Delegates from over 50 countries travelled to Interpol headquarters in Lyon, France last month to attend a two-day conference that highlighted the sustained threat of WMD terrorism. Since 2000, Interpol has been headed by American Ronald Noble, who has channelled the organization’s efforts more toward combating the threat of terrorism rather than its traditional emphasis on issues such as drug trafficking, people smuggling and war crimes.
Noble underscored the threat of WMD terrorism during the conference, urging his counterparts to recall that terrorists have actively pursued – and indeed used – this strategy before. He specifically pointed to Aum Shinrikyo’s sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway in 1995 and the 2001 anthrax incident in the United States, reminding the audience that ‘a single individual with scientific knowledge and access to the right biological strain was able to murder five people, injure 17 and temporarily shut down the entire mail system of the United States for an estimated loss of $1 billion, while terrorizing other countries in the process.’
Interpol currently has a task force unit aimed at preventing radiological and nuclear terrorism, but it has decided to expand its mandate in order to address the issue of biological, chemical and explosive threats. In fact, Noble announced that the primary objective of the new entity was to ensure that Interpol built up its capacity to prevent a bioterrorist attack.
This shift demonstrates that the world’s premier policing body has refocused its strategic resources. Interpol’s decision falls in line with recommendations previously made by the 1540 Committee, which is in charge of monitoring the implementation of UNSC Resolution 1540, which aims to prevent terrorists from acquiring and using WMD and related materials. It also falls in line with President Barack Obama’s WMD threat reduction goals, which have been erroneously interpreted by some as being narrowly focused on nuclear security.
As Interpol evolves its strategic posture towards the bio threat, the organization will have to recognize its limits and the necessity of working with other domestic and international law enforcement and intelligence agencies. The United States has been following this model to deal with domestic bioterrorism threats by combining the resources of several departments and agencies such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Department of Homeland Security, the Central Intelligence Agency, the Department of Energy and the Department of Defence.
Interpol’s ability to cohesively work with its member states’ bureaucracies will be essential to adequately address the WMD terrorist threat in the future.