Agro Terrorism


Senior Member
Oct 5, 2009
Agro Terrorism

At the beginning of the 21st century, more than 60 low and medium-intensity wars are raging around the planet-roughly double the average number during the Cold War period. Concurrently, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), multiplying acts of terrorism and increasing numbers of "rogue" or "failed" states are redefining both the nature of war and the concept of security.1

Amongst existing and potential threats the WMD threat from non-state actors is still much a debated issue. Cynics argue that the threat of WMD terrorism couldn't be overemphasised in the present context of conventional terrorist attacks. However, evidence suggests that terrorist perceptions are changing and the use of WMD as a terror tool cannot be completely ignored.

There is a growing concern about the possibility of the usage of these weapons by the non-state actors. Broadly two different schools of thought have emerged on the behavioral patterns of present generation terrorism.2 The first school believes that terrorism is politically motivated and is ultimately an offshoot of global power politics hence, terrorist organisations will adopt violent means only to a limited extent. The second school considers terrorism as a product growing out of religious extremism wherein terrorists seem to be more interested in destruction. Such terrorist groups are more likely to use WMDs.

ajey-lele1Currently, the WMD terrorism is getting redefined as CBRN (Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear) terrorism. This is because it has been appreciated that the radiological terrorism could no longer be regarded only as a subset of nuclear terrorism and it demands separate attention. Of late one additional threat is being discussed as a futuristic threat that has its umbilical cord connected with WMDs. This is a threat to agriculture.

There exists a possibility that number of micro and macro organisms could be employed against agriculture products on the similar lines as bio-terrorists could use them against humans. Policy-makers and threat assessment agencies have tended to group agro terrorism alongside human bio-terrorism because of the belief that the technical constraints for these two types of attacks are similar. However, grouping these two types of attacks together not only underplays the lower capability requirements of an agro-terrorist attack, but also reduces the number and scale of response mechanisms put into place to deal with this type of incident.3 Hence it could be argued that now there exists a need to contextualise the CBRN terrorism as CBRNA terrorism.

With changing nature of terrorism it has been continuously observed that the non-state actors are mostly changing the tools and tactics of launching unconventional attacks against the state and WMD could be their next weapon of choice. Hence, it is essential to comprehend various facets of WMD weapons and in that respect agro terrorism being the less talked threat demands more attention. Albeit every state understands that the agriculture sector is a key critical infrastructure sector4 but unfortunately do not appreciate the fact that this sector could also become a target of terrorists. This happens mainly out of ignorance and inability to understand the consequences of any such type of an attack. In light of this, the basic purpose of this paper is to put the notion of 'agro terrorism' in the context of modern day non-state threats and emphasise the need to expand the current debate on security by assessing the vulnerabilities of the agricultural sector to any unconventional attack.

What is Agro Terrorism?

Agro terrorism could be loosely defined as an attack on the livestock, poultry and/or crops that are critical to the food supply.5 This attack is not a physical attack on the agriculture assets but an attack carried out by using various organic agents. The definition offered by Peter Chalk in his testimony before the United States (US) Senate Subcommittee is found most apt definition which essentially covers all major facets of agro terrorism in present context. He describes agro terrorism as the deliberate introduction of a disease agent, either against livestock or into the food chain, for purposes of undermining stability and/or generating fear.6 Broadly, agro-terrorism could be further divided into two categories: one is a threat posed to the plants (crop) and other is a threat posed to the livestock (animals).


Agro terrorism is one of the most diminutive paths used by state and non-state actors till date. However, historical records do show few incidences related to this phenomenon. During First World War, Imperial Germany undertook a covert programme of bio-agriculture warfare, using anthrax and glanders, directed against horses and mules being shipped overseas from the US to the British and French armies. The programme was operated in the US from 1915 to 1917 by a Johns Hopkins Medical School graduate. It managed to infect 3500 horses.7 Sabotage by German agents during this war against livestock is considered to be one of the first instances of deliberate targeting of wheat crops with disease.8 During Second World War, a number of countries became actively involved in developing biological weapons. Most of these programmes included an anti-crop component. The US programme started in 1942. The Japanese had used chemical herbicides against Chinese crops on several occasions. However, the Japanese failed to develop delivery methods for effective spread of anti-crop biological agents.

