Rapid advances in science which have simplified the skill set needed to perform what once were sophisticated experiments coupled with the ubiquity of biological agents in the environment comprise the standard narrative regarding the risk of of biological weapons development. The threat of these banned weapons as assessed through the lens of the standard narrative led to the dire prediction in 2008 by The WMD Commission that an attack using, most likely, a biological weapon would occur by 2013.
This is a narrative I have presented countless times when lecturing on the topic. I do add in that a lot of tacit knowledge, an identification made by Kathleen Vogel in her book, is needed as biological weapons manufacturing, even on small scales, is not as easy as making crystal meth. Almost invariably, I am asked by an audience member why, if this process is so easy, a large-scale biological attack has not occurred. I don't usually give an answer that I myself find satisfactory.
However, I never appreciated how potentially limiting the "standard narrative" is to how the world approaches counter threat activities and how I answer the above question. George Mason University's Sonia Ben Ouargham-Gormley's 2014 book Barriers to Bioweapons: The Challenges of Expertise and Organization for Weapons Development convincingly illustrates how a new conceptualization -- inductively derived from the experiences of the US, Soviet, Iraq, South African, and Aum Shinrikyo biological weapons programs -- of the risk provides a new path to positively augment current counter threat activities and answers the question frequently posed to me.
Throughout this book Professor Ben Ouargham-Gormley challenges the premise that the formative stage of a bioweapons program is the most crucial to the acquisition of biological weapons capacity. She argues that the formative stage, which involves the acquisition of biological material and technology, is not nearly as important as the sustenance phase of a program in which the actual production, scale-up, and viable weaponization occur. Nuclear counterproliferation, she further argues, is much more suited to a focus on the formative stage and this paradigm is not wholly applicable to the biological realm.
As she writes,“in the bioweapons field, expertise and knowledge—and the conditions under which scientific work occurs—are significantly greater barriers to weapons development than are procurement of biomaterials, scientific documents, and equipment.”
The quick retort to her might be that the deadly anthrax attacks of 2001, the almost monthly reports of someone home-brewing the assassination tool ricin, and the continual "white powder incidents" demonstrate that the threat of biological weapons at any scale is dangerous enough to provoke calamity and fear. Additionally, Project Bacchus, in which 1 kilogram of an anthrax simulant was made from off-the-shelf materials in a 2 year US government project shows what is possible. These points are definitely true but miss the point of this work as they are not the exact subject of the book nor the intended focus of much of our preparedness activities, the large breadth and scope of which are aimed at larger scale use of biological weapons. Similarly, it is not that her thesis is that no large scale bioweapon production could ever occur, but that it is most likely to occur in a certain contexts.
Professor Ben Ouargham-Gormley provides ample evidence for her thesis from several known biological weapons programs, concretizing that even in the most adept programs difficulties arose because of suboptimal organizational and managerial practices. The book heavily documents such practices and provides much evidence, as well as many important anecdotes involving Soviet bioweapons scientists as well as the infamous Iraqi scientists Dr. Germ and "Chemical Sally".
My understanding of the topic has been greatly deepened by this work and this scholarly treatment of a vital national security issue is a welcome addition to the field.