assessment of the relevance of the threat of terrorist use of bacteriological weapons and the level of preparedness of police services to ensure security in the context of their use, the proposed solution
Bioterrorism is one of the major global threats to humanity in the near future
In the previous article, I tried to look at the most problematic aspects of the police services and other law enforcement agencies that they faced during the covid-19 coronavirus pandemic. In addition, I gave my opinion on what measures need to be taken in order to improve police officers' protection against dangerous viruses and to improve their effectiveness in protecting citizens.
In this article, I would like to look at this situation from a different perspective. If police services and other law enforcement agencies still have time to prepare for likely epidemics, what about when there is no time to prepare? When time is counted not in weeks or months, but in minutes or even seconds? We are talking about an act of terrorism using bacteriological weapons.
It is naive to think that in the 21st century, bioterrorism is an unlikely threat. Progress is moving forward, information is becoming more and more open, laboratory equipment is more accessible and compact, and outbreaks of epidemics in countries with unstable political situations provide almost unlimited access to biomaterials. This creates ample opportunities for international terrorist organizations and movements, which are increasingly using modern science and technology in their activities. Therefore, it is only a matter of time before they use dangerous varieties of natural and synthetic viruses as weapons. All the more so because precedents of terrorist attacks using bacteriological weapons are already known.
Let us imagine the situation: terrorists spread a strain of a dangerous virus in a crowded place, e.g. a large shopping mall with several thousand people in attendance at the time. Assuming that the incident became known immediately after it took place, then special protocols of special state agencies for countering the spread of bacteriological threats come into play. Employees of these services know the procedures, have special protective equipment, techniques and other necessary equipment to eliminate the threat. However, there is a serious vulnerability here - the time factor. Gathering personnel, equipment, protective gear, vehicles, briefings, and travel to the scene all take time. Despite the fact that in most countries these units formally have the status of «operational», in fact, they are transferred to 24/7 readiness mode only when there is a high level of terrorist danger. What if it is a weekend or a holiday? What if it is a weekend or holiday? How much time do these services need to fully respond, from the moment they receive a report of an incident to the arrival at the site and deployment of the operational headquarters to eliminate the threat? Even under the best of circumstances, from 40 minutes to 2 hours. Let's make the task more difficult, there are several objects of attack, all in crowded places, located at the maximum distance from each other, what then? There is no doubt that the authorities will impose a state of emergency, large resources, including the military, will be involved, all this will happen, but the main question is when? How much time will pass from receiving information, to the introduction of the state of emergency, to the formation of additional forces, to their redeployment and deployment on the ground?
Why in this case the «Question of Time» is the most important.
Any terrorist act committed with the use of cold or firearms, explosive devices, vehicles or poisonous substances has a localization of the dangerous zone, and most importantly its boundaries. As a rule, such localization is one, less often several, the number of active subjects directly carrying out dangerous actions (direct executors of the terrorist act) is also limited. In cases of bioterrorism the situation is the opposite, the boundaries of the danger zone and the number of active subjects (carriers of a dangerous virus) grow with every minute in geometric progression, if they are not isolated.
Let's go back to the example given above, when a bacteriological weapon was used in a shopping center, where several thousand people were present at the time. If this threat is not localized within 10-15 minutes (assuming that the terrorists used an active virus which is transmissible from person to person by airborne, contact or other non-contact way) then already in an hour the number of infected people will increase from 500 to 1200%, and if this is a large megalopolis with high population density then already in a day the number of infected people can be hundreds of thousands. Therefore, the first few minutes are the most important in carrying out a terrorist attack using bacteriological weapons. There is only one way to keep the number of casualties to a possible minimum, and that is to promptly contain the source of infection, thereby limiting or minimizing the spread of the infection. To do this it is necessary to block the building of the mall that was attacked and also to cordon off the surrounding area by the perimeter. But who would do this? The special services that neutralize bacteriological threats do not always belong to the military, they are often civilian structures that do not have their own, paramilitary units. Yes, there are various interdepartmental orders and agreements, but their activation requires, albeit simplified, approval at a higher level, and when army units are used for this purpose, it also requires authorization at a higher level, and that takes time again. Even if all bureaucratic formalities can be safely resolved within one hour, in the case of bioterrorism this is catastrophically long.
The only service which does not require approval and which can act immediately and has the strength, means and authority to perform such tasks within minimal time limits is the police. They have the necessary skills and experience to block off buildings and surrounding areas and to limit the movement of people and vehicles quickly. Police officers who are permanently on the streets are able to perform all the specified actions and completely close the perimeter within 10 minutes from the moment they receive such a task. And if not to completely exclude the exit of the victims (potential carriers of a dangerous virus) beyond the established sanitary cordon, then at least to reduce their number to the possible minimum.
