Will Ahmadinejad's rhetoric provide early warning of attack?
Stephen Peter Rosen at the Middle East Strategy at Harvard wonders whether it is possible to use the statements of national leaders like Ahmadinejad as an early warning indicator of his willingness to use biological weapons. Rosen says each historical case of the use of biological weapons "was preceded by an escalation of rhetorical campaigns to demonize and dehumanize the targeted enemy." He wonders whether Ahmadinejad's reference to Israel as a "dirty microbe" and "savage animal" in response to Imad Mughniyeh's death is anything to worry about.
On the basis of my historical research, my recommendation was that a significant shift in discourse of this character be used as a indicator that we should focus intelligence collection assets on a target that is now suspected of being willing to engage in mass killing by unconventional means, and to issue specific deterrent threats of retaliation. I do not know if either of these measures has been adopted by the government of Israel, or the United States, but it would seem prudent for them to do so.
A CDC paper says, "Among weapons of mass destruction, biological weapons are more destructive than chemical weapons, including nerve gas. In certain circumstances, biological weapons can be as devastating as nuclear ones: a few kilograms of anthrax can kill as many people as a Hiroshima-size nuclear weapon."
So how can one know when an enemy state or terrorist organization is preparing to use it? Without prejudice to Rosen's ideas, the condition of an enemy state's civil defense system is probably a better indicator of a regime's willingness to use biological weapons.
Why? because biological weapons are hard to control. The Nixon administration destroyed the entire US stock of biological weapons because their effects could not be limited in scope. If a hypothetical pathogen was contagious it could "blow back" on the user. A contagion unleashed on Israel would easily migrate to Mecca, and via the Haj infect every Muslim nation on earth. Unless Muslim nations like Iran were prepared to withstand the very plague they released it might literally go ill with them.
Even where non-contagious pathogens, like anthrax, are used to attack a target the attacker must be prepared for retaliation. Here there again it becomes a duel of public health systems. If the Israeli public health system is better than the Iranian then unleashing such an exchange may be a losing proposition for Teheran.
The only known technological countermeasures to a biological attack are detection and therapy. Therefore the advantage goes to the more technically advanced and better organized society. Detection allows civil defense officials to recognize the attack in its early stages and if possible cordon off the stricken area. Homeland Security's BioWatch program is an example of one such detection system. If Iran starts building a detection system that might give a clue to its intentions.
A country like the United States, and to a lesser extent Israel have many built-in civil defense advantages over a country like Iran. They have a first-class communications through which to warn the population and organize civil defense. Teheran is far more poorly provided, besides any Israeli response to an Iranian biological attack will probably be accompanied by the simultaneous destruction of their telephone exchanges, television transmitters and international data cables by conventional weapons making a response to the attack practically impossible.
Secondly, countries like America have "more of everything", a key advantage in a biowar scenario. Stocks of food, water systems, medical personnel are critical to riding out a biological attack when movement must be curtailed. In contrast most Third World households have enough food for a few days only. Water supplies are less abundant especially in desert countries; and have limited supplies of canned or preserved food. There is no way their populations can be immobilized for any length of time without risking starvation or thirst.
Thirdly, countries like Israel and the US have a large degree of 'compartmentalization'. Local supplies of food, the common availability of weapons in households, etc means that civil disorder is less of a threat. On the other hand, Third World countries often experience large-scale looting following a natural catastrophe. They are fragile societies which can go to pieces in the face of huge catastrophe like a biostrike.
The critical nature of these variables implies that any enemy country or terrorist organization contemplating a strike must game things out beforehand. This would probably take the form of a deniable test attack to see how Israel or the US respond. Or perhaps an unrelated Western country could be chosen as the guinea pig to see how an equivalent society would fare in the face of a similar threat. Without a test run to gauge the effects of their weapons an enemy force would run too great a risk that the strike would fail, exposing them to a devastating response. Second, even primitive enemies would probably take steps to protect their core assets from a riposte by investing in low-tech precautions like creating redoubts in distant areas to which key personnel could retreat. Again, the key to early warning is to detect enemy defensive or planning operations first.
But what Israel and the US should really watch out for are signs enemy nations are building genetically tailored or binary biological weapons. The BBC reported the horrifying fact that scientific advances now make it possible to create diseases that are specific down to the family group:
Advances in genetic knowledge could be misused to develop powerful biological weapons that could be tailored to strike at specific ethnic groups ... genetic information is already being used to "improve" elements of biological weapons, for example by increasing their antibiotic resistance. These developments raise the spectre of highly targeted biological weapons being used on the battlefield. Weapons could theoretically be developed which affect particular versions of genes clustered in specific ethnic or family groups.
Could Iran come up with a "Jew killer"? Unlikely because there are Jews of varying ethnic backgrounds: Ethiopians, Russians, Chinese, etc. More frightening is the prospect of a binary biological weapon: one in which a population can be pre-marked with a clinically undetectable substance which a subsequently released pathogen can selectively attack. Medical science already has drugs which work only on cancer cells. This emphasizes why detection is everything. A program to "mark" a target population prior to attack can itself be detected by detection systems or data mining medical records.
The idea of a targeted weapon whose effects could be escaped by a marker was described in Exodus, Chapter 12.
For I will pass through the land of Egypt this night, and will smite all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and against all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgment: I am the LORD. And the blood shall be to you for a token upon the houses where ye are: and when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and the plague shall not be upon you to destroy you, when I smite the land of Egypt. And this day shall be unto you for a memorial; and ye shall keep it a feast to the LORD throughout your generations; ye shall keep it a feast by an ordinance for ever.
Enemy nations are unlikely to have this technology in the near term. This type of sophisticated weapon is probably going to be sought from a Western lab or developed under cover as a pharmaceutical product using enemy billions rather than created in some makeshift al-Qaeda cave. But it is not impossible that they will seek to buy the technology to build one. Again, the first warning of danger will come from routine intelligence sources, like following the money transfers of suspected individuals or from a biological detection system that might throw up trial attacks.
In sum, while Ahmadinejad's rhetoric may provide some clue to his intentions, what will really provide early warning is a close examination of a) their civil defense systems; b) their biological-related expenditures. Cancel the FISA anybody?