Although the term 'agro terrorism' may be relatively new, the offensive use of biological agents to contaminate or destroy agriculture industries is not. Many countries experimented with these type of weapons throughout the Cold War period. In addition to the extensive biological warfare programmes in the US, the United Kingdom and the former Soviet Union, countries such as Iran, Iraq and South Africa operated concerted bioweapons programme targeting animals and agriculture. Prior to the negotiation of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) in 1972, military establishments of these countries considered biological attacks against an enemy's agriculture interests as legitimate means of warfare as it could cause significant harm to the economy of the target state.9

The US destroyed their well-developed agriculture weapons like stem rust, rice blast etc. as an aftermath of BTWC. In the 1950s and 1960s, the US stockpiled weapons were meant to destroy the staple crops of foreign nations, such as potatoes, soyabeans, sugar beets, cotton, wheat and rice.10 In 1980s, Iraq researched wheat cover smut and camel pox for use as weapons.11 Also, in 1980s, the Soviet Union weaponised wheat rust, African Swine Fever, Rinderpest, and FMD.12

With an increasing propensity to utilise new and novel techniques in unconventional warfare, various non-state actors have also opted to experiment with such types of weapons almost five decades ago. In 1952 in Kenya, members of the Mau Mau anti-colonialist group poisoned 33 steers with a biological agent (the agent was African milk bush: a local plant toxin). During the 1980s, Huk terrorists in the Philippines contaminated pineapples destined for export and the Rajneeshee cult in the United States used salmonella to poison local restaurants in Oregon.13 It has been reported that special psychological units of the Rhodesian government in conjunction with forces from South Africa injected canned meat with thallium and then provided this meat to insurgents through channels that led the guerillas to believe that they were being resupplied by other friendly insurgents. The guerillas gave this meat to innocent villagers and killed them.14 In 1999 and 2000, Israeli eggs sold domestically were contaminated with salmonella and killed two people.15

Chemical agents have been used somewhat more commonly against agriculture targets. During the Vietnam War, the US used agent orange to destroy foliage, affecting some crops. Among possible terrorist events chemical attacks against agriculture targets include a 1997 attack by Israeli settlers who sprayed pesticides on grapevines in two Palestinian villages, destroying up to 17,000 metric tons of grapes. In 1978, the Arab Revolutionary Council poisoned Israeli oranges with mercury, injuring at least 12 people and reducing orange exports by 40%.16.

Eco-terrorist groups have also found agro terrorism as an attractive method to demand attention. A group called the Breeders, who stated that they spread the insects to protest against prevalent agriculture practices, allegedly caused the rapid spread of the Mediterranean fruit fly in California in 1989.17

From World War II until the 1990s, several governments continued to study agents for anti-animal biological terrorism. There have been many claims of the use of such agents, perhaps most notably 21 claims by the Cuban government that the US deployed such tactics against Cuba. However, the strongest allegation was the employment of glanders by the former Soviet Union to infect the horses of the Afghan mujaheedin between 1982 and 1984.18

These acts and other threats of agro terrorism over the past 50 years illustrate that the terrorist use of biological agents to promote political agendas, seek revenge, intimidate a target population, or extort or economically punish particular governments or populations is well established. The WMD Terrorism Database at the Monterey Institute of International Studies outlines 21 incidents that can be classified as agricultural attacks against biological weapons over the past 50 years.19 Although none of these documented cases of agro terrorism was of a scale that threatened national economies, they illustrate a clear precedence for the terrorist use of biological agents to target agricultural commodities.20

Modern Advances and their Implications

During 1960s to 1990s the military agri-culture warfare programmes of few states saw the development of strategic, tactical and point source weapons. Also, few states had designed clandestine programmes to induce outbreaks through anti-agriculture sabotages. These programmes relied heavily on the characteristics of the agents, allowing more rudimentary agent production and requiring minimal dispersal technology.21

There is no concrete evidence to suggest that during last few years' state or non-state actors have shown any inclination particularly to invest into agriculture weapons. There have been few incidences of disease spread particularly in respect of animals like Mad Cow disease, Bird Flu etc. which has damaged the economy of many states and also few human deaths have taken place. However, the origins of these diseases have not been contributed to any intentional outbreaks. Agro terrorism is unique in a sense that even a very small disease outbreak could prompt international export restrictions. In addition, some livestock and poultry viruses can travel great distances on their own; a perpetrator does not need to devise special dispersal devices. Thus, the technical barriers to agro terrorism are lower than those to human-targeted bioterrorism. A perpetrator with a basic understanding of microbiology could simply visit an area where FMD occurs naturally, obtain diseased tissue, culture an infectious substance, and clandestinely infect herds. A single act of sabotage like this would not require sophisticated knowledge or expertise.22

The culturing of many animal and plant diseases from the environment is far easier. The former Soviet bioweapons scientist Ken Alibek has noted that Soviets found anti-agriculture weapons easier to produce23: In contrast to the sophisticated reactor techniques developed to produce anti-personnel biological weapons, anti-agriculture weapons were generally produced by more primitive methods. Anti-crop fungal diseases, involved basic surface cultivation techniques while anti-live stock weapons, cultivation generally involved live-animal techniques. It is worth noting that terrorists could easily adapt both of these basic techniques.