However, the fulfillment of such a task, as applied to the described situation, will be difficult. Because this will require the police officers to work in non-standard conditions, for which they are not prepared, and they will also need skills and equipment, which most of them do not have. Therefore, the effectiveness of their use in such situations to date will be minimal, while the proportion of victims among the officers themselves, on the contrary, will be prohibitively high.
* The above conclusions are based on personal experience (I served in a police patrol unit for almost 10 years), as well as communication with police patrol officers from 11 foreign countries. Here is what this survey showed (from 12 countries):
- In 11 countries, police patrol officers lack the specialized knowledge and skills to work in a direct threat environment with dangerous viruses. Professional training of officers in this area is limited to the theoretical minimum;
- in 10 countries, patrol police officers do not have special personal protective equipment for working in conditions of bio-terrorism.
Also, in half of the cases, there are problems caused by the absence of clear protocols of operational interaction between the various services in the event of the use of bacteriological weapons by terrorists.
In this list I have not listed everything, but only those problematic points that, in my opinion, are the main ones that need to be solved in the first place. Again, I am sure that in the future, major terrorist organizations and movements will use bacteriological weapons in their actions. Attacks with their use will be carried out in large cities, and places of mass gathering of people will be chosen as targets.
* In my opinion, the main targets for attacks will be the institutions of the sphere: trade, entertainment, culture, sports and education. This is due to the «system» of security and anti-terrorist protection of these objects, which is rather formal, unable to provide even the minimum level of barriers to terrorists. You can read in more detail about the grounds for such conclusions in my article on the security of schools and other institutions with mass attendance of children.
The global covid-19 pandemic in 2020-2021 clearly showed how dangerous viral infections can be and how quickly they can spread to cover entire continents. But most importantly, in my opinion, it showed how unprepared the law enforcement system in most countries was to perform its function in such an environment. Few looked at the situation from this perspective, but in addition to health and social problems, the pandemic caused a serious social division, which led to outbreaks of crime and riots in a number of states.
There are no exact figures in the public domain, but even if we take the rough data that hit the media, the number of covid-19-affected police officers themselves in some units was up to 60% of the total. And we were still dealing with an infection that was not the most dangerous. But if the circumstances had been different, if a virus endowed with certain «battlefield» properties had been spreading, and the time for preparation would have been counted in minutes, not months. How would the situation have developed then, would the law enforcement agencies have been able to perform their tasks under such circumstances?
Objectively speaking, the answers to these questions do not inspire much optimism. The pandemic has revealed a huge number of vulnerabilities in the law enforcement system in most countries of the world, and most of them, as of today, have not been eliminated. Even worse, those who plan and execute attacks for terrorist organizations understand that. I am absolutely certain that they have been watching the situation during the pandemic very closely and have drawn the appropriate conclusions. Therefore, while there is still time, it is necessary to promptly identify and address these security gaps, otherwise it may be too late later.
To address the identified vulnerabilities, in terms of countering bioterrorism, several priority measures need to be taken:
1. To make additions to the educational programs of initial and periodic professional training of police officers, primarily patrol units*. The curricula should be supplemented with the following sections:
1.1. Bacteriological weapons: general information, types, threats, principle of action, methods of transportation, use and distribution;
1.2 Personal safety measures at threat of use of bacteriological weapons, types, possibilities and rules of individual protection means, their efficiency and peculiarities of use in different situations**;
1.3. Tactics of initial actions at threat of use of bacteriological weapons in different conditions;
1.4. peculiarities of ensuring public order and safety of people in the zone of bacteriological weapons use;
1.5 Procedure for quarantine and other restrictive regimes.
* The best option would be for each patrol unit to have at least one officer on duty who, in addition to initial training, has undergone additional, more in-depth professional training in these disciplines at a specialized training center.
** (1) In many countries, police officers are trained to protect themselves against bacteriological weapons using manuals originally developed for the military. However, the tasks of these agencies in such cases are fundamentally different, so there is a need to develop a comprehensive reference and training manual specifically for the police, taking into account their functions and the peculiarities of their day-to-day work.
2. Include in the equipment of police patrol officers a special set of personal protective equipment for work in the area of probable use of bacteriological weapons*, consisting of:
2.1. biodefense suit, disposable;
2.2. protective mask with interchangeable filter elements (like a professional respirator);
2.3. protective gloves, disposable;
2.4. air and surface disinfectant in aerosol packs.
As an addition to this list, intended to protect the police officers themselves, a set of disposable medical masks and gloves could be added to be distributed to people who were in the area of possible exposure. This is an elementary, but important measure, the rapid and correct application of which can significantly reduce the spread of dangerous viruses among people who were in the zone of possible affection, before the arrival of specialized and medical services at the place.
