Friday, July 13, 2007

TERROR NEWS INFOTAINMENT: How a journalist shovels it

"To a post-9/11 lexicon of phrases like 'threat level' and 'homeland security,' we need to add another: food defense," wrote Newsweek's Sharon Begley recently. As part of a new "science" blog run by the magazine, Begley comes late to the party on the allegedly pressing menace of agroterrorism.

Since she is behind the curve, Begley immediately emits a number of howlers which would be enough to get someone dismissed or busted down a few ranks in a profession with higher standards.

"Suspects in last month's failed car bombings in London and Glasgow, for instance, include physicians, a reminder that terrorists can have biomedical know-how," she wrote, insinuating terrorists might have a capability not at all self-evident in the failed carbomb plot.

Begley is not alone in use of this irritating trick and we'll get to some more fine detail on it in a moment.

In the meantime, the reporter's assertion asks the reader to entertain the idea that "doctors" in the plot -- never mind that they weren't all doctors, jihadis so inept they parked a carbomb in a no-parking zone where it was towed away -- show that al Qaeda might have some capability with regards to biological attacks.

This latter idea has been regularly critiqued as simplistic and dumb, by me on this blog as well as writings on the Federation of American Scientists' website and at GlobalSecurity.Org.

On July 3, a small company supported by US government monies for defenses against bioterror used the same tactic as Begley.

Burping out a press release claiming "Presence of UK Physicians in London Bomb Plot May Mean a Bioweapon is Next," a small biopharmaceutical company's CEO tried to attach the recent failed UK terror plot to a reason to pay attention to his firm.

"The attempted bomb attacks this week in London allegedly by five doctors foreshadows a more dangerous world, according to David Wright, CEO of PharmAthene, a leading biodefense company that develops and commercializes biomedical products to counter chemical and biological weapons," read the company's press release. (Thanks to RMS.)

“Given their training in life sciences, it’s not a stretch of the imagination to believe that they may soon graduate from vehicle bombs to bioweapons,” it continued.

It is a desparate bid for attention to claim that people who couldn't make carbombs work are ready to move into bioweapons development. And that, therefore, your company -- which coincidentally is trying to develop experimental drugs for chemical and biodefense -- is ideally positioned to help.

Yet one expects this manner of behavior from businesses and academics working to attach themselves to the teat of biodefense spending.

It is, however, a bit more odious when the same rubbish comes from a journalist at Newsweek. Since your standard reader can't be expected to know the fine details on a subject, let alone what intelligence has actually been gained from terror documents, they're easy to roll by argument from authority.

"It is 'simple,' says the FDA, 'for one person to intentionally contaminate the food supply and have a major impact,'" writes Begley, invoking a government agency and regurgitating a variation of the meme that terrorism, in this case a biological or chemical attack on the food supply, is easy.

What jihadis and al Qaeda have been shown to have is a strong desire for a capability in biological and chemical weaponry but little or no scientific acumen. And their interest in these has been significantly whetted by regular declarations from American sources that making such weapons is easy. One simply reads it from their documents.

The vast majority of jihadi documents examined by this author are extremely poor (some are only very poor) in the actual information they contain. Principally, they stem from garbage-anarcho literature published by the American neo-Nazi/Survivalist fringe in the Eighties. A few others are uninteresting cut-and-pastes from western websites and short pieces from the occasional introductory book on chemistry or microbiology.

In the 90's these materials began to be copied into Arabic as part of a diffuse project to assemble terrorism materials into an encyclopedia-of-war for the digital domain.

Some of it was done "possibly in the United States," according to a colleague who has studied the matter professionally. The result has been over one hundred .pdf files describing various potential methods of terrorism. Among these are a significant number of tracts dealing with biological and chemical weapons.

However, the technical quality of the CB materials was and is extremely low. The jihadi literature is also characterized by duplication. The same sources are copied over and over and over with revisions being only informationally insignificant additions. These are promptly distributed on the web.

The ubiquity of these terror materials, while indicative of a desire for chemical and biological weapons, has never pointed toward a capability. And it has exposed as a canard the assertion that all terrorists have to do is to download from the Internet to gain such a capability.

"Food-defense experts say the list of foods in which an attack could have what FDA calls 'catastrophic consequences' begins with those made in large batches; poisoning a 5,000-gallon kettle of pasta sauce is easier and would cause more widespread harm than poisoning 40,000 individual bottles of artisanal honey," writes Begley for Newsweek.

"The list of chemicals that could poison food is almost endless. Among microbes, the most easily obtainable and pathogenic include salmonella, E. coli O157 and Clostridium botulinum."

In this instance, Begley throws together apples and oranges, as well committing a couple of factual errors.

Salmonellosis and botulism are forms of naturally occuring food poisoning.

However, the actual instances of human efforts to duplicate salmonellosis and botulism are virtually zero.

With regards to salmonellosis as a weapon, the only case which can be cited is that of an outbreak in The Dalles, Oregon, in 1984. In that case, salad bars at local restaurants were contaminated with Salmonella typhimurium.

As for Clostridium botulinum, there are no cases of the production and use of botulism toxin in such a manner. Indeed, production of botox has only been in the domain of national bioweapons programs and -- in one very special case -- a specialty lab in California.

The specialty lab, which makes batches of a variety of biochemicals of interest to biodefense science, allowed unscrupulous quacks from the cosmetic surgery industry to purchase and divert purified botulinum toxin for resale and use as a knock-off botox drug. The only company with a license to sell botox as a drug in the United States is Allergan. (The entire story.)

In addition, as Milton Leitenberg and I wrote on the subject a couple of years ago, "Any strain of the bacterium which produces botulinum toxin won't do [in weapons production]."

