School of Policy Studies

School of Policy Studies
School of Policy Studies

Queen's Contagion Cultures Lecture Series

August 25, 2020

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Bio-terrorism: Power projection and cooperation

Ugurhan Berkok
Adjunct Assistant Professor, Department of Economics, Queen's University; Department of Economics, Royal Military College (RMC)

Dual-use microbiological technologies are beneficial for medicine, agriculture, and climate, but represent a biosecurity risk. An outsider, a terrorist outfit for example, or a disgruntled/radicalized insider, like the one in the 2001 Amerithrax incident, might weaponize dual-use research products such as harmful viruses or toxin-releasing bacteria. We concentrate on the outside biosecurity threat posed by a terrorist outfit, not a state actor, and we formulate a strategic game to model the essential interactions between the terrorist outfit and two countries, both of which have partially-overlapping stocks of microbial knowledge that they use to project power as well as provide deterrence through a demonstrable ability to mitigate bio-terror effects. Although such information-sharing potentially reduces the potency of a bio-terror attack, and thereby dissipates intent, it does reduce each principal’s power projection capability by releasing proprietary knowledge to the other principal.  

This strategic environment generates incentives for these countries to partially cooperate, share knowledge, and augment their resilience by preparing and deploying effective prophylactics and therapeutics, i.e. a reciprocal provision of local public goods, provided the terrorist outfit is intent on attacking. This cooperation benefits each by mutually enlarging their knowledge stocks and hence bio-defensive capabilities, whereas in the absence of a terrorist threat, they wouldn’t cooperate. While such knowledge-sharing acts as deterrent against bio-attacks, it might leak potential bio-weapons knowledge to terrorist actors. Our common hostile agency model falls short of integrating bio-surveillance, which would act as an ex-ante deterrent or, if actioned upon, as a pre-emptive policy tool that would generate a different public good. 

The game’s outcome yields a few conclusions. The existence of perceived terrorist threat and the efficiency of the terrorist organization induce more cooperation, whereas a higher individual-country knowledge stock increases the reluctance to share. Interestingly, though, the total stock reduces the necessity to share. Finally, the public-good nature of knowledge sharing produces an under-deterrence outcome, quite different from the standard terrorism models where countries deflect the attack by ex-ante deterrence over to other targets and the attack produces somewhat localized damage unlike a pandemic-inducing bio-attack, a public bad.