* The simple composition of this kit may cause skeptics to have justifiable doubts about its effectiveness. But here it is important to understand that the tasks of the police in this case are auxiliary, they provide a cordon around the scene of the incident and control the perimeter of the danger zone. They do not eliminate the threat and do not work in the epicenter of a viral attack. Their main goal is to provide control until the arrival of the special services, which are doing the job. Therefore, to perform such tasks, the above-mentioned means of personal security will be quite enough (they reduce the risk of infection by more than 95% of the known viruses), taking into account the fact that the patrolmen will have to stay near the borders of the danger zone from 40 minutes to 2 hours.
If you use specialized (professional) suits, gloves and masks, with a higher level of bacteriological protection, but it will complicate the work. First - such suits take a long time to put on and they often require additional processing measures, and second - in such suits it is difficult to perform police tasks, communicate with people, conduct radio communication, use physical force, special means and weapons, because situations can be different. Therefore the use of even simpler, but at the same time sufficiently reliable means of protection will be no less effective, and most importantly less time-consuming, and time is the most important factor. Using tools specified in the kit, the policeman can put on the protective outfit and start to carry out his task in less than 5 minutes by himself.
However, that does not mean that police services should not have equipment with a higher degree of protection against dangerous viruses in their arsenal. This equipment can be stored in police units and used by reserve teams to be mobilized and deployed to the scene as reinforcements and for other tasks related to bacteriological threats.
3. Together with special services to counter bacteriological threats and other specialists in this direction to develop simple and clear tactical algorithms of actions for police patrol officers under threats of the use of bacteriological weapons.
These algorithms should be included in the plans of advanced training for existing officers, with mandatory practical training with simulation of various situations, at various vital objects, especially in places with mass attendance of people.
Periodically analyze, assess and simulate probable attacks with the use of bacteriological weapons. Take them into account when developing plans for ensuring public order during mass events.
4. Develop and conclude agreements between police units and special services for countering bioterrorism on joint activities and temporary operational guidance* in the event that a threat of the use of bacteriological weapons is identified.
* Let's look at an example: the police unit on duty receives a report that in a shopping center there may have been a terrorist attack using biological weapons (a powder or an unknown liquid is sprayed in the air, a technical device for detecting dangerous pathogens in the air is triggered, etc.). The control center entering the (conditional) code «Bacteriological hazard» sends the nearest patrols to the place of the incident, instructs to equip employees with personal protective equipment and sets the initial tasks to close the perimeter around the building and the surrounding area. This task is accomplished, but the question arises - what to do next, until special biosecurity officers arrive?
It is important to understand that each of the dangerous viral infections that can be used by terrorists is unique in its own way. «Combat viruses» suitable for use in terrorist attacks rarely have similar characteristics, so in each case it is important to find out as quickly as possible which type of bio-threat was encountered, or at least which group it belongs to. The sooner this becomes known, the faster and more effective will be the measures taken to contain and eliminate the consequences of the attack. Therefore it is important that from the moment of arrival at the scene, patrol officers, in addition to cordoning off the affected area, promptly collect and transfer to a special service as much important information as possible. But again the questions arise: what is important and what is not, what should be paid attention to, how to react? The police duty unit does not know this, but the biosecurity service specialists do. Therefore, the best solution would be to temporarily transfer the operational control of the police officers who arrived in the affected area to employees of this service, so that they would direct their actions, collect primary information through them, and then, taking into account the data transferred, promptly adjust the tasks at the scene.
The more professionally organized the actions of police officers in the danger zone, in the first 30 minutes, the less damage from the actions of terrorists. Therefore, the emergency protocol for such cases, should provide for the temporary transfer of operational control of police officers at the scene to a special biosecurity service.
Such an approach will make it possible to significantly reduce the time interval from the receipt of a report of an act of bioterrorism to its containment within the minimum possible limits and the subsequent elimination of its consequences. Time is the most important factor in this case, and the number of victims will ultimately depend on how well it is used. Every second that is used correctly means a life saved.
in this article I have expressed my opinion about bioterrorism as one of the probable threats of the near future, and about the urgent measures which, if taken today, could significantly increase the effectiveness of countering the growing wave of international terrorism and minimizing its consequences in the future.
I am convinced that we should not wait for the moment when the threat of terrorist use of bacteriological weapons will become part of the everyday reality. Already now, we need to change the current vicious practice of lagging behind and waiting, underestimating the goals and capabilities of criminals. It is high time to adopt a proactive strategy, anticipating likely threats and taking effective pre-emptive measures. Otherwise, we will lose the war declared to us by international terrorism.
(1) The author suggests a promising direction for joint work and development of this topic, in terms of developing a training and reference manual for police services and units (taking into account their functions and peculiarities of daily service activity), on actions at the scene, protection methods and other situations related to direct and probable threats of the use of bacteriological weapons.
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