Which virus is a bigger threat to the lives of Americans? Ebola, or Islamic fanaticism?
Judging from recent news, both appear to be equally malicious. Almost simultaneously, officials here have been forced to react to a doctor who inadvertently imported Ebola to New York City from Africa, and an outbreak of so-called "lone wolf" terrorism by a jihadi sympathizer who took a hatchet to two police officers in Queens.
Fortunately in both cases, the threat was quickly contained. The doctor was brought to Belleview Hospital as soon as he became symptomatic and contagious, and the "lone wolf" was quickly put down by police bullets. He is not believed to have any known connections to organized terror groups.
But neither were any of those who engaged in terror attacks in the 13 years since 9/11: The would-be Newburgh bombers who plotted to attack Bronx synagogues, the attempted Times Square bomber and the Boston marathon bomb brothers are all believed to be sympathizers with Islamic terror rather than part of organized sleeper cells coordinating with al Qaeda or ISIS.
That means that like Ebola or other diseases, jihadi ideology can spread across the United States and infect deranged or socially disaffected people here, thus providing an effective way for ISIS and others to terrorize America without lifting a finger. And just as the administration's reaction to Ebola, with its reluctance to consider travel bans, has been lacking, it has turned its back for too long on the danger posed from ISIS.
Authorities believe ISIS is actively encouraging lone wolf attacks. A law enforcement bulletin obtained by Fox News warned that ISIS uses social media to encourage sympathizers to find members of the armed forces and attack them (although a Homeland Security spokesman said there was no credible, specific threat.) A man in Oklahoma City charged with beheading a coworker reportedly had pictures of ISIS beheadings on his Facebook page.
"The Internet as well as certain specific Muslim extremists are really firing up this lone wolf phenomenon," California Sen. Diane Feinstein recently said on CNN. "The multiplicity of [worldwide] attacks in 2014 shows that their propaganda is having some effect."
Several Americans have been apprehended in the process of trying to join forces with ISIS, including three teenage Denver girls of Somali descent who were stopped in Frankfurt and a Chicago man who was arrested in O'Hare airport. Although the girls were not charged, authorities are probing their online contacts to see who might have been encouraging them. The 19-year-old man told authorizes he met a man online who directed him to fly to Istanbul and wait for further instructions, CNN reported. It also said he had pro-ISIS writings and illustrations in his Bolingbrook home.
Just as we are developing protocols to contain and control Ebola, so to we must take measures to monitor both the spread of jihad sympathy and any inroads ISIS may be making to extend its reach into America's cities. As we head toward midterm elections, Americans seem less concerned about being struck by a terror attack here than they are about exposure to Ebola, which by all medical accounts is extremely rare. Analytics from Google show Ebola is the more-searched term than ISIS, and a Pew Poll found that 36 percent of Americans are following the spread of Ebola, while 31 percent are following America's strikes against ISIS.
The answer to both problems is the same: education. As doctors, public officials and the general public learn how Ebola spreads and how it can be contained, we must also look at "lone wolf" terrorism as an epidemic.
Speaking on "Meet The Press" last week, Michael Leiter, former director of the United States National Counterterrorism Center, said the only way to contain the spread of lone-wolf terror is to "ramp up our surveillance" to detect people who may "have a crisis in their life, are mentally ill and attach themselves to that ideology." As in the Ebola crisis, he said, the risk is small, not an existential threat, but one we dare not underestimate.
We always hear about "increased chatter" from extremist groups before and after an event. We should be listening more often and more carefully, and we must continue to work with the Federal Intelligence Surveillance Court to find ways to be diligent while respecting the privacy of innocent Americans.
The man shot dead by police after the Queens hatchet attack, Zale Thompson, had an online history that involved rants against America and visits to sites associated with terror groups.
Leiter noted that monitoring is not enough: Authorities and their operatives also need to be able to engage extremist forces through social media to mitigate their impact on others.
Based on what we learned in Dallas from the treatment of Ebola patient Thomas Eric Duncan, New York officials were able to learn a great deal that may have saved the lives of the first patient in New York, people with whom he came in contact, and the health care workers treating him.
We must take great care to take similar lessons of prevention and response whenever an outbreak of the pro-jihad virus occurs.