Insect-Based Terrorism

Sounds like fearmongering to me.

How real is the threat? Many of the world’s most dangerous pathogens already are transmitted by arthropods, the animal phylum that includes mosquitoes. But so far the United States has not been exposed to a large-scale spread of vector-borne diseases like Rift Valley, chikungunya fever or Japanese encephalitis. But terrorists with a cursory knowledge of science could potentially release insects carrying these diseases in a state with a tropical climate like Florida’s, according to several experts who will speak at the workshop.

Posted on May 17, 2010 at 1:30 PM42 Comments


freedomofeverything May 17, 2010 2:07 PM

It isn’t even good fearmongering. A terror threat that’s beaten by Off. Or those cheesy bamboo torches from Ikea, what a burn.

Ray May 17, 2010 2:14 PM

I didn’t RTFA, but it seems to me that this wouldn’t work at all. Malaria is spread when a mosquito feeds on an infected host and then spreads the illness to the next animal it feeds upon. The disease has to already be somewhere in the food chain. “Infecting” a mosquito would have very little effect, as their life cycle is so short. Infecting what the mosquitoes feed upon is what would make this work.

Alexey May 17, 2010 2:20 PM

We already have forests filled with encephalitis mites here in Siberia, and nobody is terrorized. It is everyday threat with relatively cheap and effective treatment and lots of insurance options.

Clive Robinson May 17, 2010 2:23 PM

This type of biological warefare has been considered many times in the past century, and apparently a Japsnese “death cult” con.sidered it.

the simple fact is that more people a year die from this vector than most types of warfare.

Is it a threat well we don’t know but history does tell us a lot (black death) about what can happen.

and yes malaria (the worlds number one killer) has been known historicaly in the likes of Northan Europe (look up marsh ague and the marshes around the River Thames eastg of £

HJohn May 17, 2010 2:26 PM

I don’t know that the motive is fearmongering, though it may be used that way by others. I suspect that ther person who cooked this up is being fuled by a desire to feel important. People would rather uncover and thwart the next plot by a mastermind.

The things that really help don’t have the interesting headlines.

MrAtoz May 17, 2010 2:33 PM

This is yet another example of terrorism-as-business-engine. The University of Florida has an Emerging Pathogens Institute that needs publicity and funding. Fear of terrorism generates both of these in large quantities. It is exactly the same equation that drives the business for news media, military contractors, etc.

So long as fear generates such substantial financial rewards for such a wide array of businesses, it will continue to be encouraged, especially by our corporate-friendly government.

Yonatan Zunger May 17, 2010 2:34 PM

One simple reason why this shouldn’t be expected to work: Insects already travel all over the world, via ordinary migration, shipping, parasitism on migratory birds, and so on. Diseases travel as quickly as their vectors. If, e.g., encephalitis-bearing mosquitos could migrate to the US and thrive there enough to trigger an epidemic, they would already be doing so. If the hypothetical attacker has the resources to engineer a new mosquito which can both thrive in the wide variety of US ecosystems, and which acts as a vector for encephalitis, and then seed the US with enough of these mosquitos to actually kick off epidemics or other large-scale economic disruptions, then we are not dealing with terrorists, we are dealing with extremely sophisticated state actors.

Erik Nørgaard May 17, 2010 2:35 PM

I think they haven’t considered the problem of scale: It is not easy to breed a insects all carrying the desired parasite or disease on a large scale, in particular not outside their natural habitat. And then not considering the problem of carrying out, spreading the insects before they die.

So while the theory sounds easy, and it’s easy to test in the lab, it is very difficult to carry out on a scale with effect comparable to other attack types.

Even if they succeeded, would it have the same effect as a traditional terror attack? The bird flu failed to terrorise us. A terrorist would have to make an effort to show the world that this is the work of a terrorist and not a simple consequence of modern travel patterns or nature’s surprises…

kangaroo May 17, 2010 2:43 PM

It’s much more likely that such infections will spread via natural process (hitchhiking on ships, logs, etc) than that they could be intentionally introduced.

Biology is a nasty business — it took four tries to introduce rabbits to Australia. They failed on the first three, then unleashed that plague on the fourth. Later, they tried to kill the rabbits by introducing a disease — the disease adapted, and the population of rabbits was unaffected in the long term.

You could spend a lot of time trying to create these threats and get nothing — or have it blow up in your face by introducing it or increasing virulence in your own locale. Finally, since it can happen naturally, it would be tough to get credit for it.

The fear of introduced diseases is real, and we do need to research it — but not for terrorism reasons at all. That’s just stupid.

Why don’t nations use biological weapons or most chemical weapons? Not because nations have any decency — but because they are difficult to control and as likely to kill your own guys as the enemy.

