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Al Qaeda, Anthrax and Ayman
An attorney addresses the means, opportunity, motive and modus operandi of the anthrax crimes in the US.
December 4, 2002
Vice President Cheney, CIA Director Tenet, Gorbachev, the former chief arms inspector in Iraq, and the former head CIA agent in Iraq all have said that they believe that Al Qaeda is responsible for the anthrax attacks. A growing number of commentators agree
-- urging that the publicly known evidence about means, opportunity, modus operandi and motive in the Amerithrax investigation points to Al Qaeda.(1) The argument, however, is far stronger than has been made to date.
First, Al Qaeda has had anthrax since at least 1997. Dr. Ayman Zawahiri's right-hand man confessed that Zawahiri succeeded in obtaining anthrax and intended to use it against US targets.
Second, Senators Daschle and Leahy likely were targeted because of the appropriations to military and security forces that have prevented the militant islamists from achieving their goals. The appropriations are made pursuant to the "Leahy Law." The FBI's involvement in muslim countries is deemed to interfere with the sovereignty of those countries. Senator Leahy is Chairman of both the Judiciary Committee overseeing the FBI and the Appropriations Subcommittee in charge of foreign aid to these countries.
Third, the Egyptian islamists sent letter bombs a few years ago to newspaper offices in New York City and Washington, D.C. in connection with the earlier bombing of the World Trade Center. The letter bombs were sent in connection with the treatment of the Egyptian islamists imprisoned for the earlier attack on the WTC. The apparent purpose of the letter bombs --which resulted in minimal casualty -- was to send a message. (There is an outstanding $2 million reward)
The FBI, for its part, reports that it is vigorously testing many alternative hypotheses.(2) The FBI has said that authorities do not know whether the perp is American or Foreign.(3) Asked if the possibility of an overseas perpetrator is still open, an investigator says, "Absolutely. Until we get a good suspect identified, we're looking at all theories."(4)
Means and Opportunity: Al Qaeda's Biochem Program
Bin Laden purchased anthrax a few years ago from a supplier in North Korea.(6) The Moro Front, an Indonesian radical group associated with Bin Laden, arranged for the purchase, but Bin Laden's own name was reportedly on the purchase order.(7) Dr. Ayman Zawahiri had a list of 100 US and Israeli targets to use it against.(8) Thus, while the question of the source of the Ames strain used in the Amerithrax mailings is problematic and addressed more fully below, Al Qaeda's acquisition of anthrax for the purpose of using it as a weapon against the US has been known for a long time. Indeed, Vice President Cheney and his staff knew to take Cipro on 9/11, a full week before the first anthrax letter was mailed.(9)
In 1999, the Federation of American Scientists (“FAS”) detailed the facts relating to Bin Laden's purchase of anthrax in 1997 (relying on the translation of confessions and court testimony of Egyptian Islamic Jihad members).(10) At the same time the pro-Bin Laden Jihad elements obtained the anthrax and other pathogens, they diversified the targets and did not limit them to the blowing up of installations. They launched joint action with other groups and organizations, both local groups and others operating outside their countries. The group has maintained the objective of seizing power in Egypt since the coup planned by Jihad in 1981 and despite the Egyptian government's success in cracking down on the organization.(11)
Upon the merger in 1998, the most senior planners in Al Qaeda relating to tactics and biological weapons were Egyptian Islamic Jihad, to include Ayman Zawahiri, Mohammed Atef, and Abu Khabab. Zawahiri is the real "brains" behind 9/11, not Bin Laden.(12) While the US government views the two groups as having merged in 1998, author Peter Bergen suggests that they have essentially been the same organization, with the merger having occurred some years before that.(13) Formerly the head of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, Zawahiri assumed the #2 position after Bin Laden upon a merger of some of Islamic Jihad into Al Qaeda a few years ago.(14) Zawahiri was in charge of Al Qaeda's biological weapons program. Zawahiri's wrath against the United States is thought to have sharpened in 1998 upon the extradition of some islamic jihad members to Egypt from Albania.(15)
In 1998, Zawahiri took time out from his travels to create some computer documents describing his biological and chemical program, which he code-named "Curdled Milk."(16) The project apparently included work on a pesticide/nerve agent that used a chemical to increase absorption (and was tested on rabbits and dogs).(17)
Zawahiri was assisted by Midhat Mursi (alias Abu Khabab).(18) An Egyptian chemical engineer, he ran the camp named Abu Khabab. Abu Khabab's whereabouts are still unknown. Al Qaeda's experimentation with its chemical weapons is now featured on the nightly television news picturing a dog being put to death. Disturbing scenes of death show Al Qaeda's capability with what appears to be cyanide, which Al Qaeda contemplated using recently in Indonesia dispensing it by perfume bottles, in the Tube in London, and in the US embassy water supply in Rome.(19)
