Scientists have been assessing the potential use of Ebola as a bioterrorism weapon at the top-secret military research unit at Porton Down, Wiltshire.
- A three-page memo, marked ‘UK secret UK eyes only’, reveals that the unit, where chemical, radiological and biological threats are analysed, was tasked with evaluating whether terrorist organisations such as al-Qaida and Islamic State (Isis) could use the deadly virus to attack western targets.
- The heavily redacted document, which has been 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”.
- It goes on to explain that non-state actor threat assessments are “provided by the joint terrorism analysis centre”, while threats to “UK deployed forces are provided by defence intelligence”. The memo outlines three possible scenarios under which terrorists might seek to exploit the Ebola outbreak, which so far has killed more than 9,000 people in the three most affected countries, Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia.
- The first scenario outlined is completely redacted, illustrating the acute sensitivity about the issue. The second scenario is heavily blacked out but, according to the memo, “would be both logistically and technically challenging for a non-state group to undertake”. It observes: “Clearly there are practical issues involved with such a scenario that of themselves are often not insurmountable but taken together add enormously to the complexity of successfully undertaking this attack.”
- A third, also heavily redacted, scenario “constitutes the most technically challenging of the scenarios considered here”.
- Concerns that terrorist groups might look to “weaponise” Ebola have been raised by several thinktanks and politicians. Last year Francisco Martinez, Spain’s state secretary for security, claimed that Isis fighters were planning to carry out “lone wolf” attacks using biological weapons. Martinez said that his belief was informed by listening in to conversations uncovered in secret chatrooms used by terrorist cells. The claim has since been played down by others.
- Jeh Johnson, the US department of homeland security secretary, said last October that “we’ve seen no specific credible intelligence that Isis is attempting to use any sort of disease or virus to attack our homeland”.
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