The U.S. Agricultural System: A Target for al-Qaeda?

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 3 Issue: 5

Last December, the departing Secretary of Health and Human Services, Tommy Thompson, used his farewell address to highlight the vulnerability of the U.S. agricultural sector to a biological terrorist strike, remarking: “For the life of me, I cannot understand why the terrorists have not [targeted] our food supply because it is so easy to do.” The statement – which some regarded as highly irresponsible – cast into sharp focus the potential specter of agro-terrorism, triggering speculation that this may be precisely the type of attack that al-Qaeda seeks to direct against the American mainland. Exactly how vulnerable is the country’s food supply to disruption? Does this sort of attack credibly resonate with the organizational, operational and ideological changes that currently appear to be taking place in al-Qaeda?

The U.S. agricultural sector remains inherently vulnerable to deliberate (and accidental) disruption. Not only does the highly concentrated and intensive nature of farming in the country encourage the rapid spread of contagious pathogens, an inefficient passive disease reporting system that is hampered by the absence of clearly understood communication channels and protocols between regulators and producers serves to mitigate early and rapid reporting of outbreaks when they occur. Equally as important, the pool of appropriately trained veterinarians who are capable of recognizing and treating exotic diseases is declining as a result of insufficient support for epidemiological research and inadequate monetary incentives for those entering the field of large-scale husbandry. Finally, the scale and size of contemporary American agricultural enterprises has necessarily worked to preclude the option of attending to livestock on an individual basis. This, combined with the dwindling number of accredited state and local veterinarians noted above, has resulted in a situation where more and more animals throughout the country are currently receiving little, if any, comprehensive medical examination; the possibility of emerging diseases being missed has, as a result, become a distinct possibility.

What makes many of these vulnerabilities so potentially worrying is that the capability requirements for exploiting these weaknesses are not significant and are certainly less considerable than those needed for a human-directed bio-attack. Several factors account for this:

§ First, there is a large menu of agents from which to choose, with no less than 15 “List A” pathogens listed by the Office International des Epizootes (OIE) as having the potential to seriously impact animal health and/or trade.

§ Second, many exotic diseases are non-zoonotic in nature, meaning that there is no risk of accidental human infection. As such, there is no requirement on the part of the perpetrator to have an advanced understanding of animal disease science nor is there any requirement for elaborate personal protective equipment and containment procedures.

§ Third, animal diseases can be quickly spread over wide geographic areas to affect large numbers of herds – reflecting the intensive and concentrated nature of contemporary farming practices in the United States. There is, in other words, no issue of weaponization that needs to be addressed in agricultural terrorism as the animals themselves are the primary vector of pathogenic transmission. Disease transmission models developed by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) have shown that a virus such as foot and mouth disease (FMD) could be expected to spread to as many as 25 states in as little as five days simply through the regulated movement of animals from farm to market.

§ Fourth, if the objective is human deaths, the food chain offers a low-tech but highly conducive mechanism for disseminating toxins and bacteria such as botulism, e-Coli and salmonella. Developments in the farm-to-table continuum have greatly increased the number of entry points for these agents. These openings for contaminants, combined with the lack of security at many processing and packing plants (most of which are characterized by uneven standards of internal quality control, inadequate bio-surveillance and large, unscreened seasonal workforces), have helped to substantially augment the technical ease of orchestrating a food-borne attack.

