Random House, 1999, 319 pages, C$37.95 hc, ISBN 0-375-50231-9
It’s one thing to read a thriller about a mad bio-terrorist planning an attack on a major American city. It’s entirely another to read an autobiography by someone whose job was to do such things.
Ken Alibek -born Kanatjan Alibekov- was born in Kazakhstan in 1950 and joined Biopreparat (a pseudo-pharmaceutical soviet company that was really the USSR’s biological weapon program) in 1975. He quickly ascended the echelons of the program, developing strains of smallpox, anthrax and other tasty treats. He became Biopreparat’s deputy director in 1988. His dissatisfaction with the aims of bio-weaponry and with the state of things in a post-cold-war Russia lead to his defection to the United States in 1992. Biohazard is his autobiography, and it makes for fascinating reading.
Biological warfare is a type of weapon that no self-respecting nation should contemplate using. Indeed, a treaty banning their usage was signed in 1972. Convinced that the United States was using the Treaty as cover to hide their operations, the USSR immediately strengthened Biopreparat—thus bringing Alibek in their program. In the 1990s, however, several Russians became convinced that there was no such thing as an American bio-warfare program. Alibek even describes an inspection visit in December 1991, where his group of top-notch bio-warfare experts failed to detect any sign of American bio-weapons.
The collapse of the USSR has been remarkable in that it has allowed a flood of hitherto top-secret information to reach civilian ears. Most of what is told in Biohazard is so unprecedented that it would have been heavily protected by intelligence agencies not even ten years ago. Alibek’s picture of Soviet bio-weapon programs is so complete that the reader doesn’t once doubt the authenticity of his subject.
And what a subject it is: The USSR had perfected the bulk manufacturing of diseases, calmly packaging them in “delivery vectors” in a decidedly industrial fashion. Far gone were the old-style witches’ brew: what replaced it was a diabolically efficient wholesale process of disease manufacturing. KGB agents across the world were collecting strange diseases, sending them to Biopreparat, which isolated the strain and found out how to mass-replicate it. Workers infected by disease ran the risk of seeing their remains being ghoulishly exploited for a stronger strain of the disease. [P-126-133]
Reading Alibek is an experience that goes beyond simple scientific or military relevance, for his narrative is the closest that one can approach to the mindset of the “mad scientist” of so many bad novels. Alibek, “the inventor of the world’s most powerful anthrax”, calmly describes the process in which he was an integral part. He’s inordinately proud of his accomplishment; he may not agree with the end result, but it was a job well done. He was following orders… and we know where that might have led.
Still, despite a rather unusual subject matter and narrator, Biohazard has its flaws. The structure isn’t coherent, jumping all over Alibek’s history. The ghostwriter’s style is competent but pedestrian, contenting itself with basic journalistic prose without embellishments. Fortunately, a good index completes the book.
Still, for fans of Douglas Preston’s The Cobra Event, for cold war buffs, for bio-warfare doomsayers, for readers interested in a bit of real-life thrills, Biohazard delivers on its promise. Just remember: It’s not fiction. Alibek’s neat little plagues still exist.