Gene Drives – An Emerging Terrorist Threat

Conventional acts of terrorism will likely never fade away, and advancements in technology will continually raise concerns for governments and global security practitioners. The increasing threat and possibility of chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, and explosive (CBRNE) use is evolving. Terrorist groups are actively seeking materials and the expertise to manufacture and utilize those materials in future operations. One of the frontiers in terrorism today involves a developing technology known as “gene drives.”

For several years, scientists have been able to alter genes inside plant and animal cells with efforts focused on altering the traits of these organisms. Gene-drive technology uses genetic engineering to “drive” desirable or undesirable traits through a population. Without gene drives, genes have a 50/50 chance of being passed on during the reproduction phase, the gene-drive technology can cheat the reproduction phase to ensure that the desirable pair of chromosomes can or cannot be inherited by all offspring. In addition to altering the genes in an organism, the gene drive also makes the altered trait inheritable, thus passing it down to ensuing generations.

Modifications With Deadly Potential

Gene editing is a prevailing technology and the real danger is whether the gene altering is done to push a desired mutation that could be harmful to a population. This potentially could lead to negative outcomes, such as destroying crops through agroterrorism, creating genetic mutations among insect populations, or reconstructing a variety of hazardous pathogens – all from DNA sequences.

The advancing gene-drive technology has great potential. However, the world is largely unprepared for threats stemming from this rapidly emerging technology. In 2016, the director of national intelligence (DNI) released a Worldwide Threat Assessment alerting the intelligence community of the potential risks associated with gene-drive technology or gene editing, categorizing it as a potential weapon of mass destruction (WMD) and a threat to national security. The DNI’s concerns were voiced when then Director James Clapper testified before the Senate Armed Service Committee:

Research in genome editing conducted by countries with different regulatory or ethical standards than those of Western countries probably increases the risk of the creation of potentially harmful biological agents or products. Given the broad distribution, low cost, and accelerated pace of development of this dual-use technology, its deliberate or unintentional misuse might lead to far-reaching economic and national security implications. Advances in genome editing in 2015 have compelled groups of high-profile U.S. and European biologists to question unregulated editing of the human germline (cells that are relevant for reproduction), which might create inheritable genetic changes. Nevertheless, researchers will probably continue to encounter challenges to achieve the desired outcome of their genome modifications, in part because of the technical limitations that are inherent in available genome editing systems.

Although the reality of would-be terrorists actually utilizing gene-drive technology in a terrorist attack might sound like science fiction, the realism is the technology is available at a low cost and is ineffectively monitored, and the desire by organizations to possess this technology is real. Although gene drives theoretically used by terrorists could work on humans, it is not realistic without the process taking centuries. The technology works best on organisms that reproduce quickly, such as plants, rodents, and insects.

Low Cost & Accessible – A Desirable Combination for Terrorists

A new genome-editing technique, recognized as clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats (CRISPR), has gained the attention of the intelligence community, which has argued that the low cost (online for roughly $60) and wide accessibility of the basic components of the technology makes it of increasing concern. The CRISPR technique permits scientists to “cut and paste” in DNA easier and more precise than ever before. Because CRISPR technology allows scientists the ability to selectively edit DNA in living cells, would-be terrorists could potentially craft bacteria or viruses that repress and damage human gene cells. The technology could also make it conceivable for an aspiring bioterrorist to recreate known pathogens such as harmful viruses or bacteria.

The misapplication of CRISPR is so concerning among national security experts, the technology is recognized as a security risk – similar to the risk of nuclear capabilities in North Korea and the use of CBRNE by the Syria regime. It is highly likely that, in the near future if not already, unknown groups using inexpensive laboratory equipment purchased online will have the capability to reconstruct a variety of hazardous pathogens – all from DNA sequences.

According to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, there is a significant danger of potential gene-drive abuse. For example, gene-drive technology employed by a terrorist organization or a state sponsor of terrorism against the agricultural sector could be difficult to counter and could cause substantial damage. Although an imminent threat of agroterrorism at this time is unknown, intelligence suggests that terrorist organizations have long had ambitions to target the agriculture sector, thus this threat cannot be ignored.

The economic damage and disruption, coupled with the relative inexpensiveness and unsecured status, vulnerable farming operations make it easily accessible and attractive to terrorist organizations. Hundreds of pages of documents pertaining to the U.S. agriculture sector were recovered in Afghanistan in 2002, and a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) report in 2003 detailed that the 9/11 hijackers had expressed interest in crop dusting aircraft. In March 2017, a report by the Office of the Inspector General found that “the Office of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Homeland Security and Emergency Coordination had not adequately overseen and coordinated the efforts to prevent, detect, and respond to agroterrorism.” Furthermore, the USDA was not “in compliance with the Homeland Security Presidential Directive (HSPD) – 9 requirements to defend the agriculture and food system against terrorist attacks, major disasters, and other emergencies.”

A 2017 law aims to correct the problem of preparedness. Chiefly because coordination between Homeland Security and the Department of Agriculture was absent, the new law Securing Our Agriculture and Food Act (HR 1238) directs the Department of Homeland Security to take the lead in fighting agroterrorism. Although these measures seek to mitigate the risk of agroterrorism, more aggressive and comprehensive policies must be taken to ensure a secure agricultural sector.

Ongoing Security Implications

Although there are cruder methods for instilling terror, the fact that gene-driven technology exists has lasting security implications the world is not prepared for if misused. The theory and application of bioweaponry has a long history of use. For example, in as early as 600 BC, infectious diseases were recognized for their potential catastrophic impact on armies and citizens. During World War I, the Germans had an ambitious biological warfare program and, in World War II, Japan experimented on over 10,000 prisoners using plague, anthrax, and other diseases. Gene-driven technology, if misused, has the potential for global implications as it transcends borders.

The future of CBRNE security is going to require a far-reaching international response. Internationally, measures are already in place to prohibit and prevent the development of biological weapons through the Biological Weapons Convention. In December of 2016, all 178 state parties declared continuous determination, “to exclude completely the possibility of the use of (biological) weapons, and their conviction that such use would be repugnant to the conscience of humankind.” However, addressing the threat of thwarting any misuse of gene-driven technology such as CRISPR cannot be completed by any nation alone. Therefore, unilateral security measures, such as practical biological security measures, are imperative.

Because of the infancy in this technology, evaluating the actual national security threats will be problematic with gene-driven technology. At this point, scientists cannot foresee all the directions this technology could lead to at this time. However, its relative ease of use and the scope of applications will make it even more challenging for security practitioners.

Richard Schoeberl

Richard Schoeberl, Ph.D., has over 30 years of law enforcement experience, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC). He has served in a variety of positions throughout his career, ranging from a supervisory special agent at the FBI’s headquarters in Washington, DC, to unit chief of the International Terrorism Operations Section at the NCTC’s headquarters in Langley, Virginia. Before these organizations, he worked as a special agent investigating violent crime, human trafficking, international terrorism, and organized crime. He was also assigned numerous collateral duties during his FBI tour – including as a certified instructor and member of the agency’s SWAT program. In addition to the FBI and NCTC, he is an author and has served as a media contributor for Fox News, CNN, PBS, NPR, Al-Jazeera Television, Al Arabiva Television, Al Hurra, and Sky News in Europe. Additionally, he has authored numerous scholarly articles, serves as a peer mentor with the Police Executive Research Forum, is currently a professor of Criminology and Homeland Security at the University of Tennessee-Southern, and works with Hope for Justice – a global nonprofit combatting human trafficking.

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