Ken Alibek

Books: History | War | Biography

Biohazard The Chilling True Story of the Largest Covert Biological Weapons Program in the World--Told from Inside by the Man Who Ran It (1999) with Stephen Handelman

Despite the ridiculous (and long) title, this is a fantastic book. It is the history of the Soviet Biopreparat as told by an insider. Not only does he document what the Soviet program did, but why they did it, as well as the paranoia in the Soviet system that allowed such conclusions to make sense. I was hesitant to get this book, for fear that it would be poorly written, and bogged down in technical detail. Instead, the writing is clear, concise and compelling, a testament to Stephen Handelman I am sure, for Ken Alibek comments in the book that he spoke no English when he came to the U.S. The book also evolves around the life of Ken Alibek, allowing it to read more like a biography than an expose on the Soviet Bioweapons program.

As we consider the possibility of a bioterrorist attack in the US, this book allows us to understand why we should fear such a possibility. I've stated before that we need to help the former Soviet states, to safeguard the weapons of the Cold War, and this book further reinforces that argument, as well as makes a case hiring or keeping track of those who were scientists in the Biopreparat program in the former USSR. One of the more chilling stories is of a scientist who actually injects himself with Marburg (a virus similar to Ebola). The fear is not just in the details of that scientists death, but in the reaction of the Soviet establishment to his death. This book, along with Germs by Miller et al, documents the need for preparing the US health system for emergencies.

"Some Western analysts maintain that evidence of biological warfare research is not proof that viable weapons are being produced. They argue that countries with "low-tech" scientific establishments often can't make weapons or delivery systems matching their ambitions. But even the most primitive biological weapons lab can make produce enough of an agent to cripple a major city."

"The West is worried, with good reason, about lax security at Soviet nuclear installations. The vulnerability of our biological arsenal should also raise concern. A vial of freeze-dried powder takes up less space that a pack of cigarettes and is easy to smuggle past an inattentive guard. It happened when I was at Biopreparat, when security was at its peak. Biological weapons once kept secure in government facilities are rumored to be circulating freely in the Russian criminal underworld."

"The services of an ex-Biopreparat scientist would be a bargain at any price. The information he could provide would save months, perhaps years, of costly scientific research for any nation interested in developing or improving, a biological warfare program...The disastrous economic conditions in Russia have driven many of our brightest scientists and technicians to seek work wherever they can get it. In some labs, scientists haven't been paid for months. I know of one leading researcher who sold flowers on the Arbat Mallo in Moscow to feed his family."

I know that not everyone is interested in bioweapons and germ warfare, but the book is well written and it is quite frightening that these programs went undetected--and that these scientists may be floating around the world looking for jobs.