INTERPOL Bioterrorism Prevention Unit’s activities to support the global law enforcement community
Law enforcement agencies have a crucial role to play in mitigating and responding to biological incidents, be they natural, accidental or deliberate in origin. From a support role for natural outbreaks to a leading role for suspicious incidents, law enforcement’s operational presence on the ground is a strong asset in any government's response. Given these central roles, the Bioterrorism Prevention Unit (BTPU) supports INTERPOL’s global law enforcement community, through an inter-agency approach, to execute duties related to the prevention, preparedness and response to biological incidents, in particular the misuse of biological agents by non-state actors. Specifically, BTPU strives to assist INTERPOL’s member countries through police data management, analysis, access to a global network and the provision of specialized expertise.
The COVID-19 pandemic has raised the global community’s collective awareness of the impact posed by high-consequence pathogens. Non-state actors, including terrorist groups, have also noted the devastating effects a pandemic can have on our societies and global order. As a result, BTPU’s work has likely never been more relevant and important.
Specific support at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic
While the COVID-19 pandemic is first and foremost a public health emergency, there is still a clear and necessary role for the law enforcement community. And notably, where law enforcement supports at the national level, INTERPOL supports at the international level. As part of INTERPOL’s response, BTPU published the first international COVID-19 Guidelines for Law Enforcement which provided our national law enforcement focal points with best practice recommendations for ensuring public order, enforcing COVID-related restrictions and norms, and preventing isolated acts of violence – all while prioritizing the safety and wellbeing of law enforcement officers. Translated into more than 30 languages, these public Guidelines proved valuable for law enforcement agencies around the world, as many had never before dealt with large-scale epidemic or pandemic conditions.
In an effort to reach the widest audience possible, BTPU promoted these Guidelines during our webinar series on COVID-19 Pandemic: Impact and Challenges for Law Enforcement which involved over 600 officers from Africa, Asia, Europe and Southern Pacific regions in May 2020. As the pandemic evolved (and continues to) at both national and regional levels, this webinar series served as a key law enforcement-focused forum to pose questions, identify best practices and review lessons learned. Moreover, given the limited experience many law enforcement professionals have with biological incident management, BTPU released a public training video on how to safely wear personal protective equipment and focused on enhancing our global law enforcement community’s understanding of the new (bio)terrorism threat landscape, which led to the publication of a restricted report entitled, COVID-19 impact on Terrorism, Vulnerable Targets and Biological Threats.
Additionally, to reflect the multi-agency approach promoted within the G7 Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons of Mass Destruction (GP) as well as through INTERPOL’s efforts, throughout the pandemic, BTPU has represented the law enforcement experience in several COVID-19-related coordination meetings with other international organizations such as World Health Organization (WHO), UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), and World Organization for Animal Health (OIE). This coordination is borne of our strong belief that law enforcement cannot mitigate biological threats alone and as a result, we promote a One Health approach and bring the law enforcement voice to health-related processes.
 Various BTPU publications are available on INTERPOL’s public website in the 4 official languages of the Organization, including the Guidelines for Law Enforcement, and a set of posters describing law enforcement duties in this COVID-19 pandemic context: https://www.interpol.int/en/How-we-work/COVID-19/COVID-19-Stay-Safe
Global intelligence and data-sharing on biological threats
INTERPOL is uniquely mandated to collect and share police data and criminal intelligence related to a range of ordinary law crimes and criminals. This mandate allows the INTERPOL General Secretariat and our member countries to communicate with one another in real time on emerging threats and individuals of interest. Applied to the biological terrorism landscape, the analysis and generation of police data criminal intelligence can help us to prevent bioterrorism plots and ultimately halt the intentional spread of emerging diseases.
At BTPU, we have recently completed a two-year feasibility study focused specifically on how we can better leverage this unique mandate to support the global law enforcement community to mitigate biological threats. Our findings are twofold: to serve as the global repository of past and present biological incidents and to serve as an early warning system in cases of disease spread that could endanger law enforcement and/or the public. We will look to implement these findings in one platform temporarily named the INTERPOL Biological Incidents Analytical Platform. We are extremely excited about this cutting edge solution for the global law enforcement community and hope to be able to provide updates to the GP community soon.
Much of our programming also encourages regional cooperation and coordination on biological risk mitigation. At present, we are focused on the Middle East and North African region as well as West Africa. With such linguistically, culturally and economically connected regions, the potential for the rapid spread of disease means national biological incident planning needs to incorporate regional cooperation mechanisms as well. Our work with these regions focus on both levels: national and regional preparedness. We are able to exercise regional cooperation through border operations and joint workshops focused on a range of topics including dual-use challenges, joint criminal and epidemiological investigations, and the identification of foreign terrorist fighters with biological skills.
Part of mitigating biological threats in our member countries requires us to stay up-to-date on modus operandi employed by terrorist actors and their sympathizers. Of increasing importance is the acquisition of biological materials, equipment and know-how online, and most notably through the Darknet. Given this modus operandi is still considered emerging, we have found that many of our law enforcement partners lack the technical skills to identify buyers and sellers on the Darknet or adequately investigate this clandestine marketplace. In response to this, BTPU launched our Project PANDORA in 2018. In addition to the development of a global investigation manual on Investigating Chemical and Biological Terrorism on the Darknet, our in-country training activities have had significant outcomes: several arrests have been reported in our beneficiary countries. For us, this represents one of our highest achievements possible: supporting member countries to catch criminals.
As mentioned in our COVID-19 response, BTPU is a strong supporter of the One Health approach. Importantly, this is not limited to our COVID-19 efforts – it serves as a common theme throughout our work. This approach is vitally important across all areas of bioterrorism prevention but at present, we have focused our efforts on Building resilience against agro-crime and agro-terrorism. This initiative is carried out in partnership with the FAO and the OIE, providing us direct engagement with the veterinary community. It is our intention that this tripartite cooperation at the international level sets an example for national authorities in both the veterinary and law enforcement communities, and cultivates multi-agency cohorts capable of leading effective responses to acts of agro-crime and agro-terrorism.
Ongoing programming: Mitigating biological threats in INTERPOL member countries
Thanks to generous support from partners in the GP, BTPU is able to deliver vital and comprehensive programming to member countries across three pillars in the fight against bioterrorism: prevention, preparedness and response. Given ongoing challenges with international travel, we have been able to adapt rapidly to virtual content – taking advantage of new technologies and innovations in order to stay on the cutting edge of capacity building and training. Each of these pillars require a suite of tailored e-learning modules, videos and other deliverables in order to communicate technical content to law enforcement and partner agencies. Embracing virtual programming has allowed us to continue to cultivate several of our most successful partnerships.
The future of BTPU
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced the international community to acknowledge something well known within the biosecurity community for decades: the impact of biological threats cannot be ignored nor discounted. The ability for a virus to overwhelm the global health system, and cause thousands of casualties and huge economic losses is now common knowledge to every citizen on earth. As a community, it is now our responsibility to work together to ensure lessons are learned and best practices identified in order to mitigate future biological threats, be they natural, accidental or deliberate. BTPU, for its part, will continue to support INTERPOL’s member countries in this effort. We thank the GP community for their continued support.
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For example, after three years of engagement with Guinean authorities, including throughout the Ebola outbreak, we have improved national implementation of effective measures to contain major disease outbreaks. These measures became uniquely important during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic: Guinean authorities drew on lessons learned from our previous cooperation and implemented life-saving measures in those early months of the pandemic in 2020.