AUSTRALIAN defence and security experts have "increasing concerns" that Australia may be the target for deadly bioterrorism attacks. But a decade after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, environmental activists or a disgruntled scientist are seen as more likely threats than the al-Qaeda terrorist network.
Recently released proceedings of a "biodefence scenario planning workshop", held last year at the Defence Science and Technology Organisation's Fishermans Bend laboratories, reveal that senior federal and state security and health experts have reviewed bioterrorism threats based on the assumption that al-Qaeda may seek to attack on Australian soil.
But participants at the conference observed that "overseas terrorists' interest in attacking Australia may not be particularly high" and that it was "more likely" that "a disgruntled person with a scientific background, [or] groups advocating environmental preservation and protection" would be responsible for any bioterrorist attack. Unidentified "local ethnic groups" were also identified as a risk.
Bioterrorism was described as "one of the most serious risks to our national security", and it was argued that "the impact of recent epidemics of various influenza strains may attract the attention of terrorist groups to explore biological agents as weapons of choice".
Participants in the two-day federal government workshop included top DSTO scientists together with the secretive Defence Intelligence Organisation, the Australian Defence Force, the Australian Federal Police, the federal Attorney-General's Department, the Department of Health and Ageing, and the Victorian Department of Human Services.
Scenarios reviewed included an attack coinciding with a ministerial visit to farewell Australian troops about to deploy overseas; and an attack on a large "Easter music festival" at "one of Australia's most popular beachside towns situated in northern New South Wales". While an attack on a military barracks was considered "plausible", an attack on a public event at a country town was considered less realistic "and the federal government is unlikely to invest time and efforts to prepare for it".
Instead, it was agreed to focus planning on "high-profile and/or 'soft' targets'' such as ''sporting venues, shopping malls, railway stations or the CBD of a major city" as preparations to respond to these attack scenarios were more likely to attract funding.
The conference proceedings reveal that the National Counter Terrorism Committee, Australia's peak security co-ordination body, together with the AFP and Department of Health and Ageing, consider the "primary focus" of biodefence preparations should be on attacks employing anthrax and toxins such as ricin. But the Defence Department also warned that "the threat of smallpox cannot be completely dismissed due to its high contagiousness and potential availability through some states of the former USSR".
The declassified records reveal in surprising detail the pros and cons of various biological agents for terrorist attacks. It was noted that plants yielding ricin and other deadly toxins grow freely in Victoria and "their relative ease of production make them suitable candidates for biological attacks''.
There are no publicly known cases of environmental activists planning or resorting to bioterrorism.