However, between anti-animal or anti-plant threats many experts believe that any anti-animal attack would emerge more effective than any anti-plant attack. This is because crop diseases, in general, do not travel airborne as fast or as far as animal diseases such as FMD. Plant pathogens are also highly sensitive to environmental factors such as temperature, humidity, and sunlight; even if a pathogen were released; it would not necessarily cause disease. Thus it would be technically very difficult to produce an agent that can guarantee almost 100 percent success. For this spores would have to be protected from ultraviolet light, and the agent would have to be formulated to prevent clumping, allowing for airborne dispersal.24

Most crop diseases do not kill plants outright. Instead they produce failed harvests by drastically reducing the quality and quantity of a plant's output. Unlike animals, plants do not have immune systems that actively seek out and destroy pathogens. They have different kinds of protective mechanisms, one of which is their cell walls made primarily of cellulose and lignin. These rigid barriers are impervious to many pathogens, particularly viruses. Whereas viruses present the greatest agro terrorist threat to animals, fungi present the biggest threat to crops.25

It is perceived that the revolutions in biological sciences would facilitate major developments in the field of agroweapons. Presently, experiments are underway to transfer desirable genetic character-istics from one species to another in order to improve the nutritional value of plants and increase their yield and performance. Scientists are experimenting with genes that confer resistance to herbicides, help ward off viruses and pests, and can adapt a plant to salty or dry terrains. The many changes taking place in the field of agriculture are being accompanied by revolutionary changes in the area of animal husbandry. Australian scientists have developed a novel breed of genetically engineered pigs that are 30 percent more efficient and brought to market seven weeks earlier than normal pigs.

Such technologies can be easily modified to suit military requirements of states. Terrorists could also use similar technologies to suit their own requirements. These genetically engineered biological warfare agents could pose as serious a threat to global security in the coming century as nuclear weapons do now.26

The use of biocontrol27 agents has been visualised in connection with the destruction of illicit drug crops. In this respect, Fusarium fungi (affecting cannabis and coca) and Pleospora fungi (affecting poppy plants) have been developed as potential biocontrol agents. Conducted under the auspices of the United Nations Drug Control Programme (UNDCP), the US has financed research into fungal pathogens of cannabis and coca, and the UK and the US financed research into fungal pathogens of poppy has been conducted in Uzbekistan.28

However, with all these experimentations there exists a scope of collateral damage that an unintended consequence can produce. There is a danger that, because of the scale of the infection that would be necessary to eradicate the Rhode Island-size sectors of Colombia that comprise several drug cultivation plantations there, the risk of fungi mutating into strains capable of attacking non-drug plants increases-to the point where it may cause irreversible damage to farmland or ecosystems. Furthermore, deliberately infecting crops, even with the lofty intent of destroying the scourge of drugs, establishes the policy wherein using disease to achieve morally desirable goals becomes appropriate. Such a position ultimately weakens counter-terrorism efforts against agroterrorists, whose methods would thus gain a certain cachet of legitimacy.29 States like Afghanistan have already taken offense even to the methods like spraying pesticides from aircrafts on opium fields.30

Threat Assessment

If presently agro terrorism is not even being thought as a weapon of choice by the terrorist organisations or by the states of concern, what is the need to raise this issue? The reason is simple: few recent acts of terrorism indicate that the policy makers should remain prepared for any unexpected eventualities. Today, the terrorist organisations are fast becoming innovative and technology savvy and are found to be adapting novel tactics and unthinkable technologies. The case in point is the plan foiled by British agencies to blow up ten commercial airliner aircraft flying from Britain to the US over Atlantic, by using liquid explosives. The terrorists had intention of making these explosives inside the aircraft by mixing few chemicals.31

It appears that instead of using expensive, complex, and readily detectable nuclear or radiological bombs, future terrorists can adopt tactics, favouring more simple and reliable methods. This may provoke them to look for alternatives like agro terrorism. Particularly when the recent bird flu spread has shown that what damage a spread of such disease can do.

The change in the characterisation of terrorism may be indicative of a new era, one in which the traditional, constrained terrorist of the 20th century is supplied by the ultra-violent post modern terrorist of the 21st century.32 Future terrorists will not adhere to any limits of "unofficial rules" observed during the past, "classical terrorism period".33

One of the future terrorism concepts, indicated in the 9/11 attacks, is that the previous perception of weapons is outdated.34 The new concept of weapons will cause ordinary people and military men alike to be greatly astonished at the fact that commonplace things that are close to them can also become weapons with which to engage the war.35 The improvisation of weapons by terrorists will continue and in the future the definition of what constitutes a "weapon" or an "attack" may alter drastically. Redefining how civilian and military leadership defines "weapons" and especially "weapons of mass destruction" will enable one to look beyond the scope of probable terrorist attacks and understand the most dangerous possibilities.36

Also one argument that emerged from the pattern seen during 9/11 was that instead of conventionally transporting explosives to the target, future terrorists might use a catalyst to cause the target to replace its own destructive energy-in effects causing the target to destroy itself. Future terrorists, seeking to create the effect of WMD, need only to look to find a concept that worked on 9/11.37 In case of agro terrorism it is possible to infect few (crops or animals) and then allow the disease to spread on its own thus causing destruction at a very large scale.

