Duhaime's Law Dictionary

Bioterrorism Definition:

The release of an infectious agent to cause illness or death against a civilian population.

Related Terms: Terrorism

Also sometimes spelled as bio-terrorism.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, circa 2013, bioterrorism:

"... is the deliberate release of viruses, bacteria, or other germs (agents) used to cause illness or death in people, animals, or plants.

"These agents are typically found in nature, but it is possible that they could be changed to increase their ability to cause disease, make them resistant to current medicines, or to increase their ability to be spread into the environment.

"Biological agents can be spread through the air, through water, or in food. Terrorists may use biological agents because they can be extremely difficult to detect and do not cause illness for several hours to several days. Some bioterrorism agents, like the smallpox virus, can be spread from person to person and some, like anthrax, can not. "

Lincoln Professor of Health Law and Ethics at the Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law at the Arizona State University, Mr. James G. Hodges wrote in the Journal of Law, Medicine and Ethics:

"Bioterrorism involves the intentional use of an infectious agent (e.g., microorganism, virus, infectious substance, or biological product) to cause death or disease in humans or other organisms in order to negatively influence the conduct of government or intimidate a population....

"Unlike terrorists that use bombs, explosives, or other tools for mass destruction, a bioterrorist's weapon is an infectious agent....

"Diseases such as smallpox, tularemia(a.k.a. rabbit fever), plague, and viral hemorrhagic fever may present far more serious dangers to the public's health than the non-contagious and largely treatable anthrax.

"Bioterrorists may infect individuals through multiple routes: (1) intentional spread of contagious diseases through individual contact; (2) airborne dissemination of some infectious agents; or (3) contamination of water, food, controlled substances, or other widely distributed products. The equipment needed to manufacture biological weapons is easy to obtain and conceal....

"The Chemical and Biological Weapons Nonproliferation Project of the Monterrey Institute's Center for Nonproliferation Studies has catalogued more than 400 incidents of known bioterrorist activity worldwide between 1900 and 1999. In the United States, British and French troops exchanged dry goods intentionally contaminated with smallpox with Native American populations. In 1972, several persons were arrested for possessing kilograms of Typhoid bacteria intended for the contamination of the water supply of several Midwestern cities. In 1984, members of the Rajneeshee cult contaminated restaurant salad bars in Oregon with a form of salmonella, resulting in more than 700 cases of non-fatal food poisoning. Each of the past several years, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has investigated hundreds of claims of bioterrorism threats."

At footnote #17 of her article, Rima Laham also notes that bioterrorism is not a recent threat to peace and security:

".... more than two thousand years ago, Scythian archers dipped their arrowheads in manure and rotting corpses to enhance their effectiveness; the Tartars in the 14th century catapulted dead bodies riddled with the plague over city walls of their enemies; the Germans in World War I sickened the horses of rival cavalries with glanders, a horse's disease; the Japanese in World War II dropped plague-infected fleas over Chinese cities."


  • Bioterrorism Overview - What is Bioterrorism, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, GA, USA (2013)
  • Fidler, David, Bioterrorism, Public Health, and International Law; 3 CJIL 7 (2002)
  • Hodges, James, Bioterrorism Law and Policy: Critical Choices in Public Health, 30 JLME 254 (2002). Editors note: With apologies to professor Hodges, we have taken the liberty of re-ordering the extracts somewhat, from the original for editorial purposes (i.e. readability).
  • Lahan, Rima, Bioterrorism and the MSEHPA, 4 HJHLP 117 (2003-2004). In this, she nominally relies on professor's Hodges' earlier piece, op. cit.

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