Two of the most feared methods of terrorist attack are biological and chemical weapons. An attack using either of these will likely employ one of two strategies.
Scenario #1: Overt Biological Attack
The biochemical attack may be overt, such as a crop-duster spraying an agent such as anthrax over a NASCAR race crowd of spectators.
There are over 3,000 crop dusters in the United States and each plane can carry several hundred gallons of liquid.
After the 9/11 attacks, defensive measures were enacted to deter the use of crop dusters for spraying biological warfare agents on unsuspecting crowds or cities.
These measures include the installation of hidden kill switches and increased security on the planes. The nozzles on crop duster sprayers are specially adapted to spray large droplets that fall to the ground quickly, maximizing the application of the chemicals on the crops.
Farmers do not want the wind to blow the chemicals away before they reach the ground. This is the exact opposite of what a bioweapons terrorist needs.
A biochemical terrorist needs an aerosol spray that will float on the air for as long as possible, so that it has a higher chance of being inhaled by a victim.
Only when the bioweapon such as Tularemia finds it way into the lungs will it be effective, so it has to float in an invisible aerosol form as long as possible. A terrorist wanting to use a crop duster to spray bioweapons would need to alter the sprayer nozzles to form an aerosol spray.
The actual fatalities from such an action would probably be very few because spraying applications depend heavily on favorable weather conditions, and because extremely large amounts of the agent would be required for effectiveness.
In addition, such an obvious attack would garner an immediate and large-scale response for decontamination and treatment by the government, limiting the scope of the disease.
Thus, the true damage of such an attack would not be its fatalities, which would be comparatively few. The problem would be the response of the public at being attacked with such dreaded biological or chemical weapons.
The full-blown panic that would result would have a devastating effect on the nation’s morale and sense of safety.
The unrelenting media feeding frenzy that would ensue would only exacerbate the terror that would grip the masses, and there would be catastrophic economic consequences if people were afraid to leave their homes in the months that followed the attack.
This is the type of response that terrorists count on by definition, and the devastating economic repercussions could be far-reaching.
Scenario #2: Subtle Attack
A second possible scenario would not involve such an ostentatious display.
If the attackers decided to go for the mortality rate as well as the terror factor, a more subtle and slow-working plan would be initiated.
For instance, instead of flying over the same NASCAR crowd, the attack might consist of sending several terrorists intentionally infected with smallpox or plague to mix with the crowd, spreading the disease to hundreds of people.
The infected people from the sporting event would then return to their homes and spread the contagious disease nation-wide. This would almost certainly be a suicide mission for the infected terrorists, which they have proven that they are perfectly willing and capable of undertaking.
What about biological weapons?
Biological weapons, or bioweapons, are basically weapons that involve bacteria, viruses, or toxins. They are odorless, tasteless, and colorless.
Biological weapons are not hard to produce or deliver, and are inexpensive compared to chemical or nuclear weapons. The effectiveness of a biological weapon can be measured in terms of its lethality, ease in manufacturing, and infectivity.
The most likely biological weapons we will face at the hands of terrorists are anthrax, botulism, tularemia, plague, ricin, Ebola, and smallpox.
A chemical weapon is defined by NATO as a chemical substance that is intended for military use to kill, injure, or incapacitate people.
Chemical weapons are simply man-made poisons that are deployed in the form of vapors, liquids, or solids. They are usually odorless and tasteless, but are difficult to produce and deliver in lethal doses.
Chemical weapons are generally inexpensive to produce and can be delivered with missiles, bombs, aerial sprayers, and a whole host of other methods.
They are limited though, by the weather, wind, and their excessive bulk.
Chemical weapons can be made at home using chemicals that are readily available. There are approximately 70 different chemicals that would make suitable chemical weapons, but only a few are likely to be employed by terrorists.
The most likely chemical weapons we will face at the hands of terrorists are mustard gas, phosgene oxime, cyanide, chlorine, phosgene (not to be confused with phosgene oxime), and various nerve agents.
How to prep for a biochemical attack
NBC (nuclear, biologic, chemical) agents in general are difficult to prepare for. However, airtight masks, such as the N95 protective respiratory mask, and suits would have to be obtained, with special care not to purchase obsolete or defective ones.