Marcos May 17, 2010 2:43 PM

That thing not only can work (in killing people), it in fact can work better than most forms of terrorism. We have daily proof of that, just by looking at the death statistics.

But it may be impossible to distinguish a terrorist induced epidemics from a natural one, making it not very appaling to terrorists, I think. Oh, and it is probably expensive, a lab full of contamined mosquitoes looks like a nightimare to maintain.

HJohn May 17, 2010 2:44 PM

Yeah, I agree with others that I don’t find this concerning. Sort of like the fears of poisoning the food or water supply–even if one had access to it, it is not that easy to do.

I also fail to see how a intentionally engineered attempt to introduce a infection via insect would require a much difference response than the ones that happen naturally. Granted, figuring out who did it may be a problem, but it’s not like dealing with insect borne illnesses is new.

Petréa Mitchell May 17, 2010 2:47 PM

Seems to me this has already been taken care of. Florida used to have an endemic mosquito-borne killer virus, and there are measures still employed to keep it from returning which would seem to address any other mosquito-borne disease as well.

mcb May 17, 2010 3:05 PM

Most pathogens are quite neatly controlled for, immunized against, or treated with antibiotics.

One supposes that economic damage might be inflicted by intentionally transporting Emerald Ash Borers, Asian Milfoil, and Bighead Carp into new habitats. Of course you’d have to wait a couple years to see if the mission was a success, and then a couple decades for the impact to reach full strength. Not exactly the breaking news CNN is looking to scroll across the bottom of the screen.

a different phil May 17, 2010 3:12 PM

Didn’t the ‘X-Files’ movie plot involve infecting Africanized honeybees with some nefarious virus to be released to destroy the United States?

John N. May 17, 2010 4:08 PM

Does anyone remember the hyperbole-laden stories about the dangers of West Nile Virus when it first made the news in the US?

Regular readers of Bruce’s stuff should recognize that (a) unfamiliar hazards cause the general public to react in irrational ways that vastly overestimate the likelihood of such hazard occurring and (b) such unfamiliar hazards make for good ratings and good political campaign fear-mongering.

anon May 17, 2010 5:10 PM

America does have a valid problem with invasive species (zebra mussels in the Great Lakes, Asian carp about to enter the Great Lakes, pythons in Florida etc etc etc). To worry about this problem as we worry about terrorism would lead to bad solutions. For instance, we need to regulate the discharge of ballast water in the great lakes, the importing of exotic species as pets, keeping foreign wood pallets out of American warehouses. If we give this problem to the TSA to manage, they will do a great job making us all strip to look for mosquito bites and a bad job at everything else

billswift May 17, 2010 5:44 PM

Silly. Malaria and yellow fever used to be epidemic in the United States. There was a yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia not long after the Revolution, for example. They were defeated mostly by window screens and vector control. I read an article several years ago pointing out that providing window and door screening to Africans would reduce the disease mortality and morbidity more than all the planned immunizations combined and at less cost, they just weren’t flashy enough to get financed.

stevew May 17, 2010 6:05 PM

Let’s keep it simple. Terrorism is all about publicity, right? Monitor the news and the CDC, and then take credit for a “bio-terror” attack when some disease spikes. Cheap, effective, and generates plenty of news.. Scientists not required.

Frances May 17, 2010 10:32 PM

West Nile was real and real people were infected by it and some of them got quite ill. It is sensible to do something to avoid getting it such as wearing mosquito repellent and avoiding the times of day when mosquitos are most active. It is not sensible to get into a three-cornered purple panic about it.

Winter May 18, 2010 3:07 AM

What can we do what nature is not already doing on a massive scale?

DNA manipulation? Insect vectors of deadly diseases? Invasive species?

It all happens in your garden on a daily basis. If you want to be afraid, watch the flue. That is a killer in the West.

There have been loads of articles on this blog alone that showed nothing beats good explosives for killing many people.

Bio-terror and bio-warfare are simply a waste of time and money.


Nick Fortune May 18, 2010 3:18 AM

stevew has the heart of it, I think. This would be a poor choice for a terrorist weapon, simply because it’s difficult to distinguish from a natural epidemic.

I suppose you could release a warning ahead of time: “soon my insect minions will have you dropping like … Flies! Muh-ha-ha-ha!” But even then you get to wait maybe six months for the changes to propagate through the local ecosystem… I can’t help thinking you’d get more bang for your buck with conventional tactics.

Clive Robinson May 18, 2010 3:24 AM

@ Winter,

You raised a wry smile on my face with,

“watch the flue. That is a killer in the West”

Indead Carbon Monoxide is a major issue in European homes where incorect gas flow up the flue (chimney) causes it to build up to fatal levels.

