Why Ebola terrorism is dumb

A few days ago, Washington Post columnist Marc Thiessen wrote an Op-Ed piece detailing what he saw as a threat of terrorists weaponizing and using Ebola.  Personally, I thought the argument a bit dumb (and also blatant fear-mongering), since the main points of his argument seem to be…

…the Ebola infection is raging right now in parts of Africa where Islamist extremists could have easy access…

…and that Ebola’s long incubation period means terrorists could…

…infect themselves and then come here with the virus.

Finally, he concludes that the US health infrastructure is…

…woefully unprepared for an Ebola outbreak…

…therefore making this particular weapon somehow more attractive to terrorist groups for the widespread panic it is likely to cause.

Since I’m not an expert in either terrorism or biological weapons, I’ll turn to Scott Stewart, who is one.  I would highly suggest checking out the article Stewart wrote (do it soon – Stratfor articles are only free to the public for a brief period of time!) detailing why Thiessen’s fears are rather naive.  To summarize Stewart’s counterargument, he does agree that, while groups like the Islamic State might like to possess a weapon that could create such widespread panic (and with the overblown media coverage about the supposed “Ebola threat” in the US, it would not take much to set the US population off).

However – and this is a BIG however – intent is one thing, capability to do it is something else entirely.  Even researching how to weaponize Ebola is exceptionally difficult:

The Ebola virus is relatively fragile. Its lifetime on dry surfaces outside of a host is only a couple of hours, and while some studies have shown that the virus can survive on surfaces for days when still in bodily fluids, this requires ideal conditions that would be difficult to replicate during transport.

Next, even if a group manages to get the virus back to laboratory, they would somehow have to reproduce enough of the virus to use in a large-scale attack.  That’s pretty hard to do, since Ebola is extremely dangerous to work with, as any mistakes in handling can lead the researchers to contract the virus.  Japan’s Aum Shinrikyo terrorist group tried weaponizing Ebola back during their biological warfare campaign days – they couldn’t do it, even with…

…a large staff of trained scientists and a state-of-the-art biological weapons laboratory…

And Aum Shinrikyo specialized in biological weapons!  If a group like ISIS decided to try and weaponize Ebola, they would probably wipe themselves out before they could carry out any significant attack.

Think the above might still be doable, if a group is just “committed enough?”  Think a group like ISIS could carry this out without the US government (or any other government) catching on?  As Stewart points out:

…the Islamic State’s every move is under heavy scrutiny by most of the world’s intelligence and security agencies. This means jihadist operatives would have far more difficulty assembling the personnel and equipment needed to construct a biological weapons laboratory. Since randomly encountering an infected Ebola patient would be unreliable, the group would have to travel to a country impacted by the outbreak… Furthermore, once group members reached the infected countries, they would have to enter quarantined areas of medical facilities, retrieve the samples and then escape the country unnoticed…

Somewhere along this convoluted process, you’d assume that someone would notice something fishy was going on.

Ignoring the difficulty of even obtaining the virus, Ebola is still a dumb choice for a biological weapon since its transmission is so difficult.  It makes more sense to try to weaponize the flu or measles, since the rate of infection is so much higher (plus, you don’t have that long, 21 day wait before people start showing Ebola symptoms, which definitely puts a downer in your fear-inducing goals).  No one is talking about weaponized malaria, even though it is about 200 times more deadly in Africa than Ebola is.

From NPR, Ebola is much less contagious than other diseases.

Specifically addressing Thiessen’s argument that an Ebola-infected suicide bomber could spread the disease by detonating in a crowded area, Stewart counters:

  1. Highly contagious Ebola-infected “operatives” would be too ill (high fever, fatigue, vomiting, and diarrhea) to walk anywhere in public.
  2. The heat and shock from the bomb would probably kill most of the virus, anyway.
  3. Anyone close enough to risk infection are also going to be injured by the bomb – they will probably be taken to a hospital, where they would quickly be quarantined and treated.

So, to wrap it all up:

Biological weapons look great in the movies, but they are difficult and expensive to develop in real life. That is why we have rarely seen them used in terrorist attacks.

Health professionals are now cautioning that, for the average American, the fear of Ebola may be more threatening than the disease itself.  So, when it comes to Ebola and (especially) Ebola-related biological weapons, it’s time to chill out.

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