attacks and harm a significant number of people (Forest, Howard, & Sheehan, 2013).

An important point made in literature about the relevance of biological terrorism is that there is a disconnect between the weapons technology community and the community of academic terrorism experts with relation to the possibilities of such terror attacks (Post, 2002). The weapons technology community emphasises on the vulnerabilities of the society and what might happen in terms of technological possibilities and the academic terrorism experts emphasise on the terrorist motivation and decision making. It is the latter who were more concerned about biological terrorism attacks in the aftermath of the Aum Shinrikyo attack in 1995 (Post, 2002). The suggested point is that there needs to be a more collaborative effort by both communities so that appropriate responses can be drafted.

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References:

Betts, R. K. (1998). The new threat of mass destruction. Foreign Aff., 77, 26-41.

Chyba, C. F. (2002). Toward biological security. Foreign Affairs, 81(3), 122-136.

Forest, J. J., Howard, R. D., & Sheehan, M. ( 2013). Weapons of mass destruction and terrorism. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Garrett, L. (2001). The nightmare of bioterrorism. Foreign Aff., 80, 76.

Kamp, K. H., Pilat, J. F., Stern, J., & Falkenrath, R. A. (1999). WMD Terrorism: An Exchange. Survival, 44(4), 168-183.

Ostfield, M. L. (2004). Bioterrorism as a foreign policy issue. SAIS Review of International Affairs, 24(1), 131-146.

O'Neil, A. ". (2003). Terrorist use of weapons of mass destruction: how serious is the threat? Australian Journal of International Affairs, 57(1), 99-112.

Parachini, J. (2003). Putting WMD terrorism into perspective. The Washington Quarterly Volume, 26(4), 37-50.

Post, J. M. (2002). Differentiating the Threat of Chemical and Biological Terrorism: Motivations and Constraints1. Peace and Conflict: Journal of Peace Psychology, 8(3), 187-200.

Smithson, A. E. (2009). Indicators of chemical terrorism. In M. Ranstorp, & M. Normark, Unconventional weapons and international terrorism: challenges and new approaches (pp. 67-94). Routledge.

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