"Many strains of Clostridium botulinum in nature produce very little or no toxin. Finding the right one in nature out of literally 600 or 700 strains can take a long time. For example, the task took the pre-1969 US offensive BW program many man-years of work by highly trained and competent professionals."

Clostridium botulinum in the service of terrorists, contrary to Begley's Newsweek piece, is not "easily obtainable."

No such piece as Begley's is complete without another red-herring to chase after.

These usually take the form of another specialty chemical or toxin, usually said to be easy to use by terrorists.

"Particularly attractive agents are those that take many days to cause illness, such as the mushroom toxin alpha-amanitin," writes the journalist.

Specifically, Begley isn't even particularly accurate. A widely distributed medical journal paper from 1976 on mushroom poisoning -- which is what is meant when amanitins, peptide poisons are mentioned -- states: "A. phalloides-type mushrooms produce life-threatening reactions 6-24 hr after ingestion."

DD would beat Begley over the head with this further but it is sufficient to say it is not immediately obvious upon reading the paper how poison mushrooms can be fashioned into a weapon which significantly threatens the food supply. (From "Diagnosis and treatment of Amanita phalloides-type mushroom poisoning" by Charles Becker, et al, 1976, West. J. Med., 125: 100-109.)

But why alpha-amanitin, anyway?

Begley vaguely mentions FDA concern over it. We imagine it possible someone whispered it in her ear during a phone conversation or she read something on it from the web without understanding where the threat assessment came from. Or it's possible it just sprouted in her head unbidden -- like a mushroom.

With knowledge born of experience, your friendly GlobalSecurity.Org Senior Fellow knows that US assessments of terror potentials have often been driven by texts, really dodgy ones, found in the hands of jihadis.

Indeed, jihadi poison documents contain short sections on poisoning by mushroom.

"Poisonous mashroom," reads one in my possession. Another, functionally identical and part of a batch of documents retrieved from the irhabi007/Younis Tsouli terror trial in London, addresses "Poisonous Mush Boors."

If one looks at "poisonous mashroom" -- the jihadi shows no technical knowledge. It is in no way useful in an attack on the nation's food. The jihadi spells the poison in question wrong twice: "amantin" and "amanetin."

"There are other types of [mushroom which] must show some symptoms of 8-6 hours ... starting with in the form of pain, nausea and vomiting [which] then disappear after two hours the patient will feel good and vibrant and after two to three days the patient feels the same symptoms strongly [and] die," reads a text translated by DD.

It is almost a straight copy -- discounting some reshuffling and the horrible jihadi syntax -- from Maxwell Hutchkinson's The Poisoner's Handbook.

Published in 1988 in the US by Loompanics, it is a thin volume at 88 pages. This apparently made The Poisoner's Handbook ideal for copying and translating in cyberspace. It is also a frankly terrible thing, filled with errors and only useful, in a terroristic sense, in its haphazard naming of compounds and mixtures which are poisonous.

Under "Poisonous Mushrooms," Hutchkinson writes:

"Symptoms do not take effect for six to eight hours ... The target will then experience some ... pain, nausea and vomiting. These symptoms will go away after a couple of hours, and your target will feel fine for the next two or three days. Then symptoms reappear much more strongly and your target will die."

Hutchkinson's book doesn't discuss how to find poisonous mushrooms or even include pictures.

"There is a tendency in some books to overrate the lethality ...," he writes. "One or two of these mushrooms will probably kill anybody, but don't expect the amount to be poisonous enough to wipe out a village."

If you have followed this blog over the past year, you have come to know that The Poisoner's Handbook has become one of the most copied and downloaded books in the world. Seemingly everywhere, its scraggly advice on poisons has been taken apart and embellished upon by jihadis. It has become wearisome translating it back into English over and over. This irritation is compounded by the fact that it has influenced US terror assessments of al Qaeda/holy warrior capability.

Since Hutchkinson does not discuss where to find poisonous mushrooms, the unknown jihadi author of "Poisonous mashroom" does.

"[Cemeteries] and especially those places animals urinate, especially dogs," he writes.

Sharon Begley's terror info-tainment. At Newsweek.

From the archives: Hutchkinson and The Poisoner's Handbook.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Would-be food terrorists should take a job working for Cadbury's Marlbrook plant (in the UK), where they'll discover how to contaminate ?possibly? a million chocolate bars with salmonella, and get literally 30 people unpleasantly ill as a result.

Seriously, imagine the hype if a jihadi plumber had been behind Cadbury's leak pipe. An incident which had people mildly concerned would have been transformed into a pandemic of mass hysteria. Scary.

4:43 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"The jihadi literature is also characterized by duplication. The same sources are copied over and over and over with revisions being only informationally insignificant additions. These are promptly distributed on the web."

- Yeah, well what do you expect from literalists who believe in the absolute authority of arbitrarily transmitted mediaeval texts? If some of these jokers are doctors, engineers and so forth, then we are in much more danger from them when they are trying to do their day jobs unencumbered by critical faculties than when they are actively trying to kill people.

7:12 AM  
Anonymous Dunc said...

If their competence with bioweapons is on the same level as their competence with car-"bombs", I epxect they'll be chucking expired cartons of sourcream at people...

As for finding amanitas in cemeteries, I don't much fancy your chances. Nor do I fancy anyone's chances of find the any of the really dangerous ones in sufficient quantity to kill more than a handful of people. I'm an amateur mushroom hunter, and I don't think I've ever seen a Death Cap or Destroying Angel in the UK, and I've only seen a couple of Panther Caps over the years. Fly Agaric is plentiful, but it's not exactly hugely toxic.

8:43 AM  

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