Bioterrorism 'a clear and present danger'

The threat of an al-Qaeda bioterrorism attack was a “clear and present danger of the highest order”, secretary general of international policing organisation Interpol Ronald Noble said on Monday.

He was speaking in Cape Town at the opening of an Interpol-organised workshop for African police departments on bioterrorism—an attack using biological weapons such as anthrax, smallpox or plague.

“The threat of bioterrorism is real because the threat of terrorism is real, and the damage that terrorists seek to inflict on us defies one’s imagination, as we saw on 11 September 2001,” he told about 90 delegates, including 16 police chiefs, from 41 countries.

“Therefore the bioterrorist threat must be confronted and reduced on all fronts.”

He said al-Qaeda had “openly claimed the right to kill four million people” using biological and chemical weapons, and had posted instructions on how to make these weapons on its website.

“In my view, al-Qaeda’s global network, its proven capabilities, its deadly history, its desire to do the unthinkable and the evidence collected about its bioterrorist ambitions, ominously portend a clear and present danger of the highest order that al-Qaeda will perpetrate a biological terrorist attack.”

No region in the world was safe.

Noble said state agencies in the United States and Europe had fared poorly in a series of simulated attack exercises over the past few years, partly because of their lack of experience and training in this field and their lack of understanding of the

nature of the threat.

Unfortunately, the police and public health communities had a “very limited” history of working together internationally in a non-emergency or not-crisis context.

“Interpol strongly believes that the risks of bioterrorism are so momentous that the police and the public health communities must break down the barriers currently preventing close collaboration, locally, nationally and internationally,” he said.

National Police Commissioner Jackie Selebi, who is president of Interpol, told journalists after the opening ceremony that though South Africa had “received” people associated with al-Qaeda, and that there might be a few in the country who sympathised with the organisation, the police dealt with them ably and capably.

“It isn’t a big problem. It is a problem that we must be alive to at all times,” he said.

“So we are no staging platform, or a conduit or a platform for attacks. We do receive and we do react to those that we receive immediately.”

One of the men arrested after the July 7 bus and subway bombings in London, Haroon Aswat, was in South Africa weeks before the attacks.

Selebi said delegates to the workshop had no doubt that they had the capacity and the willingness, though “we may not have the resources”, to deal with any threat.

Africa, like any other continent, could be the target of bioterrorism attack, or could be used by terrorists as a springboard.

“If it is not if, but when, then we need to be ready today, not tomorrow.
In fact we should have been ready yesterday,” he said.

Noble said the workshop, which will be held behind closed doors, followed a global conference for police chiefs at Interpol headquarters in Lyon, France, in March this year.

The African workshop would be followed by other regional workshops in Singapore and Chile.

South African delegates include members of the police’s intelligence, forensic and bomb disposal units, and a representative of the office of the surgeon general.

Interpol has set up a dedicated unit at the Lyon offices to build national and international capacity to counter the threat of bioterrorism.

Interpol hopes to raise awareness of the threat, develop police training programmes, promote new legislation and encourage inter-agency co-operation on bioterrorism. - Sapa

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