Also the usual death toll to viral “winter flu” in the old, infirm, young and unlucky runs into many tens of thousands in Europe.

Winter May 18, 2010 3:24 AM

@Clive Robinson:
“What does not kill us makes us stronger”

Have you read “Guns, germs, and steel” by Jarred Diamond? Our farm-animals gave us all of our crowd diseases.

Eurasian germs wiped out the natives (who had less farm animals) everywhere but in Africa. In Africa the local ecology co-evolved with humans. So Africa is the one continent which can control human populations.

We still have African wildlife because of Malaria, sleeping sickness, and a host of parasites just waiting for a tasty human.


anon May 18, 2010 5:23 AM

“Is it just me, or has “terrorism” replaced “communism” as the new root password to unlimited government funding?”

You’re a little slow on the uptake.
It’s been that way for eight and a half years.

uk visa May 18, 2010 6:52 AM

Given that California has a fire season that lasts all year, a terrorist with a box of matches would reap more destruction on America than messing about with insects.
Can you do anything about either; no.

BF Skinner May 18, 2010 7:17 AM

This is a variant of the screwfly solution isn’t it?

I believe @HJohn is making the valid point. If this is fearmongering Cui Bono?

@Phillip “How about election year.”
Except it’s nearly always an election year here every two years. Does every threat assessment then become soley ‘political’? And even if a thing is politically motivated doesn’t mean it’s wrong. This is where critical thinking part of the assessment comes in. This comes out of an institute in a public university. Which says nothing about credibilty but can be regarded as disconnected from the political process. If this was MoveOn or AEI or the Meis Institue it would be different as their thinking is informed by a particular viewpoint.

Schools are different. The fact of UoF has a pathalogy unit is irrelevant they are have work and more to do. They defend their academic freedom to explore any avenue of research for open inquiry. Even lame ones. If it were me I’d be weaponizing roaches.

@kangaroo here is more than correct when he notes that the US is seeing an increase in more dangerous invasive life forms. The A. aegypti mosquito is thought to have hitchhiked throughout the world since WWII (add bomb craters and tires to his list) and is moving north into the US. More aggressive than our local breed it also feeds on a variety of mammals like rats and dogs swapping microorgasmic spit between them and humans. (yuck) As the climate warms north their range moves too with the Africanized honeybees.

As @clive points out Malaria used to be found in London. It was endemic in New York City (in fact there are still a case or two every year that seems to originate locally.) The reason we don’t see higher disease rates here is ascribed to the loss of habitat, improved urban sanitation (darn gummint regulation. People want raw sewage in their water! Let the market decide), and treatments.

The thing would be if someone were to “weaponize” mosquitos would we even notice it?

The spread of West Nile Virus in the US, hopping from state to state, has been erratic and just weird. (@frances some people got more than quite ill; some die from it every year) An insect as a vector would be like shooting a gun at someone really slowly — only to hit their as yet unconcieved/unborn grandchild. It would require the exploitation of animals already in the target biosphere and adapting a number of enviornmental and lifecycle variables. That may satisfy some marginal urges (maybe even policy ones as witnessed by US Gov distributing smallpox contaminated clothing to native American indians) but not the terrorist. The terrorist expects results. The terrorist has goals and a limited budget.

This is a theat. Marginal to my view. But like any threat source it should to be studied, validated, categorized.

If it IS mongering then we should expect certain behaviors that can be witnessed. Expect to see it trumpted over and over again. A single web page announcing the study isn’t enough. If it is mongering look for the subject to be amplified on talkshows, experts writing books and interviewing, it’ll be brought up in blue ribbon commisions, testified to in Congressional hearings, adopted by particular Senators and Congressmen and women as a cause; passed on facebook, accompanied by viral videos.

Unless that happens a page on the Interwebs doesn’t count for mongering.
Web pages and blogs are the chatter of our conciousness and un-. So much noise most (upwards of 80% won’t even notice.

bob (the original bob) May 18, 2010 7:27 AM

@Alexey: Do you have groups of people and government organizations “rebuilding wetlands” (ie putting back in swamps that had been drained decades or even centuries ago for safety) in populated areas where mosquitos can breed surrounded by humans?

Here in Ohio, they removed an onramp from US hwy 35, dug it out 5 feet below grade and filled it with stagnant water for a length of 1/4 mile or so directly adjacent the heavily used bike trail. Because we want to give West Nile virus a fair chance to succeed. Perfect for the old favorites like Yellow Fever or Malaria too! Stipulated that mosquitos dont live long; so you put small mammals with the disease in the area for the mosquitos to feed from and transfer it to humans.

