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BioweaponsU.K. military last fall evaluated possible Ebola use by terrorists
In October 2014, during the peak of the Ebola epidemic which terrorized citizens in Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone, security and terrorism analysts considered the probability of the Islamic State (ISIS) or other terror groups weaponizing Ebola and unleashing the virus in New York, Paris, London, or another major city. Many bioweapon researchers played down Martinez’s claim, saying terrorists looking to use Ebola as a weapon would encounter problems. Still, last fall, a U.K. military research unit was tasked with evaluating whether terrorist organizations could use Ebola to attack Western targets.
In October 2014, during the peak of the Ebola epidemic which terrorized citizens in Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone, security and terrorism analysts considered the probability of the Islamic State (ISIS) or other terror groups weaponizing Ebola and unleashing the virus in New York, Paris, London, or another major city. Francisco Martinez, Spain’s state secretary for security, claimed that ISIS fighters were looking into having “lone wolves” launch attacks using biological weapons. He claimed he received such intelligence from listening in to conversations between terrorists on Internet chatrooms.
Many bioweapon researchers played down Martinez’s claim, saying terrorists looking to use Ebola as a weapon would encounter problems. “It doesn’t spread quickly at all,” said Dr. Filippa Lentzos, a senior research fellow at King’s College London. “Terrorists are usually after a bang and Ebola isn’t going to give you that.”
“We’ve seen no specific credible intelligence that ISIS is attempting to use any sort of disease or virus to attack our homeland,” said DHS chief Jeh Johnson.
TheGuardian has now reported that a three-page classified memo from the U.K. military research unit at Porton Down, Wiltshire, shows that the unit was tasked with evaluating whether terrorist organizations could use Ebola to attack Western targets.
The document, released under the Freedom of Information Act, reveals that the unit was asked last October to provide “guidance on the feasibility and potential impact of a non-state actor exploiting the Ebola outbreak in west Africa for bioterrorism.” The memo outlines three possible scenarios under which terrorists might exploit the Ebola outbreak. All three scenarios are completely or heavily redacted in the memo, but researchers point out that weaponizing Ebola would be an enormous and impractical undertaking to fulfill the terrorists’ cause.
TheGuardian notes that public health practices in the West could diminish the effects terrorists would aim for should they weaponize Ebola. An individual with the virus would on average infect two other people. In a major Western city like London or Paris, transmission would be more limited. “People with Ebola are infectious only when they show symptoms,” Lentzos said. “Could terrorists go to west Africa, get infected, then come back and sit on the tube? Sure, but they’re not likely to be functional for very long. They’re going to be very sick and you’ll see that. So they would have only a very small window in which to operate. And in a country with a developed public health system like the U.K., there would be plenty of chances to clamp down on an outbreak.”
Scientific Americansuggested in 2014 that terrorists could gather large quantities of the virus and insert them into a small “bomblet” which, once detonated, would spray the virus perhaps thirty-feet into a crowd, infecting people as it landed on their faces, open wounds, or eyes. “That would be like a hundred people simultaneously touching an Ebola-infected person,” said Anthony Fauci, the director of theNational Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
Fear of weaponized Ebola, despite the likelihood, could itself be ISIS’s goal, according to Lentzos. “If your aim is not to kill a lot of people, or even make them ill, but instead to frighten them and cause a huge level of societal disruption, then bioterrorism would do that. It elicits exceptionally high levels of fear, disgust and abhorrence.”