Ebola's exponential spread has rekindled fears that terrorists may seek to turn the virus into a powerful weapon of mass destruction. Such talk has occurred on Capitol Hill and in national security circles. But the financial and logistical challenges of transforming Ebola into a tool of bioterror makes the concern seem overblown—at least as far as widespread devastation is concerned.
National security and infectious disease experts agree the obstacles to a large-scale assault with Ebola are formidable. For starters, 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. To be successful, “it would take a state-type [agent]" with more extensive resources, Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told a Congressional committee last week.
Already there is historical precedent for states trying—and failing—to tap the virus for bioterror. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union was “growing up large amounts of microbes for potential use in bioterrorism. That was known through intelligence,” Fauci told Scientific American. The Soviets attempted to cultivate smallpox, anthrax, tularemia, botulism and hemorrhagic fevers including Ebola, he says. Yet exactly how the country would have deployed the microbes remains an area of speculation. The Soviets eventually dropped the project, but they were not the only ones interested in the microbe’s potential.
The Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo—infamous for setting off sarin gas in a Tokyo subway in 1995—also looked into Ebola as a potential biological weapon. In 1992, they sent a medical group of 40 people ostensibly to help provide aid during an Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Their real purpose, however, was to collect some Ebola virus, as Amy Smithson, a senior fellow at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, noted in her 2000 report Ataxia. The effort was a “flagrant failure,” she says. "They did not get their hands on a culture.”
Even if Aum Shinrikyo had managed to gather samples of the Ebola virus, it would have been extremely difficult to kill large numbers of people in countries with a strong health infrastructure such as Japan. Once the virus had been identified and patients isolated, the pathogen would have been unlikely to spread widely. Still, any terrorist attempting to stoke fears rather than accrue a high body count could have some modicum of success with Ebola. “When talking about bioterror, it’s more about the terror than it is the bio,” Fauci says.
Interviews with Fauci and other infection and security experts suggest that the virus could potentially be used for small-scale Ebola attacks in about three different ways—although each approach would run up against substantial logistical, financial and biological barriers. First, Ebola could be weaponized by taking large quantities of it and inserting them into a small “bomblet” that, once detonated, would spray the virus perhaps 30 feet—potentially infecting people as it landed on their faces, on cuts or on hands that they might then touch their eyes with. “That would be like a hundred people simultaneously touching an Ebola-infected person,” says Fauci. Ebola would not need to be altered in any way to make such a plot work. The virus is already so capable of spreading from person to person via contact with bodily fluids that in its natural state it could do some serious damage. “Ebola is a very lethal pathogenic virus," says virologist Robert Garry of Tulane University. "It’s basically weaponizing itself.”
The second, and perhaps easiest, small-scale bioterrorism option would be to recruit individuals for Ebola suicide missions. Such a plan would hinge on injecting Ebola virus into a limited number of people, who would then need to leave west Africa (or wherever the outbreak may be) before becoming symptomatic. Then those individuals would have to get into a public space and projectile vomit or bleed onto others to infect them. Obviously the plot would need to overcome substantial technical challenges including the extreme weakness that arises from Ebola. If it did succeed, this mode of transmission would not kill thousands of people, but it would set off significant fears.
The third bioterrorism method appears to be the most unlikely: genetically modifying the virus to enable it to spread more readily, perhaps through the air. As Scientific American reported on September 16, transforming the Ebola virus from a pathogen that primarily affects the circulatory system to one well suited for the respiratory system would be a major research undertaking. While theoretically the microbe could be manipulated to act in that way, it would be a demanding choice for nefarious actors looking to stockpile harmful materials. 
With an Ebola outbreak that has already killed more than 2,800 in west Africa and laid siege to the health care systems of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, it is clear that already Ebola is terrorizing thousands. Nevertheless, the possibility of rogue organizations sowing this terror on a similar scale seems largely out of reach.