@Clive: sounds more like a “special needs” phone

HJohn May 18, 2010 9:59 AM

@BF Skinner: “If this is fearmongering Cui Bono?”

The only ones I really see benefiting are those presenting their findings. They appeal to a small group of people who are interested, maybe give some speaking engagements, sell some books, earn some benefactors, maybe even get a government job assessing the risk.

But insofar as the country as a whole, I assume the impact — socially, electorally, politically, economically, etc. — will be negligible.

It’s possible someone will use insect terrorism, but I think it is highly unlikely to use it successfully. I hope I’m not proven wrong

It seems the best bet is an approach that deals with the more common natural illness spread through insects in addition to anything deliberate. That way there will likely be a tangible benefit in a likely scenario. Otherwise, we’re wasting our time and money on the rare.

The best analogy I can think of is building evacuations. You don’t have a seperate plan for evacuations based on bomb threat, man made destruction, fire, structural collapse, etc. You have an evacuation plan independent of the threat, so it is more likely to be useful, particularly if there is a threat you didn’t think of (a plane crashing into a building comes to mind).

Clive Robinson May 18, 2010 10:04 AM

@ Winter,

“… farm-animals gave us all our crowd…”

Yup didn’t the bible have something to say about “sleeping with beasts” etc.

It is noticible that a lot of the less plesant types of flu tend to originate whered there is “close contact” animal husbandry. Suchh as where fowl for instance are actually kept in family dwellings.

Mind you it’s not just bacterial and viral diseases, think parrisites of various forms including the highly improbable life cycle of tapeworms etc.

The parasites of all forms just love “tasty humans” mind you we should not say it to loud or the Moderator will say “It’s not that sort of blog” 😉

BF Skinner May 18, 2010 10:54 AM

@clive “…have something to say about “sleeping with beasts”

No I think that was either Madonna, or one of her ex’s.

Yeah. I’m there with you. The Ex-Govenor isn’t even part of the workshop –here he’s just giving a plenary talk on the overall bioterror threat.

More I think about it the less likly a scenario it becomes; for a terrorist. It’s the weapon of an invader or nation who wants to clear the land. It seems to me that acts of non-state terror are predicated on two principals.

First non-repudiation. “Yeah we are your enemies. We hurt you. And we will go on hurting you.”

Second. The ability to stop the hurting. Without the ability to stop there is no incentive for the attacked party to negotiate. Say I planted a bomb I couldn’t stop. You give into all my demands and it blows up. Where’s your motivation to fulfill my demands?

Say West Nile is a terrorist attack. Can you see anyone taking credit for it? “See we kill 3 american’s again this season. At this rate we project the elimination of every American in another 100 million years. Death to America!” If I was on the Al Quieda board of directors I’d be having words to the operations group about “measures of effectiveness” and alighning their acts with “buisness objectives.”

By these measures the Anthrax attacks and Unibombinbs weren’t terrorist in nature but criminal assaults from disturbed people.

HJohn May 18, 2010 4:18 PM

I have to attend at least 40 hours of training a year. A couple years ago, a dynamic, popular (and very intelligent) speaker gave a class on cyber-espionage. If I’m being frank, it was one of the most interesting days I’ve had in training. I learned things I didn’t know. The speaker was great. All in all it was a fun topic. People paid good money for it.

Another class was given near that time about general controls. Less expensive. The speaker was okay, but not as good as the other. We went through a lot of good information on protections, strategies, policies, configurations, etc. It wasn’t nearly as entertaining as the first one.

Problem is, though the first topic was much more exciting and fun, the second topic was more useful and applicable to most responsibilities.

The relevant point is that it’s when someone cooks up something unique, intriguing, and entertaining, it is a much better sell.

I still remember the name of the first instructor, but not the second. I also bet the first one has sold more books and gets paid more for speeches.

An article that says “you are safer when you buckle up and have an air bag” probably will not be as interesting as the one that says “car wiring rerouted to cause spark in gas tank when headlights are turned resulting in the car exploding.” The one people pay attention to is probably not the one that will do them the most good.

It’s human nature. We like interesting, not common and mundane.

Mike Ferguson May 18, 2010 5:17 PM

Good year for caterpillars, bad year for fruit trees, where I live. The neighbours say I’m paranoid but I think they’re probably terrorist caterpillars. Or part of a government conspiracy.

MW May 19, 2010 11:38 PM

This reminds me of a ‘terrorism’ idea I had some time ago (possibly for the first ‘movie plot’ competition, I forget.)

Go around the country secretly infecting animals with foot-and-mouth, in such a way that the outbreak locations form your terrorist group’s logo.

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