Interpol's New Bioterrorism Guide: Incident Pre-Planning and Response

One of the major advantages possessed by international/transnational terrorist groups is that they do not have to respect jurisdictional boundaries and therefore are free to exploit the differences in law-enforcement philosophies and operations of the anti-terrorist agencies and organizations that are working against them. Interpol, the world’s largest international police organization, with 184 member countries, was established in 1923 with the intent of, among other things, reducing this criminal advantage.In the modern era of transnational terrorism carried out by Islamic terrorist groups and other paramilitary groups – as well as by home-grown terrorist groups that may operate outside the borders of the United States or another target nation – the Interpol role has become increasingly important because of the agency’s usefulness as both a clearing house of information and a synthesis center for intelligence coordination.Because almost all bioterrorism diseases naturally occur outside the United States, and because of the proliferation in recent years of WMD (weapons of mass destruction) programs, it is more important than ever before that the U.S. preparedness community be aware of the assets that are available to pursue terrorist groups that threaten the U.S. homeland itself. In recognition of this concern – shared, of course, by many other nations – Interpol has developed and, earlier this week, released its own Bioterrorism Incident Pre-Planning and Response Guide. An Adherence to Existing Laws Interpol’s own principal mission continues to be to facilitate cross-border police co-operation. To carry out that mission, the agency supports and assists all organizations, authorities, and agencies whose mission is to prevent and/or combat international crime. More specifically, Interpol seeks to facilitate international police cooperation even in situations where diplomatic relations do not exist between particular countries. In any situation in which Interpol is involved, though, the rule is the same: Action is taken within the limits of the existing laws in the different countries participating in that action. Interpol has signed cooperative “There is simply not enough knowledge of what countries’ police forces can and should do to prevent terrorists from acquiring or making biological weapons.” Interpol Secretary General Ronald K. Noble, 11 April 2006 agreements to that effect with the United Nations, the European Central Bank, the Organization of African Unity, and the Arab Interior Ministers Council.  Interpol has three primary functions that support worldwide law-enforcement operations in the priority areas of human trafficking, international fugitive location, financial crimes, and public safety and terrorism.To carry out those functions the agency:

  • Runs a global police communications system, called I-24/7, that provides police around the world with a common operating tool through which they can share crucial information about criminals and criminal operations.
  • Has created and uses its own databases and services to ensure that police agencies worldwide have access to the information and services they need to prevent and investigate crimes. Those databases include essential information both about criminals – e.g., names, fingerprints, and DNA profiles – and about stolen property such as passports, vehicles, and works of art.
  • Supports law-enforcement officials in the field by providing emergency and operational support. The Interpol Command and Coordination Center operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

During the past year, Interpol has organized and conducted a series of international seminars and workshops focused on international law-enforcement activities in the field of bioterrorism. Perhaps the most important byproduct of the seminar/workshop series was the development of the Bioterrorism Incident Pre-Planning and Response Guide, released on 10 July in Santiago, Chile, during the final of three world-wide meetings focused on the prevention and deterrence of bioterrorism. The intent of the Response Guide is to serve as an international “play book” for law-enforcement operations between and among nations that may have to deal with disease outbreaks of an intentional – i.e., manmade – nature. The Response Guide is expected to be particularly helpful as a resource for smaller nations faced with the daunting task of standardizing and coordinating law-enforcement and public-health investigations across international borders. In addition to the medical services required in a natural outbreak, a bioterrorism event will require public health services and law enforcement to cooperate closely in the area of crisis response and to conduct criminal investigations.                          

Interpol President Jackie Selebie, 21 November 2005  The Biological Incident Pre-Planning and Response Guide was crafted by an international group of experts in law enforcement as well as medical, public health, diplomatic, and legal issues, and developed in close coordination with the World Health Organization. It was one of the major topics on the agendas of the three regional international meetings – in Cape Town, South Africa, in November 2005; in Singapore in April 2006; and in Santiago in June 2006 – that brought together senior law-enforcement leaders from most if not quite all Interpol member nations. A Pocket-Sized Powerhouse of Information The Response Guide was tested and favorably evaluated during the meetings, which were structured as part lectures and part tabletop exercises. A particularly useful section of the manual is a guidance document, designed for use by national police forces and other response organizations, that supports international cooperation and standardizes procedures and communications prior to and during the rare but potentially catastrophic bioterrorism events that now threaten the world community.   A 74-page pocket-sized manual specifically designed for field use by response personnel, the Response Guide includes a rapid reference section on various aspects of bioterrorism that is focused primarily upon coordinating law-enforcement investigations with public health, medical, and emergency-response operations. Included in the second half of the manual are suggested protocols for investigations, public relations, and specimen handling, as well as force protection. U.S. professionals responsible for bioterrorism planning and response would be well advised to have a copy of the manual readily available to facilitate international communications and coordination during future times of crisis.  

The Response Guide, which is produced and is being disseminated in the four official Interpol languages (Arabic, English, French, and Spanish), is available from the Interpol Bioterrorism Unit at the following numbers: (+33) 04 72 44 57 59; or (+33) 04 72 44 57 20. It also is available via the Internet: or Email:

Michael Allswede

Dr. Allswede is the Director of the Strategic Medical Intelligence Project on forensic epidemiology. He is the creator of the RaPiD-T Program and of the Pittsburgh Matrix Program for hospital training and preparedness. He has served on a number of expert national and international groups on preparedness.



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