– Theoretically, insects can be considered a method for a biowarfare attack
– The economic consequences of an attack using insects could potentially be widespread
US officials have long been concerned about the potential for a bio-terrorism attack against the homeland. However, while most individuals often think of microscopic agents such as smallpox and anthrax when referring to biowarfare, other methods for this type of attack, specifically through the use of insects, also pose a potential risk to the US. For example, during WWII, the Japanese dropped disease-carrying fleas from airplanes, which resulted in the death of thousands of their enemies.
The perceived benefits of using insects for an attack, combined with evidence of terrorists’ interest in biological agents, make the potential threat worthy of study.
An Attractive Method for Extremists
Insects can be considered among the cheapest and easiest methods for a biowarfare attack, capable of producing potentially devastating results. Insects are able to reproduce quickly and withstand adverse conditions, making them ideal agents to carry a disease and begin an outbreak. Further, using insects for an attack does not require significant training and a lone individual could successfully introduce a deadly disease into the country.
As they are small in size, insects are easy to conceal and thereby avoid detection at the numerous points of entry into the US. Authorities remain concerned over the potential for dangerous insects to be smuggled into the country through airports, border crossings, ports, and even international mail.
The economic consequences from an attack using insects could potentially be widespread. Due to the interconnectivity of the US agricultural system, it is likely that a disease would spread rapidly and extensively throughout the country, disrupting the food supply and potentially resulting in billions of dollars of damage.
– An outbreak of Mediterranean fruit flies in Florida in 1997 cost US$32 million to eradicate.
– According to the US Department of Agriculture, the Asian long-horned beetle (which entered the country in 1996), in conjunction with the emerald ash borer (which was located in 2002), could potentially destroy over US$700 billion worth of forests.
In addition to those that harm livestock and crops, there are numerous insect-borne diseases that could potentially affect the human population, such as yellow fever, malaria, dengue fever, and West Nile virus. An outbreak of Rift Valley fever, another insect borne disease, that occurred nine months ago in Kenya resulted in the death of 118 individuals. Officials have stated that every region in the US has a species of mosquito that could carry this disease.
Previous Claims and Instances
Insects have previously been used by groups and/or countries to carry out biological attacks against enemies.
– In 1989, a group called “The Breeders” claimed that it imported and subsequently released the Mediterranean fruit fly in California to protest the state’s agricultural practices. The mayor of Los Angeles and various newspapers reportedly received letters from the group threatening to expand the attack into other parts of the state.
– During World War II, the German and French militaries worked to mass-produce and later disperse the Colorado potato beetle to destroy the food supplies of their enemies. The Japanese military also employed biowarfare, dropping disease-carrying fleas and explosives containing flies and cholera bacteria from airplanes. According to a 2002 report, the Japanese succeeded in killing 440,000 Chinese through these methods.
The Terrorist Threat
Terrorist groups have a known interest in acquiring and using a biological weapon against the US homeland, particularly al-Qaeda.
Raids carried out in Afghanistan following the September 11, 2001, attacks resulted in the discovery of documents showing the group’s interest in potentially carrying out an attack on the US agricultural system. Specifically, al-Qaeda has expressed interest in launching a biological attack on the US by way of crop dusting. The group also is believed to possess training manuals produced by Russia during the cold war demonstrating how to attack crops and livestock with biological weapons.
Importantly, such an attack would likely result in significant damage to the US economy, which is considered a high priority target for the group. With this known interest in using biowarfare, a terrorist could potentially exploit the benefits of using insects to carry out this type of attack.
As a bioterrorism attack using insects against the homeland could potentially result in widespread damage to the economy, the destruction of a significant portion of the food supply, or even danger to public health, it is important to continue to devote resources to developing adequate capabilities to quickly detect the presence of dangerous insects and to rapidly respond in the event of an attack in order to minimize the effects.
While security measures around the country have been increased in recent years, insects pose a different type of challenge to authorities, and it is necessary to address this threat in order to prepare for and/or prevent a deliberate biological attack on the homeland.
While there is a potential for terrorist groups to carry out a bio-terrorism attack using insects, we believe that it is more likely that they will employ other methods for a large-scale strike against the homeland. We believe the technical challenges put the use of insects beyond the reach of most terrorist groups.