U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs


Date of this Version


Document Type



Science, December 12, 2003; Volume 302.


The scientific community is being confronted by public concerns that freely available scientific information may be exploited by terrorists. Differing points of view among scientists threaten to complicate discussion intended to address these concerns. Skepticism of the existence, breadth, and severity of the threat posed by would-be bioweaponeers is compounded by the failure to find clear evidence of biological weapons in Iraq. Also, some even question the extent to which open-source scientific material contributes to the threat.

Recent public discussions regarding the potential for open-source science to enable bioterrorist activities have occurred in a vacuum, without examples of "real-world" activity. This is largely because the need for national security professionals to safeguard sources inculcates a culture of secrecy unlike the openness of the life science community.

One potential contribution of the national security community is the opportunity albeit limited, to educate scientists regarding current and emerging threats through unclassified case studies. The following brief description of some recent findings provides insight into activities of potential exploiters and emphasizes the importance of closer interaction between the scientific and security communities.

Documents recovered from an al-Qaida training camp in Afghanistan - (1) in 2001 have shed light on procedures and methodologies used by al-Qaida in its efforts to establish a biological warfare(BW) program. Individuals involved in this effort apparently relied on scientific research and information obtained collegially from public and private sources (see figure, above right) (2).

Books found at the camp describe State sponsored BW activities and outline the history of biological warfare. The site also contained over 20 vintage research articles and medical publications from U.K. journals of the 1950s and '60s that provided a method for isolating, culturing, identifying, and producing bacteria, including Bacillus anthracis and Clostridium botulinum. Hand-written letters and BW primers found together at the same site suggest that al-Qaida's BW initiative included recruitment of individuals with Ph.D.-level expertise who supported planning and acquisition efforts by their familiarity with the scientific community.