The use of Ebola for terrorism could be a remote threat, but is nevertheless a threat, say security experts and lawmakers.
A medical staff member, right, watches as others in protective gear escort Nina Pham, left, from an ambulance to a nearby aircraft at Love Field, Thursday, Oct. 16, 2014, in Dallas. Pham, a nurse at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas, was diagnosed with the Ebola virus after caring for Thomas Eric Duncan who died of the same virus. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)
“This could be a place for terrorists to engage,” Rep. Robert Pittenger (R-N.C.), the chairman of the Congressional Task Force on Terrorism, told TheBlaze. “We have limited our scope and are not respecting that we are living in unchartered time. They are unrelenting. If they could get infected with the virus, they could try to pass it on to others.”
Pittenger and other members of Congress have urged the Obama administration to restrict travel from West Africa even before two American nurses contracted Ebola from a Liberian national who flew into the country without being detected.
Pittenger said he has talked to national security experts who expressed concern about the prospect of Ebola as a weapon for terrorists. He further stressed the rule the United States must expect the unexpected.
“They won’t do that – that’s like saying terrorists would never fly planes into buildings,” Pittenger said. “It should be on the radar screen at least that terrorists could get ahold of this and come to America.”
The Ebola virus is reportedly not airborne, and can only be spread through bodily fluids.
But Capt. Al Shimkus, a professor of national security affairs who teaches biological warfare at the U.S. Naval War College, told Forbes if the Islamic State or another terror group wanted to expose themselves to an Ebola outbreak region, they could try to interact with as many people as possible in a city or location to attempt to spread it.
“The individual exposed to the Ebola virus would be the carrier,” Shimkus told Forbes. “In the context of terrorist activity, it doesn’t take much sophistication to go to that next step to use a human being as a carrier.”
An Ebola terrorism risk should be taken seriously, but should also be measured against other potential terrorism risks, said John Walsh, CEO of SightSpan, a risk management and security firm that contracts with the federal government and private corporations.
“If someone can strap a bomb to themselves and blow themselves up, they could infect themselves with Ebola and try to spread it,” Walsh said. “The challenge is to identify risk and then the probability of it happening and then measure it against the risk of other forms of terrorisms.”
When measured against the likelihood of a dirty bomb, for example, Ebola is a very low risk, Walsh added. But, he said the problem would be in addressing that risk regardless of how remote it might seem.
“Right now there is no mitigating the risk,” he said. “We are not even mitigating non-terrorists coming to the country with the disease. How do we do it when someone comes to America on purpose with the intent to spread it.”
The Defense Department asserts it is closely monitoring such a possibility of Ebola being used as a weapon.
“The Department of Defense maintains research interests both for protection against intentional use and natural exposure to many diseases that can impact the health of its personnel around the world, and that concern extends to viruses, such as Ebola,” Pentagon spokeswoman Commander Amy Derrick-Frost told TheBlaze in an e-mail.
“We have a long standing interest in the highly fatal hemorrhagic fevers,” Derrick-Frost continued. “Ebola is among a handful of emerging infectious diseases that has historically been explored as a potential biological weapon, and we are closely monitor these type of infectious diseases.”
Former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge told Fox News that he fears the federal government isn’t ready if a disease such as Ebola were used as a weapon by terrorist.
“For years I’ve been trying to discuss the threat of a pathogen directed at us either from terrorists or from another nation,” Ridge said. Ridge continued, asking, “Are we prepared for this pathogen, whether we are confronted by Mother Nature or confronted by terrorists?”
However, in testimony to Congress last month, Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said it would take a state-backed effort with extensive resources to carry out a biological attack with Ebola.
Also, a recent piece in Scientific American explains, “a bioterrorist would have to obtain the virus and be able to grow a massive supply in large vats, an extremely costly endeavor. While the virus is easily spread through personal contact with the bodily fluids of an infected person, it would be difficult to manipulate and control. Put simply, a large amount of Ebola in the hands of a rogue group would more likely end up killing the plotters than making it to the endgame of a bioterrorism mission.”
Liz Klimas contributed to this story.