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January 11, 2009
Movie-Plot Threat: Terrorists Using Insects
Fear sells books:
Terrorists could easily contrive an "insect-based" weapon to import an exotic disease, according to an entomologist who's promoting a book on the subject.
Posted on January 11, 2009 at 12:47 PM
• 35 Comments
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Terrorists could also pray to Allah trying to convince him to make the big Yellowstone Caldera explode.
According to my popular science books, this would however make become extinct everybody on this planet, right? Not too smart then.
As an American citizen what should I be more worried about: chance of Yellowstone imploding or chance of terrorists using mosquitoes to kill us all?
So much to worry about!
Good movie plot, but as a practical matter, what is to prevent the insects from coming back to "bite" whichever country launched the attack? Isn't that part of the reason both chemical and biological weapons were banned? Not just because they are so terrible, but because they are inherently uncontrollable?
Yeah ... whatever.
So the insects would be the vector used to deploy the disease or whatever.
Go to Google and type in "insect vectors of disease" without the quotations marks. You'll find all kinds of information on it.
The problem is that it is not as easy as seems to be claimed. We've seen that same technique used by accident ever since people have traveled. Yet we've survived.
And it is even easier to survive now. We can spray for insects if the threat is seen to be worth the risk and expense.
Just one point,
The biggest insect based killer in the world is malaria by a long long way.
Most of the modern drugs used to prevent/treat malaria are either inefective or have serious side effects (depresion / suicide being one).
Contry to the popular notion that malaria is an equitorial issue, it can infact survive into northan climes.
Have a look at the history of something called "Marsh Ague".
It has been historicaly found at least as far north as 60 degrees, which covers most of the US and Europe.
As a Marine Corps NBC Defense Specialist, I attended the US Army Chemical School in the late 1980's. The history of biological warfare was part of the course. The experimentation with insect and rodent vectors during the Korean War proved to be too unreliable to be considered a viable means of delivery. The documentation is unclassified and publically available.
For all of you who are making a mock of this threat, what makes you think terrorists are worried about the backlash considering they are willing to give their lives as a suicide bomber and to crash a plane into the world trade center?
Remember, their are people out there who couldn't give a damn if the world survives or not!
The point of my post is that the use of insects and rodents as a vector for delivering biological "weapons" is not viable, they are too suseptable to environmental factors to be useable as a weapon delivery system. The premise of the book is flawed.
Even though, as Clive Robinson pointed out, malaria is viable as far north as 60 degrees lat., the environmental factors (cold) limit the life span of the virii and bacteria. During one summer in the 1840's there was an outbreak of malaria in the Prairie du Chien area of Wisconsin, but the mosquitos and the malaria did not survive the winter. They came up the Mississippi River with the traders.
For something like that to be a serious threat would take lots of genetic engineering to modify the virii and bacteria to deal with the harsher environments.
I can think of at least one movie that did use that for a bit of plot... if not at all seriously: The Tuxedo, starring Jackie Chan.
@James: "For all of you who are making a mock of this threat, what makes you think terrorists are worried about the backlash considering they are willing to give their lives as a suicide bomber and to crash a plane into the world trade center?"
Remember that in most cases, a terrorist who is contemplating a suicide mission is thinking that their individual life doesn't matter, but a victory for Their Side does matter. Of course, if Their Side gets decimated as well, it's a Phyrric victory at best.
The people who don't give a damn if the world survives or not are rarely labelled "terrorists" - they usually get the more appropriate "crazed sniper" or "insane bomber" labels.
We have here a recently introduced, insect-borne disease. After a few years of panicked stories, it's now a page-13 "Ninth West Nile case in county confirmed" where "ninth" means since the beginning of the season, and the county has a population of over a million, is near where the disease reached North America, and suffering as badly as anyone else. Turns out that this particular nasty new disease is very bad for horses and corvids, and most humans shrug it off.
I really don't see the relevance of this book: disregarding the contents of any dodgy government labs, the diseases which spread by insect are already in the wild; these diseases have spread as far as *current* conditions will allow. Clive's comment about "Marsh Ague" in England is particularly pertinent: Malaria became established because the environment was favourable, then it died out again due to the environment changing.
With Malaria killing upward of a million people a year - the majority of which are children - I don't see how a terrorist is going to appreciably change matters as introduction of a foreign parasite or whatever will only survive in appropriate environments, the result of which means it would have already been established in any viable target area.
In this sense, climate change may be far more of a threat, at least if the mean temperature throughout Europe is set to increase.
I can see it now. DHS agents with biometric scanners checking every bug to see if they are "native" Americans, or foreign bugs that might be terrorist agents... Come on folks, let's get back to the business of living, and leave this malarkey to the authors of fictional books.
If they're going to try this then why stop at half-measures? Why not genetically alter the bugs and turn them into enormous flesh-craving nightmare-beasts a la Starship Troopers?
Jesus, if we were to worry about every little thing terrorists could potentially, albeit massively improbably, do to smack us about we'd never sleep again. As for me, I'll spend more time worrying about some random drunk deciding that my face would make a good resting place for his empty bottle as I scurry up Leith Walk at night...
A couple of things I forgot to mention that are of interest.
Firstly as Peter notes the majority of those killed by malaria are children, HOWEVER this is in a population that has a genetic protection to the parasite via the sickle hemoglobin gene (unfortunatly it also causes sickle cell anemia). Most people who's ansestry is from European countries have no such defense.
