Like their al-Qaeda cousins, the Islamic State jihadists have shown themselves willing to use any weapon in their terrorist arsenal. Many wonder if Ebola and other diseases such as smallpox could be used as bioweapons.
We're not talking about the rantings of conspiracy theorists here. As reported by several respected media sources, national security planners are already considering what could result if terror groups learn to use Ebola or other infectious diseases for their own purposes.
Deadly as it is, medical experts know that Ebola is only contagious when a patient begins showing symptoms—not during the 2- to 21-day incubation period. Could the Islamic State or other terror organizations, which have shown they have some mastery of modern technology, somehow develop a mutation of the virus, a sort of "super strain" that could become infectious during incubation?
Perhaps, but that would be the hard way to do it. Much easier, says Capt. Al Shimkus, a retired naval captain and now professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College, would be for human suicide carriers to spread the current version of the disease.
"In the context of terrorist activity, it doesn't take much sophistication to do that next step to use a human being as a carrier," Shimkus told Forbes magazine (as reported on the Forbes website, Oct. 5, 2014)
In his scenario, the Islamic State or any other terror group could send soldiers into heavily infected areas where they would steal infected bodily fluids to use later, or they could deliberately expose themselves to the virus before heading to some target city or country. There, they would mingle with the population, infecting as many victims as possible.
The idea is not new. During the Middle Ages, armies catapulted the bodies of victims of plague over the walls of enemy cities to spread the disease.
There would be problems with this approach, say other observers. The advanced health-care systems of the United States and Europe, terror groups' main targets, would be effective in combating the disease unless populations were infected on a massive scale, which presently seems unlikely.
In a Slate opinion piece published in mid-November, University of Pennsylvania bioethicist Nicholas Evans doubted that Ebola could be a viable bioweapon candidate because by the time the carrier started showing symptoms—the only time the disease could be transmitted—the terrorist contagion agent would himself be so sick he would have only a few days to do his deadly work.
Ebola in its present form is only spread by bodily fluids, which "are not efficient or stealthy weapons," says Evans. Still, in the hands of a determined terrorist group with members only too willing to die for the cause, the idea of contagious diseases as weapons cannot be overlooked—especially since Ebola will not be the last deadly contagion we see.