UN Secretary General Signals Warning of WMD Threat

September 2001 marked a significant milestone in the rise of a new form of international threat. The “anthrax letters” mailed to media companies and congressional offices in the United States signalled the emergence of biological Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD’s) as a clear and present danger to the international community. Taking their place alongside nuclear and chemical threats, the feasibility of biological attacks and their prevention became the focus of intensive activity not only in the United States, as the target of this particular attack, but indeed by the United Nations as a whole. Security Council Regulation 1540 was passed in 2004, which legally obligates all United Nations member states to enforce measures against nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons.

Thankfully, the world has not yet seen a biological WMD attack approaching the Anthrax Letters incident, but this does not mean that the threat is diminished. Indeed, on August 23, 2016, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon took the podium to address a UN Security Council meeting, on the continuing issue of curbing the production of Weapons of Mass Destruction. While he noted that “much good work” had been done to curb the production of WMD’s, the emergence of non-state terrorist organizations, and new technological advances including the clandestine “Dark Web” have made it easier to gain access to the materials needed for making these types of WMD’s.

Statements and activities by groups like ISIS/Daesh, and subsequent warnings and calls to action by political leaders and international law enforcement agencies, especially in the last year, have lent considerable credence to the Secretary General’s sobering observation this week, on the most underdeveloped of defensive capabilities against WMD’s – “I am extremely concerned that the international community is not adequately prepared to prevent or respond to a biological attack”.

The sheer complexity and technical skill required to execute an effective dissemination of a biological WMD are perhaps all that has prevented such an attack from taking place – as yet. That serves as small comfort, as determined actors gather the personnel, expertise, and materials they will need to eventually succeed. Equally challenging is an understanding of the details that detection and prevention of a biological WMD attack require. Detection, sampling, presumptive identification, and confirmatory identification are integral to effective vigilance and response to biological threats, and are all massively dependent on an understanding of environmental, geographical, and operational conditions in any and all locations where such an attack might take place. It’s a combination of scientific disciplines that must be applied in concert with the investigative, defensive, and law-enforcement activities dedicated to curbing the threat of biological WMD’s.

Private sector cooperation with our military, security and public health partners worldwide, in the evolution of biological threat detection and sampling capabilities, is critical to diminishing the WMD threat. Painstaking data collection, refining of alarming algorithms, understanding of background environments, and participation in field deployments and trials to evaluate and refine the performance of both existing and emerging technologies are a necessary and ongoing part of adequately addressing the urgent requirement brought back to the forefront by the UN Secretary General. The world cannot afford to simply hope this threat never materializes.

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