Why Senator Lugar is worried about bioterrorism in East Africa

Pentagon and congressional officials who toured a Kenyan medical laboratory are concerned that terrorist groups could get their hands on disease samples stored there.

Bill Clark/Roll Call via Getty Images/Newscom
Sen. Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana, speaks during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Sept. 22.

On one side of the 7-foot brick wall, topped with rusting barbed wire and a four-strand electric fence, lies Africa’s largest slum – a barely policed square mile of tin-roofed shacks that is home to 700,000 people.

On the other is Kenya’s premier medical research laboratory, where samples of diseases considered among the biggest threats to humanity – including plague, anthrax, and Ebola – are studied and stored.

But not stored safely enough, according to a team of senior Pentagon and congressional officials who visited the facility Friday during an East Africa tour focused on the increasing threat of bioterrorism.

Defense analysts are concerned that security in the region’s laboratories is too weak to withstand the threat from regional terror groups, including Al Qaeda, which are hunting for ingredients for biological weapons.

It’s a “potentially disastrous predicament,” said Sen. Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana, the ranking minority leader of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who led the delegation.

He should know. Senator Lugar, along with former Sen. Sam Nunn (D) of Georgia, spearheaded US-funded efforts to find and destroy or decommission nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons in the former Soviet Union after its collapse in 1991.

There, he said in an interview with the Monitor, “We saw the production of biological weapons, we saw how pathogens were developed into ways that could kill tens of millions of people.”

Why East Africa has become a focus

East Africa was high on the list for the post-Soviet focus of the Nunn-Lugar Program “because of the nexus between active terrorist groups, ungoverned spaces, and human and animal health laboratories working on endemic diseases, some of which are rare and exotic," said Andy Weber, assistant to Defense Secretary Robert Gates for nuclear, chemical, and biological defense programs, who was part of the US delegation that visited Uganda and Burundi en route to Kenya.

“We want to make sure that the pathogens that could be used by used terrorists are better secured and that there’s an enhanced capability to monitor infectious disease outbreaks,” added Mr. Weber.

But scientists caution that medical laboratories aren't the only sources of raw material for potential bioterrorists.

These diseases are already prevalent in the region – that’s why they are being studied, points out Gigi Kwik Gronvall, senior associate at the UPMC Centre for Biosecurity in Pittsburgh, Pa.

“You shouldn’t make it easy to find this stuff, but if you really want it, there are plenty of places to get it,” she says, cautioning that it also takes some expertise to use disease samples as a tool to harm others. “It is a lower-tech option than making a nuclear weapon, sure, but it’s not as simple as stealing it and then infecting yourself. To then infect others, you would have to know a little bit about what you are doing.”

Spreading disease a bigger threat than bio-weapons

In East Africa, where Al Qaeda is gaining an increasingly secure toehold, Lugar says “it’s less bioweapons – they are too expensive and sophisticated – than, unhappily, simply the malicious spread of viruses and diseases that would be injurious to whichever population terrorists would want to afflict.”

Stolen pathogens, he suggested, could be used by attackers who would circulate in populated areas and try to spread the disease.

He said that during his tour Friday of the Kenya Medical Research Institute in Nairobi, there were “a couple of frightening moments, if you use your imagination."

Waste from experiments was poorly stored before being incinerated. Cooler boxes of disease samples (although not the most deadly) were stockpiled in corridors. And then there was the cheek-by-jowl proximity of homes just beyond Kemri’s basic perimeter.

“People are literally living up against the wall,” said Lugar, adding that such sensitive facilities are usually far from towns and cities.

“I won’t try to describe all the scenarios which could follow if a malicious human being seized a container of whatever is stored here, but it would not take enormous imagination," he said. “Al Shabab, or Al Qaeda, clearly has a few persons who are specialized in this malice but still lack the raw material to carry out this mission.”

Facilities, security are spread thin

Solomon Mpoke, Kemri’s director, conceded that security at his laboratories was “average” and that at times incineration and storage facilities are “overwhelmed."

“To date we’ve not had any threat,” he said. “But what we’re hearing all over the place here, bombs being released here, who knows, the next thing could be a biological threat. We should be worried about that.

There have been a series of recent warnings that Islamic terrorists with Western targets in their sights are increasing their influence – and recruiting – in Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Somalia, and Yemen.

Somalia’s Al Qaeda-linked Islamist insurgent group, Al Shabab, this year launched its first deadly attack in another country with twin suicide bombings that killed almost 80 people in Kampala, Uganda. Nairobi could also be a target, for its support of Somalia's government, Al Shabab has warned.

“[The Kampala bombings] certainly caused us to place a higher priority in this part of the world than, for example Latin America,” said Weber, the defense secretary's assistant.

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