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Bioterror in the 21st Century: Emerging Threats in a New Global Environment

Bioterror in the 21st Century: Emerging Threats in a New Global Environment by Daniel M. Gerstein. Naval Institute Press, 2009, 256 pp.

Bioterror in the 21st Century includes foundational knowledge of the bioterror threat, current work in addressing that threat, and a way to break the threat into smaller parts that provide policymakers the focus needed to prioritize limited resources. The book is well organized and effective in laying out the problems in bioterror and will effectively take a person with little to no experience in this field to a new level of understanding of the problems involved with the bioterror threat we face in the twenty-first century.

The author organizes information around what he identifies as the contemporary nexus formed by globalization, terrorism, and biotechnology. He considers globalization relevant to bioterror in two primary ways. First, the rapid movement and mixing of populations is significant due to the potential for the spread of contagious disease. Second, globalization has resulted in easy access to all forms of information, not least of which is troubling amounts of dangerous biotechnology information available to anyone with access to the Internet.

The second major element of the nexus is terrorism. The author notes that the trend of major terror events is to cause more and more deaths per event over time and implies that this trend will continue. Fundamental to later arguments in the book, terror groups are classified into three major categories: traditional, waning, and apocalyptic. They are considered separately in chapter 5 when the author conducts a game theory analysis for each category.

Dr. Gerstein discusses the third element of the nexus in chapter 2, providing extensive information regarding biotechnology and its relevant aspects to bioterrorism. The primary message is that biotechnology is advancing more rapidly than we can effectively control it. Naturally, there will be great benefits to humankind from the advancements but also greater risk. The double-edged sword has potential for great healing and, in the wrong hands, great harm. He points out that even a well-intentioned researcher could inadvertently produce and release a very harmful pathogen. Also, as the United States (and the rest of the world) spends more resources building laboratories to study dangerous biological materials, there is a greater likelihood of release or theft of these materials.

The author explains in chapter 3 what has been done to address the threat, discussing biosafety, biosecurity, and various aspects of how the United States has worked to mitigate the threat of bioterrorism. Gerstein describes various programs (Biosense, Biowatch, and Bioshield) and bioterror exercises and their results, as well as our overall readiness as a nation, and leaves one with the impression that bioterror is a very real threat and much work remains to address the problem, which he develops in chapter 4.

The first three chapters develop a foundation of knowledge and an awareness of current actions which address bioterror. In chapters 4 and 5 the author provides analysis methods to visualize the threat and offers some conclusions and recommendations to allocate scarce resources to address it. Military planners will recognize a need to identify the most likely course of action of a terror group to plan against that action. Similarly, Gerstein uses game theory for this purpose. He looks for a Nash Equilibrium where rewards and risks are balanced between the terror group and those opposing the group. For each of the three categories of terror groups identified in chapter 1, he develops useful figures using game theory payoff matrices to find equilibriums. From this analysis he identifies a likely equilibrium for a traditional terror group and suggests allocating resources based on it. Interestingly, he largely discounts waning terror groups, since they are exactly that, and shows that apocalyptic terror groups have no Nash Equilibrium, so there is little evidence to make recommendations regarding their actions.

In the final chapter Dr. Gerstein concludes there are three areas where the United States might influence terrorists’ actions. We are least able to affect their capabilities due to weapons proliferation resulting from globalization, but we may be able to influence their motivations and intentions. Along with physical protection measures, our best defense may be convincing potential bioterrorists it is not in their best interest to pursue bioterror.

Overall, this book is well written and the author makes his point that bioterror is a real threat that deserves closer examination. Because the material must be kept at the unclassified level, it is relatively generic. This is definitely not a book for people seeking in-depth technical knowledge or those in the medical field. The conclusions are naturally somewhat broad in scope. Still the use of game theory to identify the best places to apply resources is valuable and should assist policymakers as they decide how to allocate limited resources toward the bioterror threat. One other criticism of the book is beyond the author’s control. As he points out numerous times, biotechnology advances very rapidly. This makes this 2009 book already feel out of date as new developments have overcome some of the information. Additionally, the analysis, conclusions, and recommendations show by their lack of specificity that no simple answer has yet been found to deal with this problem, hence the need and value of more books like this one.

Harold Laurence

Army Command and General Staff College

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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