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Source: Current Events, April 24, 1998 v97 n24 p2A(4).

Title: Terrorism 2000: how chemical and biological weapons are changing
the face of terror.(Special Report)

Full Text COPYRIGHT 1998 Weekly Reader Corporation

They are scarier than the scariest horror film, more frightening than the worst nightmare, and closer to U.S. shores than most Americans imagine.

Biochemical weapons--chemical and biological weapons designed to kill any breathing creatures who come in contact with them--are the new horror weapons of the world.

You may have read about biochemical weapons in issue 12, when CE reported on the showdown between the United States and Saddam Hussein, the dictator of Iraq, over allowing U.N. inspection teams full access to Iraq's biochemical weapons sites.

Cheap and Easy to Make

The world is concerned about biochemical weapons because they don't cost much and are easy to make. Enclosed in a small aerosol container (see photo at right), biochemical weapons can literally kill millions of people if released in a crowded city.

Biochemical weapons are divided into two classes: chemical weapons and biological weapons. The main types of chemical weapons are sarin, VX gas, and mustard gas.

* Sarin. Sarin gas is a poison that paralyzes the nerves that control breathing. One milligram of sarin, an amount barely visible to the eye, causes instant death by suffocation.

Sarin was used by Saddam Hussein in 1988 to kill every human and animal in several villages of northern Iraq. The villages were populated by Kurds--a people whom Hussein suspected of helping Iran in the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88).

In 1995, a Japanese terror cult released a small amount of sarin in a Tokyo subway, killing 12 people and injuring 5,500 others. When the leaders of the cult were captured, police found plans to release sarin in New York City subways.

* VX. Similar to Sarin, this deadly gas also disrupts the functioning of the nerves that control breathing. Unlike any other biological or chemical weapon, VX can kill instantly if it simply comes in contact with the skin.

* Mustard Gas. Mustard gas, first used in World War I (1914-18), causes severe eye and lung damage. Mustard gas earned its name from its smell, which is said to be like rotten mustard or onions. Ten milligrams can kill a person. Both Iraq and Iran used mustard gas, fired off in artillery shells or dropped from airplanes, in their brutal eight-year war. Many of those who died from mustard gas attacks in the Iran-Iraq war were teenage soldiers, caught by surprise. Those who managed to survive reportedly looked as if they had been burned in a fire--with black, blistered skin. Many were also permanently blinded or suffered nerve damage.

Germ Weapons

Chemical weapons are scary enough. But biological weapons can be even scarier. Biological weapons are highly toxic organisms designed to be released in populated areas. Most of them kill quickly and--because they are living things--multiply rapidly, with the potential to kill hundreds of thousands, even millions, of people in a short time.

Here are the main types of biological weapons being produced today:

* Anthrax. Anthrax is a bacterium--a tiny, single-celled organism--that lives in soil. Anthrax bacteria form tough spores that are sometimes inhaled by livestock.

To make weapons, scientists grow anthrax bacteria in laboratories and package the anthrax spores inside aerosol containers. Anthrax can also be delivered in artillery shells and bombs.

Once inside a human or animal, the bacteria multiply. At first, they cause only flu-like symptoms, followed by severe chest congestion.

In its second phase, anthrax is almost always fatal because the bacteria multiply so fast, producing poisons that overwhelm the body, and cause an agonizing death.

As part of its preparation against possible aggression by Iraq, the U.S. Defense Department recently ordered that all U.S. military forces be vaccinated against anthrax.

* Botulinum. Like anthrax, this bacterium can be found in soil, and it occasionally strikes people who have eaten badly canned food in which the bacteria have grown. The bacteria produce an extremely poisonous substance that causes blurred vision, difficulty in swallowing or speaking, weakness, and other symptoms. Paralysis, respiratory failure, and death follow.

Most major arsenals of biological weapons now have reserves of botulinum bacteria.

Where the Front Line Is

More than 130 nations have signed the Geneva Protocol banning the use of biochemical weapons in war. Still, U.S. authorities worry about nations such as Iraq, with huge stockpiles of biochemical weapons--and a history of using such weapons. They also worry about terrorist groups both outside and inside the United States that hold a grudge against the U.S. government and might be willing to mount a suicide attack in a major city.

"The front line is no longer overseas," warned Defense Secretary William Cohen. "It can just as well be in any American city."

More than three dozen recent incidents on U.S. soil involving people attempting to use biochemical weapons are now under investigation by the FBI's antiterrorism unit.

Taking Action

Instead of waiting for an biochemical attack to take place, the government is working hard to prevent such an attack.

The FBI's antiterrorism budget has doubled in the past two years. The money pays for everything from gas masks and rubber suits to multimillion-dollar biolabs that can research the world's deadliest germs and chemicals.

Last year, the FBI recommended that 120 U.S. cities train firefighters, police, and hospital workers on how to counter a biochemical attack. The cities include Los Angeles; Chicago; Washington D.C.; Houston; Kansas City; San Diego; Philadelphia; and Denver.

In addition, the federal government is building a town for 20,000 people complete with subways, homes, offices, an electrical plant, and a sewage plant. But no one will live in the town. It will serve only as a training ground to learn how to handle biochemical attacks.

"This is serious stuff," said Amy Smithson, a biochemical weapons expert at the Henry L. Stimson Center in Washington, D.C. "There are people out there thinking of using these weapons."

 
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