The Impact of a Major Act of Bio Agroterrorism

The impact of a major act of agricultural bio-terrorism in the United States would be significant and could quite easily extend beyond the farming/food-producing community to affect other segments of society. Economically the effects could be disastrous. The 2001 outbreak of Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD) in the UK, for instance, is conservatively estimated to have cost the country over £1.3 billion in compensation alone, with losses accruing to tourism as a result of the closure of farms located near to popular destination resorts between £2.7 and £3.2 billion. When one takes into account export, withholding and consequential losses, adverse run-on impacts on agricultural prices, auction markets, abattoirs and processors/haulers and public sector costs, the overall fiscal effects reaches into the tens of billions of pounds. Given the scale of American agriculture, one could expect a similar occurrence in the United States to be even more disruptive. Indeed, one study from California, which presented eight scenarios associated with a theoretical FMD outbreak, concluded that each day of delay in instituting effective eradication and control procedures would cost the state $1 billion in trade sanctions. [1]

A successful bio-attack against agriculture could also be used to undermine the public’s confidence in the government. A large-scale successful release of contagious agents against livestock or the contamination of the farm-to-table continuum through the introduction of toxic or bacterial agents would almost certainly cause people to lose confidence in the general safety of the food supply and could quite easily lead individuals to speculate over the effectiveness of existing contingency planning against weapons of mass destruction in general.

The actual mechanics of dealing with a major act of agro-terrorism could also serve to trigger additional public criticism. Large-scale eradication and disposal of livestock is likely to be especially controversial (particularly if directed against susceptible but non-disease showing animals) and liable to elicit protests from various parties, including:

§ Affected farmers – who may well “greet” Federal regulators approaching their properties with shotguns;

§ Animal rights activists – who would doubtless interpret euthanization as an unjustified assault against animal welfare simply to safeguard economic profits; and

§ Environmental organizations – which would likely view large-scale burial and/or incineration operations as an ecologically dysfunctional form of disease management.

Besides these groups, protests could well emanate from the population at large, mainly because most Americans have not been subjected to intensive media coverage of high-volume culling operations and, therefore, do not have any visual points of reference to prepare themselves for such images. [2]

Beyond their economic and political impact, low-tech bio-terrorist assaults against the food chain have the potential to create social panic. Because most processed food is disseminated to catchments areas within a matter of hours, a single case of chemical or biological adulteration could have significant latent on-going effects – particularly if the source of the contamination was not immediately apparent and acute ailments or deaths actually resulted. Terrorists could use this heightened state of public anxiety to create a general atmosphere of fear and alarm, without having to actually engage in the technologically complex process of producing and then disseminating agents such as anthrax and plague.

Al-Qaeda and Agro-Terrorism

Is agro-terrorism an attack modality that fits with the current operational and ideological evolution of al-Qaeda? As a primary form of attack probably not – simply because attacks against the agricultural sector would likely be viewed as too mundane and “dry” in comparison with more traditional terrorist tactics such as bombings and suicide strikes. The impact, while significant is delayed and lacks (at least initially) a single focal point for media attention. Specifically, there would likely be no immediate drama of the sort that would be associated with a September 11-style attack.

That said, al-Qaeda theological leaders have specifically exhorted Islamists to use biological weapons in whatever manner possible against Americans, arguing that this constitutes an obligation for any Muslim that is concerned with safeguarding the sanctity of his/her faith. In addition, Bin Laden has repeatedly argued that the best way to destroy the United States and the western system that is predicated on Washington’s power is by hitting the country’s Achilles Heel – its economy. Finally, given its ease of execution and potential to elicit a highly “favorable” cost-benefit ratio, agro-terrorism may be perfectly suited to the type of low-cost but highly disruptive attacks that al-Qaeda has necessarily been forced to adopt in the 9/11 era.

Given this context, agro-terrorism could certainly emerge as a favored secondary form of al-Qaeda attack that is designed to exacerbate the social upheaval caused by random bombings. The mere ability to employ cheap and unsophisticated means to undermine a government’s economic base, and possibly overwhelm its public-management resources, gives livestock and food-related attacks an attractive cost-benefit payoff that resonates directly with the type of power projection Bin Laden has repeatedly sought to instigate against the United States.

Peter Chalk is an analyst at RAND specializing in South East Asia, international terrorism and emerging threats.


1. Author interview, California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA), Scramento, September 2000.

2. Author interview, USDA, Washington D.C., October 2003.