Module 3:


1. What is bioterrorism?

  • Bioterrorism is the use or threatened use of biological agents against civilian targets―people or infrastructure―with the intent of causing injury or harm for political, religious, or ideological objectives.
  • Biological weapons may be attractive to terrorist organizations because:
    • Terrorism is intended to cause fear in an audience beyond those directly attacked. Biological weapons are well suited to this, given widespread public fear of disease and a generally poor understanding about how diseases spread and containment.
    • Biological weapons can be relatively inexpensive to obtain compared to other types of weapons of mass destruction.
    • The delayed onset of symptoms from a biological attack can make it easier for terrorists to evade detection

2. Have terrorists carried out biological attacks in the past and are groups interested in biological terrorism today?

Yes, although most examples of non-state actor attacks appear to have been criminal rather than terrorist in motivation. These include assassinations, as well as attacks directed at specific groups of people. However, these examples show that non-state actors are capable of accessing and maliciously using biological agents.

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3. How could non-state actors acquire biological weapons, and how difficult would it be?


  • A terrorist group could steal pathogens from a research laboratory or bank such as the American Type Culture Collection.
  • This would require circumventing security measures in place; the difficulty of doing so depends on the type of laboratory targeted and whether inside access can be leveraged.


  • Restrictions on the sale of pathogens from culture collections have tightened in recent years, but a terrorist group could set up a front company or use a sympathetic scientist to buy pathogens from a bank.

Isolation from Natural Sources

  • Most pathogens could be obtained from natural sources, such as infected animals or contaminated soil. However, many strains in the wild have low virulence.
  • A non-state actor would probably have to isolate many different strains before finding one virulent enough to be weaponized.

Transfer from a Sympathetic Government

  • A terrorist group could acquire pathogens and expertise from a sympathetic government, or rogue elements or individuals within a government. Most governments, however, would likely fear retaliation from other states and be deterred from making such a transfer.

Gene Synthesis

  • It would theoretically be possible for a non-state actor to use gene synthesis techniques to reverse-engineer a pathogen from scratch.
  • If a terrorist had the entire genome sequence for a pathogenic virus, for example, he/she might be able to recreate the virus in a laboratory. However, this would be extremely difficult.

Even after obtaining a pathogen, a non-state actor would still have to produce sufficient quantities of the agent; concentrate and weaponize it; and effectively deliver the weapon, all whilst circumventing law enforcement measures. While less sophisticated delivery methods could be employed by non-state actors—such as contaminating food or water—such methods might cause fewer casualties.

Photo Credit
Header Image: A simulated bioterrorism attack. Source: Oregon National Guard via Flickr.