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What is Bioterrorism?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 16, 2024
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Bioterrorism is a form of terrorism which involves the deliberate introduction of biological agents into an environment or community for the purpose of causing widespread disease and panic. Like other acts of terrorism, bioterrorism is meant to create chaos and undermine morale, and it can be performed by a single individual, a terrorist organization, or even a state actor which wishes to use terrorist tactics to advance political goals. As human knowledge of disease has expanded, the risk of bioterrorism has radically increased, especially since several unstable nations have reserves of biological agents which could potentially be appropriated and used by terrorist groups.

This form of terrorism is distinct from biological warfare. Although both involve the release of biological agents, biological warfare occurs on or around the battlefield during a recognized military conflict. Terrorism, by its nature, is separate from a legitimate military conflict, and it involves asymmetrical tactics which are designed to undermine a society or government. The use of viruses, bacteria, and toxins in war is prohibited by international law, and bioterrorism is severely prosecuted as well.

Many government agencies around the world have departments dedicated to researching and preventing bioterrorism. Biological agents are broken into three classes, A, B, and C, on the basis of virulence. Diseases like smallpox are considered Class A, because they could potentially spread quickly and kill numerous people, while Class B agents such as glanders are less virulent, and Class C agents consist of things which could potentially be weaponized because they are readily available.

The history of bioterrorism is ancient. One of the first recorded examples occurred in the 600s BCE in Assyria, when ergot was used to contaminate supplies of grain. The use of bodies of plague and smallpox victims for the purpose of spreading disease has also been documented across Europe and Asia through various periods in history. Modern bioterrorism has been made significantly more dangerous by advances in laboratory science. In the 20th century, the Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo attracted a great deal of attention when it released the toxin ricin on the Tokyo Subway, and in the United States, a series of anthrax letters in 2001 caused widespread panic.

One of the big problems with bioterrorism is that biological agents can spread gradually and incubate slowly, creating the potential for spread of the agent before people realize what is going on. Biological terrorism can also be hard to identify at first, as medical personnel and law enforcement officials may not immediately realize what is happening when patients start to seek medical attention. As a result, a well-timed and carefully planned attack, especially one involving genetically modified agents, could sow widespread panic, confusion, chaos, and disease across a region or an entire nation.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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