Infectious Diseases & Terrorists: Peas In a Pod

Infectious Diseases & Terrorists: Peas In a Pod

The World Trade Center Bombing of 1992, Oklahoma City Bombing of 1996, the September 11th Attacks in 2001, and the Boston Marathon Bombing in 2013 were caused by some of the nastiest thugs know to man – terrorists. The Philadelphia Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793, Spanish Flu Pandemic of 1918, the Asian Flu Pandemic of 1957, and the Ebola Crisis of 2014 were caused by some of the nastiest bugs known to man – viruses.

Viruses are referred to casually as bugs, and if highly contagious with a high fatality rate, they earn the title, killer bugs. Terrorists organizations are often said to be training and harboring thugs.  So, it is only natural that when they replicate, mutate, and raise their profile by upping their fatality rate, they earn the title, killer thugs.

"When we think of the major threats to our national security, the first to come to mind are nuclear proliferation, rogue states and global terrorism. But another kind of threat lurks beyond our shores, one from nature, not humans - an avian flu pandemic."

Barack Obama

It’s no wonder that the Nation’s leaders and many respected scientists speak of killer thugs and killer bugs in the same vernacular. And the more one listens, it becomes clear that when it comes to prevention, protection, and mitigation, the National Security Strategy (NSS) and the National Health Security Strategy (NHSS) are peas in a pod.

There is no doubt that killer bugs cause more deaths year-in and year-out than killer thugs, but it is the very real potential of terrorism that shakes the American psyche to its core.

Both are significant threats to the American way of life, both are evolving and becoming more dangerous as technology advances, and both, if not contained, will kill countless Americans, and bring the national economy to a screeching halt.

Both threats are ‘when’ scenarios, not ‘if’ scenarios.

“Seasonal flu is now a pandemic that lasts for years and years because you've got so many people that it's jumping back between northern and southern hemispheres and moving itself around the world. By the time it gets back to where it started, it's changed sufficiently so that people are no longer immune.”

Nathan Wolfe

When we evaluate the similarities between the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) fight against killer thugs and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) fight against killer bugs, we find that what appears to be a two-headed monster is actually four-headed. And prevention, protection, mitigation, and response activities operate on two broad levels – from the U.S border inward, and the U.S border outward. In the broadest of terms, surveillance of bugs and thugs includes monitoring the following:

  •  The activities of terrorists organizations operating overseas that are working to reach our shores, such as Al Qaeda, Al Shabaab, and the Islamic State (ISIL)
  • The emergence of killer bugs, epidemics, and outbreaks overseas that will likely reach our shores, such as Ebola, SARS, and Avian Flu
  • The activities of suspected domestic terrorists plotting to cause harm from within our borders
  • The emergence and reemergence of homegrown killer bugs that cause multi-state disease outbreaks

If only it were that simple. You see, both killer bugs and killer thugs have taken advantage of emerging technologies to raise their game. And technologies have caused a blurring of the lines between domestic and foreign born bugs and thugs.

Once upon a time, killer bugs originating overseas could be kept at bay through the medical evaluation and quarantine of merchant marines and immigrants at the limited number of ports of entry. And since voyage to America by ship took weeks, the incubation period was often exhausted prior to arrival. 

 Now, with air travel, international cruises, and the daily arrival of cargo ships, the next killer bug can arrive daily at any number of ports and airports from coast to coast. And once they land in Los Angeles, they are a two hour flight to Denver, four hours to Chicago, and six hours to New York City – and so on...

"The threats and risks that communities face are diverse—they can be intentional or naturally occurring and can result from both persistent and emerging threats, including severe weather, infectious diseases, hazardous material exposures, and terrorist attacks.”

National Health Security Strategy

And on the killer thug front, domestic terrorism was once the exclusive domain of one or two mentally unstable individuals carrying out the unconscionable with a truck bomb parked outside a federal building or a few guns and a backpack full of ammo at the local high school. And terrorism against Americans overseas was ‘over there,’ usually by an organized group bombing and American hotel, embassy, or military installation.

Unfortunately, in 1992, the killer thugs mutated and emerged on U.S. soil. The 1992 World Trade Center Bombing and the September 11th attacks were planned and financed ‘over there.’ Then the same commercial planes that transport killer bugs to the homeland, delivered killer thugs that blended in, gathered materials, trained, and carried out events that scarred the Nation indelibly.

"In an interconnected world, the defeat of international terrorism – and most importantly, the prevention of these terrorist organizations from obtaining weapons of mass destruction -- will require the cooperation of many nations."

Barack Obama

Today, the information age has enabled terrorist organizations and their killer thugs to mutate again. By using the internet and social media tools, killer thugs can recruit and engage the unsophisticated domestic terrorists wanna be, and give him the support and resources to mature into a sleeper cell.   And the killer thugs do it all from a remote dessert camp using the iPhone tethered to a satellite telephone with enterprise encryption.

So, what strategies are implemented to stop killer bugs and killer thugs from reaching the homeland today?   We go on offense.

In addition to using big data and 24/7 world-wide syndromic surveillance, the CDC works with the World Health Organization (WHO) to deploy U.S. medical professionals into foreign lands to treat and quarantine victims of killer bugs, and vaccinate the not yet infected – before they can hop a plane to America.   And at all major ports and airports of entry there are quarantine stations.

As for killer thugs, DHS goes all-in with the National Security Agency (NSA), Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and others to use the surveillance of phone, internet, and email traffic to power big data collection and analysis. And they use that data to feed U.S. Central Command and Special Operations Command the information they need to drop a Seal Team into the desert to take out a known killer thug training camp – before those trained can hop a plane to America.

To reduce the threat of killer bugs and killer thugs, America will undoubtedly continue to play offense using a four-pronged strategy.


Karl Schmitt, MPA

Karl Schmitt, MPA

Karl is the Passionate Founder & CEO of bParati. He is on a mission to build a national network of effective, sustainable healthcare coalitions. More...

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