Botulism toxin is a “major biological weapons threat” because it’s easy to make and very deadly, according to a study just published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

“Botulinum toxin is a serious threat as a weapon, because it is extremely lethal and easy to produce,” says Dr. Thomas Inglesby, of John Hopkins University in Baltimore. “Only a very low quantity of toxin is needed to cause a life-threatening or fatal illness.” Inglesby is a member of the university’s Biodefense Studies Department, which searches for ways to minimize the consequences of a bioterrorist attack.

We can get botulism naturally by eating contaminated foods or through skin lesions. U.S. cases are rare, less than 200 a year. But the Hopkins Working Group said intentional contamination of the U.S. food supply or an aerial spraying operation are serious terrorism concerns.

Terrorist groups have shown a high level of interest in botulism. The Aum Shin Rikyo cult of Japan tried to release airborne botulism toxin in Tokyo three times in the early 1990s, but failed. Several nations, including Russia and Iraq, have developed and stockpiled botulism weapons.

Botulism attacks the part of the central nervous system that control muscle contractions. Paralysis can result, as well as the inability to breathe. Small doses of the toxin are given as “botox” treatments, to paralyze facial muscles and smooth out the complexion.

“Botulism is so rare that it is often misdiagnosed,” says Inglesby. Early symptoms include difficulty swallowing, weakness, nausea and vomiting, abdominal cramps and difficulty breathing.

Meanwhile, the world’s most famous terrorist, the millionaire Osama bin Laden, recited a poem at his son’s wedding celebration praising the bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen on October 12, that killed 17 American sailors and wounded 39 others.

“In Aden, the young man stood up for holy war and destroyed a destroyer feared by the powerful,” bin Laden said. He spoke of the ship as having sailed “to its doom” along a course of “false arrogance, self-conceit and strength.” Shouts of Allahu Akbar, or “God is Great”, followed his reading.

It was the first time bin Laden had spoken publicly about the Cole attack, when two suicide bombers detonated a small boat full of explosives alongside the USS Cole as it refueled in Aden harbor. U.S. investigators have said they have no hard evidence linking the attack to bin Laden.

Bin Laden’s praise of the Cole bombing is typical of what he does following one of his terrorist acts. In the words of one U.S. official, “He goes right up to the line without crossing it, but everyone understands what he is doing.”

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