Should you worry about terrorists with Bio-Weapons? (No.)

A recent story said that there was a terrorist “planning” to attack the Italian town of Macomer (pop. approx. 10,000) by putting Ricin and Anthrax in the water supply. That sounds scary, right?

First, he didn’t HAVE Anthrax or Ricin. He was planning on buying it online. Somehow. (No, no-one is selling biological weapons online. Not even on the dark web.) But let’s assume he managed to get it, somehow. Maybe ISIS or Al-Qaeda, which pursued biological weapons but couldn’t manage to buy or make them, nevertheless ended up finding some surplus bioweapons from the Russians, and gave them to this guy in Italy. And no, that’s not plausible, but we’re going well past the point of plausible in order to try to find a way to worry about this threat.

OK, so he’s got his materials, and wants to put them in the water. The water supply might be unguarded — I don’t know, but many places have fences and such around freshwater drinking sources, and might notice someone dumping in something. But maybe they don’t. Some places have water utilities that test the drinking water for various toxins somewhere along the line. Let’s assume there is no such program in place for the water delivered to this small Italian town. But how much Antrax and Ricin would he need to put in, exactly?

We can start with Ricin. It’s relatively easy to make. (Obviously much harder than a bomb, and most terrorists can’t manage to make those without a fair amount of help, but maybe the terrorist has a really good chemistry background.) The victims only need to ingest 1 ml of ricin per kilogram of body weight to have a 50% chance of dying. We’ll conservatively assume that the people of Macomer average 50kg. That’s only 50ml of ricin per person, or 500 liters of ricin toxin — or about 100 gallons, for Americans. That’s not an amount you can stick in a backpack — you need to back a truck up to the water supply to get that volume of toxin in.

But people aren’t ingesting all of that water. An approximate level of water usage per person is 450 liters per day. (That’s still about 100 gallons.) In California, with its droughts, they require about half that, and we’ll go with the lower number. People only need to drink about 2 liters of water (8 cups) a day. That doesn’t need to all be in the form of tap water — juices and soda works too. But again, let’s assume everyone is being healthy and environmentally conscious, and they drink only tap water. That’s about 1% of their daily water usage. So we need to multiply the amount in the water supply by 100 to get the same effect — that’s a large tanker truck worth of ricin. But a city isn’t only going to have a single day supply of water in the reservoir. For every day worth of water they have, we need to add another tanker truck.

OK, so maybe our would-be terrorist isn’t going to be able to order a couple dozen tanker trucks of Ricin on the dark web. (And don’t worry too much about a permanently contaminated water supply — boiling the water gets rid of ricin.)

But anthrax. Maybe that could work. And it is found naturally on the ground! Fortunately for us, and unfortunately for our would-be terrorist, culturing anthrax in large quantities is really, really hard. For an idea how hard, we can look at Aum Shinrikyo — the people who successfully made Sarin and used it to attack a subway in Japan. It turns out that before they did this, they spent years trying to isolate Anthrax. The eventually succeeded, but it turns out that the strain they ended up cultivating wasn’t a very good one for hurting people. Still, maybe our terrorist gets lucky, and finds someone on the internet who happens to be willing to sell the a dangerous strain of anthrax. All they need to do is cultivate it.

Unfortunately, the terrorist in question doesn’t have any lab experience in microbiology. He can try to buy a book, and some equipment, but he’s going to have a hard time figuring out something that the PhD bacteriologists need to use specially designed fermenters to culture.

And then he needs to add it to the water. And even though there doesn’t need to be a huge quantity of spores to cause fatal anthrax by ingestion in an individual, as with Ricin, the picture changes when the spores are dumped into a large body of water.

At the end of the day, biological threats exist, and it’s likely that we will see more in the future. But idiots claiming to have plans to poison water supplies with non-existent supplies of bio-weapons are just that — idiots that make ridiculous claims. Terrorist threats are serious, and I’m sure he’ll serve time in jail. That’s good, because there are lots of ways that people interested in committing terrorism can kill people. They just involve trucks and guns, not imaginary mail-order bioweapons.

Yes, it’s true — people use the Internet!

Imagine I told you the following statistics;

  • From 2013 to 2014, the total percent of high school class reunions organized online jumped from 47 percent to 76 percent. In 2015, this figure rose to 90 percent. While falling to 43 percent in 2016, it rose again to 83 percent of cases as of September 2017.
  • More than four in 10 class reunion attendees in the United States in the past 15 years either maintained a social media account where they posted material about reunions or interacted with classmates; in recent years, an active online presence has been almost universal among reunion planners and attendees.
  • In 129 cases surveyed, we found zero high school class reunions were planned in person. Of the 129 cases, 101 showed a pattern of often downloading and sharing information online and, in a smaller number of cases, engaging in online conversations about class reunions.
  • Instead, planners were sometimes in touch via Twitter or other messaging platforms. High schools in many cases offered support online, and staff communicated with the planners. Many attendees were not graduates of the schools in question, but instead were later revealed to have close ties with those who were.

Would you be surprised?

I hope not.

You might wonder why anyone bothered asking the question, given that internet usage and social media is universal nowadays.

OK, now look at a slightly different analysis, by the New America Foundation ;

  • “From 2013 to 2014, the total percent of… extremists who radicalized online jumped from 47 percent to 76 percent. In 2015, this figure rose to 90 percent. While falling to 43 percent in 2016, it rose again to 83 percent of cases as of September 2017.”
  • “Today’s extremists in the United States radicalize online, and the internet knows no visa requirements. More than four in 10 jihadists in the United States since 9/11 either maintained a social media account where they posted jihadist material or interacted with extremists via encrypted communications; in recent years, an active online presence has been almost universal among American jihadists.”
  • “A key characteristic that ties together American militants drawn to the Syrian conflict is that they are active in online jihadist circles. Of the 129 individuals, 101 showed a pattern of often downloading and sharing jihadist propaganda online and, in a smaller number of cases, engaging in online conversations with militants abroad.”
  • “ ISIS and its affiliates have also reached out via online communication to encourage and enable attacks. There are attacks by individuals and small groups of individuals who do not have any known link to ISIS, its affiliates or its online networks, yet who are inspired by ISIS and its cause to commit acts of violence.”

Does it matter that Jihadis use the internet? Yes. But we can stop pretending to be surprised that they have taken to using a nearly universal tool. Instead, we can treat the internet the way we do any other domain; it can be used for good and bad things, and it’s unlikely that you can do much about the latter without affecting the former.