India facing bio-terror threat: Leaked US cables

India facing bio-terror threat: Leaked US cables

In a cable sent on May 24, 2006, the US embassy in Delhi reported on a meeting with K C Singh, the then additional secretary in the Ministry of External Affairs, who is quoted as saying that Indian intelligence agencies were "picking up chatter" indicating that 'jihadi' groups were interested in bio-terrorism.

"Turning to the subject of counter-bio-terrorism cooperation, Singh reported that Indian intelligence is picking up chatter indicating jihadi groups are interested in bio-terrorism, for example seeking out like-minded PhDs in biology and bio-technology.

"He compared the prospects for nuclear terrorism ('still in the realm of the imaginary') to bio-terrorism ('an ideal weapon for terrorism ... anthrax could pose a serious problem ... it is no longer an academic exercise for us.')," the cable says.

The embassy, it says, will pursue the matter with MEA and other Indian interlocutors "with an eye to conducting a joint and multi-agency bio-terrorism tabletop exercise by late 2006."

Another cable on the subject of bio-terrorism was sent by the embassy on June 8, 2006, titled 'India behind on bio-terrorism preparations but taking some steps', which says the possibility of bio-terrorism attack in India could not be ruled out, despite Indian experts believing that groups operating in India not focussing on bio-terrorism.

It says: "Advances in the biotech sector and shifting terrorist tactics that focus on disrupting India's social cohesion and economic prosperity oblige the GOI (Government of India) to look at the possibility of terror groups using biological agents as weapons of mass destruction and economic and social disruption."

The cable adds: "The plethora of indigenous highly pathogenic and virulent agents naturally occurring in India and the large Indian industrial base -- combined with weak controls -- also make India as much a source of bio-terrorism material as a target."

Besides, the cable says that India's 'notably weak' public health and agricultural infrastructure coupled with high population density means that a deliberate release of a disease-causing agent could go undetected for quite a while before authorities become aware.

"According to the Ministry of Agriculture, India is particularly vulnerable to agriculture attacks. Moreover, lack of communication, coordination and cooperation among key stakeholders from different sectors will continue to remain a major impediment to the GOI's capacity to respond to a bio-terrorism attack," the cable says.

Noting that the impact of a biological attack or accidental release of a disease-causing agent in India could be devastating, given the high population density in Indian cities and the growing mobility of India's middle class, the cable says that most biological warfare (BW) agents do not produce symptoms for many hours or several days.

"(So) Indians exposed to a contagious BW agent could easily spread the agent to thousands before symptoms manifest. Release in an Indian city could facilitate international spread -- Delhi airport alone sees planes depart daily to numerous European, Asian, Middle Eastern and African destinations, as well as non-stop flights to Chicago and Newark," the cable says.

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