Secondly we know that the climate in Europe is becoming milder and there is currently a prime example of how malaria might spread into Northan Europe google "bluetongue midge".
Basicaly bluetongue is a non contageous blood bourn virus that is spread in ruminants (sheep, cattle etc) by a midge.
It has taken something like two years to spread across Northern Europe it originated in South Africa and was first seen in Southern Europe (Cyprus) about ten years ago.
You can read a little more about it at,
Or in a bit more depth at,
Although I would agree that malaria is not a viable terrorist weapon simply due to it's low news worthyness it is nether the less a significant risk that it would be well advised to start preparing for. And even if it did not get into Europe or America the drug and other research would help save over a million lives a year...
I was quite surprised to see that the USA still has cases of the plague transmitted by animal fleas. Not spread by terroists but by stupid people.
Honestly...if killer bees, invading us since the 70's, have destroyed us yet...as MJMcElvoy pointed out above animal vectors are two slow for a political statement. Only population biologists, horticulturialist and tree huggers seem to care about such things.
We should probably start classifying these plot types to keep it simple. Just spitballing here..."it's the scene where Austin Powers runs over the guy with a steam roller and Snakes on a Plane; with Eliot Gould and Marie Osmond!"
I'd call this one Bugs on the Bus.
Terrorism is cultural. The Islamic extremists don't think about doing the most harm. They think about the conflict between cultures and their own place in that conflict as supposed martyrs, as someone who had a heroic role in the conflict.
So they would not release insects infected with disease, even if it was a plan that would certainly succeed. Their culture would not view them as heroic or as martyrs for doing something like that, so they do not even consider it.
They prefer explosions, or any kind of big dramatic discrete event. They don't do things like, create counterfit currency and then spread it around to try to undermine the ecomony, because it is not a showy discrete event.
Reverse insect plot:
Destroy all insect life within a large geographic territory to disrupt the food chain.
Japanese used fleas during WWII with mixed results. The plague isn't that difficult to cultivate and disburse in certain areas.
Let's ignore for a moment the question of whether or not this kind of attack would be viable or effective. The fact of the matter is that terrorists could better further their twisted cause with much simpler, more controllable, and more effective methods. Going nuts with anti-mosquito measures ignores all of the other possibilities.
As Bruce said once before, every dollar spent preventing movie-plots is a dollar not spent on Arabic translators and intelligence professionals.
I think this kind of attack is impossible on large scale due to the environmental factors. If it was viable, nature would have done it. Further, getting enough spread to start an epidemic is difficult.
Millions if not billions are exposed to these deceases everyday in the tropics, mostly people without access to treatment. Yet, "only" a million fatalities a year. I doubt a successful attack will have any significant effect, in terms of fatalities. Of course, the fear factor may be significant, but that requires that we can ascribe the attack to terrorists, which is much easier with good old bombs.
Even a permanent threat from nature as environment becomes more habitable to these deceases or the parasites adapt, will not overthrow civilisation as we know it. It will more likely be another number in the statistics along with traffic fatalities.
Oh wait I've seen this one - The Tuxedo with Jennifer Love Hewitt and Jackie Chan...
The accidental introduction of destructive insects has already done a lot of damage in our natural world - think emerald ash borer or Asian longhorned beetle, or going back farther, Dutch elm disease (spread by an insect), or the disease that killed the American chestnut trees (probably also spread by an insect). What makes it impossible for an insect-born disease to affect humans or livestock?
There was always the Bat Bomb from WWII. But the Bomb superseded it before it was used.
@ Erik N,
"Millions if not billions are exposed to these deceases everyday in the tropics, mostly people without access to treatment. Yet, "only" a million fatalities a year."
As I pointed out further up the page the people you are talking about here have a genetic protection against malaria which your average person of European ancestry does not.
Therefore even with a genetic protection over a million still die each year.
Further as I also pointed out most anti-malarials are either ineffective or have significant side effects.
Therefore you are not comparing apples with apples, more like peaches with coconuts...
Movie Plot Threat indeed - this was the plot for the 1st X-Files movie.
Terrorists could also get a management job at a toilet paper factory (with false resumes of course, duh) and secretly embed itchpowder in each roll.
Can't someone write a book about something that terrorists can NOT do? Now that would be newsworthy.
Someone else mentioned, that the Japanese did this in WWII. I wanted to add more information on it: The Japanese, one specific researcher doctor was in charge (pretty nasty guy that infected a bunch of his own people) but I don't remember his name. They developed clay containers, "bombs" that were packed full with a hundred pounds or so of infected fleas. The idea was to drop the clay bombs on the west coast and infect the populace. There were logistical problems if I remember correctly.
The lesson though, is that chemical and biological weapons don't work very well in a military environment. humans are resilient, and there's alot of dependencies to infect and kill / disable an individual soldier. Someone evil has to get the fleas to bite people, and target a mass of people, not an easy thing to do.
If someone evil had goals of terrorizing and driving fear into a populace, it would probably be an effective method, though I'm not sure that would work very well either.
Bugs? You're thinking too small, man! Clearly the terrorists are training bird to fly into plane engines in NYC! *insert unfounded media-driven panic here*
Should we be allowed to train birds to fly over terrorists areas during fighting and drop bombs on them?
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