In future terrorists could look at agriculture as a perfect catalyst for obvious reasons. Agriculture is arguably the most important sector for the social, economic and political stability of any country but is the most neglected sector in respect of security. Past incidences of terrorism indicate that mostly the security apparatus in many parts of the world has been found reactive than proactive, so terrorists are unlikely to face any obstacles while attacking agriculture. Also, because of non-availability of empirical data about such attacks by non-state actors the analysts and policy makers have been left to discuss the threat based on assumptions about vulnerability.38 This has probably given a false sense of security to the state machinery and adequate measures are not being taken to safeguard agriculture.

While in recent past terrorists have relied on simple, direct low-technology action (such as hijacking of airplanes and ships and truck bombing), there is growing threat that some terrorists will resort to agriculture based strategies in coming years. Walter Laqueur, in his essay "Postmodern Terrorism"39, argues that if terrorists continued to find their presently held conventional weapons satisfactory, they will not resort to other methods or devices. This would likely exclude their experimentation with agro terrorism. However, Laqueur observes that if after years of struggle such groups have made little progress, they may be tempted to switch to strategies that are un-conventional in nature.

Agro terrorism falls into the category of unconventional form of terrorism and could be used by terrorist groups as an alternative method if their conventional strategies and conventional tools fail to deliver perceived results. It is hence crucial to factor the threat into the security dynamics. There exists a possibility of even a state supported agro terrorism40 where an enemy nation would use an agroterror attack as a precursor to an all-out offensive, in which contaminated agriculture products could be used. From the attackers point of view such attack might be viewed as campaign of strategic surprise and shock to engender psychological dislocation and social paralysis.

A successful agriculture attack would require the following: acquiring and propagating the proper pathogen; processing it for delivery; constructing an appropriate delivery device and developing a range of techniques to deal with varying meteorological conditions.41 To produce a successful disease outbreak is not a simple task. However, for a terrorist devoted to his cause it's not unobtainable either, especially in the 21st century.

Presently a variety of toxins, pests, and contaminants are commercially available. North Korea, for example, has actively marketed its services in pharmaceuticals and agribusiness developments. In reality this is liaison cooperation concerning bioagriculture weapons research based on sales of raw materials, technical expertise, and manufacturing equipment. It has reportedly signed agreements to provide such expertise to countries like Iran and Syria.42 Also, for many states farms, agricultural products, and meat and animal products are sitting ducks for enterprising terrorists because very little or no security measures are being adopted to cater against such threats in these sectors.

Unlike biological weapons that target people, terrorists can choose amongst several plant or animal pathogens that come into contact only with the surface of the target host to cause infection. No special process to weaponise the agent is required. When using pathogenic fungi of plants, one need not worry about creating a respirable aerosol; several infections can be induced by simply spreading the aerosol over the target hosts. A knowledgeable individual could inflict critical damage to agriculture with a pathogen obtained from the environment of a foreign country.43

Such attacks can cause severe economic damage. The natural outbreak of diseases like bird flu, FMD and mad cow and subsequent loses incurred by few European and Southeast Asian countries, is a case in point. The recent natural outbreaks of few diseases in certain segments of agriculture economy could be used as a template to identify and quantify the actual impact of an attack against agriculture. Such outbreaks do not carry with them the same level of psychological impact that is normally associated with terrorism. However, they do provide a baseline for economic analysis and estimates of disease impact on local, regional and national economies.44

The psychology of agro terrorism has some significant differences to the psychology of either warfare or the use of WMDs in terrorist attacks against human targets. While all terrorism attacks are short-term tactical missions against limited targets conducted with a longer range strategic goal of government destabilisation or motivating societal or policy changes, agro terrorism can instill the same desired fear, panic and loss of confidence without the direct loss of human life. In fact, the long term effects and psychological damage inflicted by an agroterror attack might be significantly greater because of long lasting and more widely disturbed economic hardships without the natural national anger and sense of purpose often generated by the loss of human life.45

In view of above it could be argued that even though there can be no certitude to predict the future but the trends in terrorism indicate that terrorists are continuously looking for unconventional tactics and agro terrorism could be a 'low probability' but a 'high consequence' event of tomorrow.

By Ajey Lele

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