That raises an interesting question:
How do you know if your new gas mask will actually work?
There is no guarantee that the expensive suit and mask that you paid dearly for will actually work as well as the nice salesman promised. That is assuming that you will even have time to get your NBC gear on when the attack starts.
United States Marines in basic training used to be told: “When you see your fellow Marines falling over in convulsions, you know it is too late to put your mask on.”
That axiom still applies.
By the time you have figured out that you need a gas mask, it is most likely too late. That assumes, of course, that you will have it with you every moment of every day, everywhere you go.
That is simply not feasible.
Since there are very few reliable biological or chemical warfare sensors in our society, it is likely that your first clue will be when the people around you develop watery eyes and start coughing, gasping, choking, and twitching violently. At that point, the gas mask in your closet at home will do you no good.
It may be noted that while these masks would have been handy for the survivors of the September 11 attacks to filter out the incredible amount of fine dust and airborne debris generated by the collapsing buildings, it is highly unlikely that anyone except emergency personnel would have been carrying one. For most people, it just isn’t feasible to carry an NBC mask everywhere they go.
Spend your money on something that is more likely to be used.
- NBC masks and suits are also incredibly hot and cumbersome. The suit must be airtight and the mask has to fit very snugly.
- They are extremely uncomfortable, which means you are less likely to wear them on a daily basis as you wait for the attack.
- The masks have specific activated carbon filters for the specific deployed agent. Visibility in the mask is extremely poor, and the lenses have a tendency to fog up.
Building an NBC shelter is not a viable option, for the same reasons. NBC shelters are also very expensive and very difficult to build properly.
The safe room
The Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, advises that the best way to prepare for a biological or chemical attack is to assemble a kit of duct tape, scissors, and plastic sheeting.
Choose an internal room, preferably with no windows, as the designated chemical safe room.
The basement is not a good place for your chemical safe room because most chemical warfare gas clouds have a tendency to settle into lower areas, since they are heavier than air.
The plastic sheeting should be pre-measured and cut for each door, window and vent in the safe room.
In the event of an attack, turn off all heating and air conditioning systems and seal your chosen chemical safe room with the duct tape and pre-measured and pre-cut plastic sheeting.
Ten square feet of floor space per person will provide enough air for five hours or more. Since chemical and biological agent applications tend to be of short duration, that should be a safe enough time period.
An even better idea would be to have an NBC air filtration system for your safe room (see Nuclear Shelters). But beware of carbon dioxide poisoning.
Having a food reserve and plenty of water will enable you to stay put and hopefully out of danger. You will need enough supplies to get through the quarantines and empty store shelves which will be caused by the disrupted food supply chain. Thus, general preparedness is the secret to successfully getting ready for a biological or chemical attack.
Away from home
If a biological or chemical attack utilizing an unknown agent occurs while you are away from home, cover your mouth and nose with a wet cloth such as a T-shirt or towel and immediately leave the area.
- Move against the wind and up-hill as you evacuate. Against the wind is recommended because a sprayed agent will travel with the wind to a great extent.
- Up-hill travel is recommended because most agents, either biological or chemical, tend to settle in lower areas. There are of course exceptions, such as cyanide, but cyanide dissipates and rises very quickly outdoors.
- Try to take shallow breaths while in the affected area. Cover exposed skin and try to find shelter.
- Monitor the television or radio stations, and if public-health officials tell you to stay put for a while, then do so until they say it is safe to move. The air may still be laden with deadly agents.
- If it does not impede your escape, keep your eyes closed.
- As soon as possible, remove clothes and rinse skin with as much water as possible. Place the contaminated clothing in a sealed, double trash bag.
- Flush your eyes with water for at least 10 minutes.
- Seek medical attention as soon as it is safe to go out.
Terrorist attacks can involve chemical agents, commercial airliners, economic chaos, inciting panic, or disrupting the food supply system in a wide variety of ways.
The best way that you can prepare for such disruptions is to have some supplies on hand so that you can stay isolated from the threat and weather the storm until it blows over.
According to former Secretary of Defense William Cohen, “The race is on between our preparations and those of our adversaries. We are preparing for the possibility of a chemical or biological attack on American soil because we must. There is not a moment to lose.”