Writing today about the eco-terrorism threat to the society we live in seems to remind us of environmental activists, right-wing or left-wing extremists,  who used to make plots against the government through vandalism for their radical attempt to make public and system to address specific issues as animal rights, pro-life and anti-nuclear policy. Those people are fighting for a new environmental approach and for conservation of nature and earth.

Cryptosporidium parvum oocysts
Cryptosporidium parvum oocysts/CDC/ DPDx

Some of them are doing that through the law regulated mechanisms, but others are considered as very serious domestic security problem in the USA, especially since 1977. It was then when the Sea Sheppard Conservation Society was formed, which made diversion by attacking fishing activities. At that moment, the world got “eco-terrorists” and that became a term for use of violence or threatened use of violence, according to FBI definition, against innocent people or land, by subnational cells with an idea of changing the current environmental policy by violent measures.

When we think about eco-terrorism nowadays, we automatically think of extreme groups which are operating, particularly in the USA, where the ecological issues are still the political “hot potato”. The Animal Liberation Front and Earth Liberation Front are just two of the most dangerous and radical wings of aggressive environmental supporters and they are both considered as terrorist groups because of the extreme line of acting against the target.  The philosophy of eco-terrorism is usually based on radical environmentalism and it often divides theoretical opinion on where is the border between potential  terrorism as a violent act and righteous fight for matters of nature.  It depends on our own approach.  For some, ALF and ELF is the right answer of people on the current ecological events, but for some ALF and ELF is nothing but pure terrorist organization with political interests.

The fact is the threat has changing with every passing day and we always can see the new roles on the security theater as well as we see the new scenario written by evil hands and dark souls. Methods of violence may be different but the human fear is always the same.

Since we have gotten Islamic terrorists worldwide, we are not anymore in peace. We are not in peace individually and also with our national security. Global security hasn’t existed for some time. Terrorists could attack people everywhere and every time they want. They play on the fear, they are shadows and they take away feelings of safety. No government can convince us that we are protected when we know that is not reality. Terrorism doesn’t count on victims and technical damages as it counts on the possibility to make atmosphere of fear. You don’t know when the performance will be but you are still aware it will be held and you can do nothing to stop it.

Counter terrorism experts are trying to analyze the future of terrorism possibilities.  One day, they come with conventional classic terrorism ideas, the day they firmly believe that non-conventional terrorism will be the future of this world.  However, future terrorism depends upon the potential use of non-conventional options and means to realize the primary and secondary goals of terrorists in the targeted society or system.  Considering that, water supply terrorism issue should be considered outside the radical environmentalism box because it is very important that the whole peaceful world, governments and security thinkers address this potential threat as one of the most urgent for solving.

In 2006, Dr. Peter H. Gleick, the  internationally recognized environmental scientist and co-founder of Pacific Institute in the US, wrote one very thoughtful article under the name “Water and terrorism”. Here he tried to deal with this problem and to explain that water supply attacks have a long history so it is expected that such vulnerable field of every nation could be a target for terrorists or lonely anti-system fanatics. As he emphasizes in his paper, water is a fundamental and vital element for every society and modern world is depending on water.  The contaminating of water, directly or indirectly, could cause the social, political and economical disrupt and it can’t be solved easily once the damage is made.

This resource is very fragile and it should be protected.  Unfortunately, responsible water managers don’t see the danger wrapped around this question and they do nothing to set the water safety rules. It is enough to mention the bio incident from 1993, known as Milwaukee Cryptosporidiosis outbreak, the largest waterborne outbreak disease in the USA, caused by Cryptosporidium parvum, a protozoan chlorine resistant pathogen that gets through the filtration system of one of the city water plants and caused the gastrointestinal illness of 400.000 residents of Milwaukee area and resulted with total costs of $ 96.2 million.

This was an accident and despite the fact that those kinds of incidents are rare today, we should think of the historical notes which show us that water source was always the hit target in wars and conflicts.  Not going back into the ancient data, we have the attack in 1965, by Palestinian Al-Fatah on Israeli national water carrier. In 1984, Rajneesh religious cult contaminates a city water supply tank in The Dalles, Oregon by Salmonella.  Kurdish PKK used toxic potassium cyanide to affect Turkish force water supply, in 1992.

Then an incident occurred in July 2000, in northern France, at the Cellatex chemical plant that spilled sulfuric acid in Meuse River.  These are just some of many natural incidents or human caused sabotages regarding water supply system, which is getting more and more top security problem. Security and safety officers have a big concern regarding potential misuse biological or chemical weapons in attack on water supply systems. Their goal is to contaminate public water system by using lethal microbes or dose of chemical agents.

In the case that this sabotage is early identified, the water plant will be closed for some time and that would have outcome in anger and social chaos.  In the case that this attack is silent and non-identified on time, people get sick and it takes time for water experts to isolate the problem and start dealing with it. Either way, the panic and social disorder is something which is normal to be expected because the water is base for everything and for everyone. But, this is not so easy task for terrorists. That is one positive highlight in this serious overview.

They should be skilled and prepared to deal with those agents they want to abuse and not many of them were professionals.  Another encouraging thing is the technical conditions for microbes and toxins to be effective. Some of the most dangerous bacteria and viruses have limited access in the water surrounding and quantity is not enough to be weaponized. In addition, stability and transportability for causing effective illness and chaos also must be achieved.  Biological pathogens considered to be water threats include Anthrax, Brucellosis, Tularemia, Cholera and the stability of viruses is unknown for now.  But parasites as Cryptosporidium parvum, Entamoeba histolytica, Toxoplasma gondii have no limited access.  When we talk about toxins, we should be worried about commercial chemicals as arsenic and sodium cyanide; therefore they are stable in water and could be very lethal. Also, biological toxins as Botulinum toxin, T-2 mycotoxin, Alfatoxin, Ricin, Staph enterotoxins, Saxitoxin should be considered as water threat.

Since 2001, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has worked with government agencies on water supply safety guards.  EPA has its own standards which are implemented around the US water supply systems, with more or less success in adjustments. It is the project under the name Water Sentinel Initiative, to build a model contamination warning system for drinking water security. EPA is working directly under the set of rules called HSPD-9 (Homeland Security Presidential Directive), fully coordinated mechanism of early detection of potential water contamination. This means totally control of water supply through the regular direct monitoring, integration of   water system data, physical security measures and active surveillance through the cooperation with public feedback.  One of the successful EPA methods is for sure EPA Method 1615, firstly imposed in Milwaukee Health Department Public Health Laboratory, after the above mentioned incident. This is one of the best methods for virus detection and it is the part of Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Regulation which will be active in identifying potential 30 contaminants, till the end of this year.

The European Union adopted in 2005 Counter Terrorism Strategy which also covers the European Program for Critical Infrastructure Protection and The Critical Infrastructure Warning Information Network. The new Counter Terrorism Policy of the EU is based on four main standards of EU platform and it is still not enough strong to address the threat what we are talking about. It is more up to the individual states action than on the union response. But, it seems that the EU is becoming being aware of global threats and new infrastructure vulnerability all around so the budget in the future will be increased for this issue and it will be moved upper, to the union level mechanism.

The policy regarding this problem must be considered seriously, without daily political struggles and this policy costs a lot. We have water and the water is our main and the most important resource.  During the history, Wars have been started because of the water. Water means life. When it is contaminated, it means death.


Sandra Maksimovic-Sara, has an MA in Biological  Counter Terrorism Studies, with special interests of researching and writing about  Biological Weapons, Biosecurity and Biodefense. Sandra hails from Serbia.

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