WASHINGTON (UPI) – Is a new breed of terrorists responsible for the epidemics of "mad cow" and foot-and-mouth diseases plaguing Europe, and are these part of a well-planned "agro-terrorist" assault?
While the idea of agro-terrorism might seem to jump straight from the script of "The X-Files," a James Bond movie or even be the subject of some far-fetched conspiracy theory, terrorism experts consider the scenario all too credible.
"I take this extremely seriously," said Peter Probst, who consults on terrorism and is vice president and director of programs for the Institute for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence.
Probst, who has studied this possibility for the last six years, said such an attack would not only have a devastating impact against a nation's agriculture in economic terms but would also have far-reaching psychological aspects.
"If you have a conspiratorial mind-set you might think the U.K. is being used as a test," said Probst.
Agro-terrorism – the term used by these experts – is not science fiction, and it's a lot closer to reality than many may realize.
"It's incredibly easy to do it, and it requires no sophistication," said Dr. Peter Chalk, a Rand policy analyst who has also studied agro-terrorism.
"As a weapon, it's less expensive. It's also very good in so-called asymmetrical warfare, where you hit a very powerful country at its most vulnerable point: the economy," said Chalk.
"I would call the American agriculture base the soft underbelly of the American economy," said Probst. "It generates $1 trillion a year in export revenue, and an attack against beef or swine would be incredibly costly. It would be disastrous."
While both experts agree that there is no concrete evidence at the moment to support the notion that the outbreak in Britain and other parts of Europe is the result of a terrorist attack, they do not close the door on that possibility.
"I have no information that what is happening in Europe is terrorist related," Probst told UPI. But he then hastened to add, "Now, all that being said, attacks by terrorists or rogue states against the agriculture basis is something which has been long considered by many states."
According to Chalk, there is certainly a history of states investing in biological warfare programs that target agriculture. But could Iraq, for example, be responsible for such an attack?
While agro-terrorism experts remain reluctant to admit that the current virus infecting Britain's agro-industry is the result of a terrorist attack, some nonetheless believe this is what happened.
One such expert, who asked not to be named, went as far as to point the finger at Iraq.
Meanwhile, U.S. intelligence sources at the Department of Agriculture say they are working on a vaccine for foot-and-mouth disease, because they think the terrorist threat here is immediate.
Chalk noted that major nations in modern times have seriously explored unleashing biological attacks upon their enemies.
"Germany, for instance, had an operation going in 1917 here in the United States," he said. "They infected draft animals that were going to be sent to Europe. The Soviet Union had about 10,000 scientists and technicians working on anti-agriculture agents."
Proving that a specific country, or group, is guilty of an agro-terror attack will be difficult.
"There is something called stealth terrorism," said Probst, "which is basically terrorist acts that masquerade as acts of God or unfortunate accidents."
Then there are "black operations," where in another situation one country would purposely leave clues pointing to another nation.
One example, said Probst, "would involve a scenario where Iraq would leave trails leading to Iran."
Indeed, if the perpetrators do not want the action traced back to them, proving it would be nearly impossible.
Iraq, for example, could well be out for revenge against Britain and the United States for the part they played in the Gulf War in 1991, and for the continued economic sanctions imposed on it to this day.
What is particularly attractive to potential terrorists when targeting agriculture is the ease with which it can be attacked.
"Firstly," said Chalk, "when talking about terrorism and terrorists experimenting with exotic weapons, like biological weapons, one of the main factors that appears to have constrained their escalation to that level has been the difficulty in actually weaponizing pathogens and viable agents and actually accessing suitable strains.
"With agricultural diseases neither of those conditions hold. Something like foot-and-mouth, for instance, spreads by itself," Chalk said. "There is no need to weaponize the agent, it's so transmissible."
The nature of agriculture livestock in many Western countries, particularly in the United States, where it is so concentrated, further facilitates the agro-terrorist's task.
"If you introduced the disease at a location, you would be sure to get a very rapid transmission of that disease," said Chalk.
"The second thing is that it is very easy to get the disease and import it," he said.
An added bonus for the terrorist is that there are numerous places around the United States where foot-and-mouth is prevalent, Chalk said.
"All you have to do is pop one of the lesions on an infected animal in order to have enough to ensure an outbreak. Needless to say, it is harmless to the handler," he said.
The next question is why would terrorists want to attack the agriculture? The answer is it is an easy target that can lead to great social disruption.
Think how the disease has affected tourism and industry in Britain. Since the outbreak, many parts of the country have been closed to visitors, costing the tourist industry millions every week.
Daily life has been greatly perturbed, with consumers shunning meat products, sports events being canceled, and Prime Minister Tony Blair being forced to postpone the general elections he was expected to hold in May.
More than a million heads of cattle, sheep and pigs – many of them in good health – are being slaughtered to curb the epidemic from spreading.
There are serious concerns now among those closely following these issues that it may spark off extremism from animal rights protesters and environmental activists – both of whom act more or less in coordination with one another.
The epidemic could also turn the population against the government, because it could be charged with incompetence. One of the best ways to do this would be by an attack on agriculture, specifically using foot-and-mouth disease, because it is so highly contagious, and because of the ripple effect on the economy.
"If you actually had a disease that was transmissible from animal to human, you'd also have the potential to spark mass panic," said Chalk.
There was a slight indication of that occurring with the West Nile virus outbreak in New York and other parts of the East Coast last year.
That outbreak was taken very seriously by the FBI, the U.S. Army, the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, and other intelligence-gathering agencies in the United States.
Brazil, according to one report, blamed sabotage for an outbreak of foot-and-mouth on its territory last year.
According to the British New Scientist magazine, "the U.S. is so worried about bioterrorist attacks on its livestock industry it has just spent $40 million on upgrading its secure research facilities for animal disease on Plum Island, New York."
The question of how easy it would be for potential agro-terrorists to attack livestock and agriculture was raised at a bioterrorism conference held in St. Petersburg, Fla., last November that was organized by the CDC, Pinellas County, the University of South Florida and Battelle Memorial Institute.
But a better example would be the Rift Valley fever that hit Saudi Arabia, also last year, and that started out in animals but then spread to humans.
"The issue of bioterrorism has become more of a public health issue," said Barbara Reynolds at CDC.
Dr. Chalk said that, taking all those factors into account, "you've got economic impact, you've got destabilizing of the government, you've got social attacks and you've even got the possibility of mass scare."
"I actually think it would be far more likely than some of the nightmare scenarios that are painted of mass anthrax attacks on Manhattan, for instance," said Chalk.
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