There were early dramatic reports of vials labeled "sarin gas" and "anthrax.(20) The public was told of the availability of poisons in northwestern Pakistan, made available as the result of the break-up of the Soviet Union. Later, there were reports of an Al Qaeda facility in northern Iraq where there was testing of chemical and biological weapons (such as ricin, which is derived from castor beans) on barnyard animals and a human.(21) The area apparently is protected by a radical Kurdish group in an area not controlled by Saddam Hussein. ABCNEWS reported that there is evidence the terrorists tested ricin in water, as a powder and as an aerosol. The militants used it to kill donkeys and chickens, and at one point, the terrorists allegedly exposed a man to the toxin in an Iraqi market and followed him home and watched him die several days later.(22) In Afghanistan, documents were found indicating that Al Qaeda was doing research relating to plans to use botulinum to kill 2,000 people and was seeking to obtain smallpox.(23)
According to Stephen Younger, director of the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, however, Al-Qaida's interest in biological weapons has been focused mainly on anthrax.(24) One lab contained a centrifuge for separating liquids and an oven in which slurried agents could be dried.(25)
Dr. Ayman Zawahiri's home in Kabul tested positive for anthrax. (26) It has never been reported that the test was a false positive or that the anthrax was determined to be naturally occurring. Similarly, 5 out of 19 labs tested positive for traces of anthrax.(27) The Kabul office of Pakistani scientist Sultan Bashiru-din Mehmood also contained documents indicating an interest in anthrax -- to include calculations relating to the aerial dispersal of anthrax by a balloon. US-hating (Taliban) Mullahs oversaw the anthrax vaccine laboratory, much to the consternation of the scientist in charge of the lab. (28) In late November, an AP photo showed something at the lab described as "anthrax spore concentrate."(29)
John Lindh told interrogators that, according to battlefield rumors, a biological attack was expected to be a "second wave."(30)
Zawahiri traveled widely in his attempts to obtain and weaponize anthrax and other terroristic missions -- he traveled to Malaysia, Iraq, Russia and United States. For example, Zawahiri traveled to the US in 1991, 1995 and possibly 1998 under an alias.(31) He went to California, New York and DC (and apparently Texas at one point). Zawahiri sometimes was accompanied by a New Jersey pharmacist and a California doctor (a former classmate who denies knowing who Zawahiri was). They were joined by a former US Army sergeant and key Al Qaeda operative, Ali Mohammed.(32) Zawahiri went to Russia in 1997 where he was imprisoned for 6 months. (The Russians never learned his real identity.) (33) In 1998 he went to Baghdad.(34) According to Newsweek, U.S. operatives in Afghanistan discovered evidence indicating that one or more Russian scientists were helping al-Qaeda weaponize anthrax.(35) US News had an account of a reporter's encounter with a Filipino carrying papers from Dr. Zawahiri (allowing free lodging) and bragging about his ability to manipulate anthrax.(36)
Dr. Richard Spertzel, the former UN inspector in Iraq, says that the product here was well within Iraq's capability. UNSCOM determined that the Iraqi weapons program produced dried anthrax as well as the more primitive wet form.(37) Spertzel and others agree that Iraq would likely have Ames -- having first sought it in 1988 (and security being so lax at so many laboratories that had it).(38)
Given that we know where Saddam lives, and he is a survivalist, he would want to maintain deniability in the event he had assisted in the anthrax mailing. As former Russian bioweaponeer Ken Alibek has explained, a terrorist state sponsor would want to use a strain that was not associated with it.
Spertzel states: "Iraq certainly knows how to produce 100 percent pure spores. That is a technique that they developed ... which is capable of giving them the kind of concentrations that we are seeing in the Daschle letter."(39) The bottom-line, however, remains that Iraq is just one of a number of possibilities. Al Qaeda had purchased anthrax for the intention of using it against US targets and Zawahiri sought out the necessary expertise in his travels. (40)
The genetic analysis of Dr. Keim, from Northern Arizona, had promised to remove all doubt potentially as to the source of the anthrax. Hopes have long since faded according to press reports. Timothy D. Read, whose work at the Institute for Genetic Research in Rockville, Md. provided the FBI with its first genetic roadmap for anthrax, has said that the differences identified by his team could not pinpoint the source.(41)
The research is reported in "Science."(42) The analysis is directed to showing the similarity between various samples of Ames. According to many reports, Ames was widely distributed to universities throughout the world. But even under the most conservative estimate (such as made by Dr. Hatch Rosenberg), the strain was sent to 15-20 labs. The "Science" article does not address the testing done with respect to isolates from the vast majority of labs where Ames was known to be. 15 labs remained to be tested. (Note that the date of the lab isolate presumed by some to be Ft. Detrick was not disclosed in the article.)
One expert, Dr. C.J. Peters, summarizes:
"Knowing that this strain was originally isolated in the U.S. has absolutely nothing to do with where the weapon may have been prepared because, as I tried to make the point, these strains move around. A post doc in somebody's laboratory could have taken this strain to another lab and it could have been taken overseas and it could have ended up absolutely anywhere. Tiny quantities of anthrax that you couldn't see, that you couldn't detect in an inventory can be used to propagate as much as you want. So that's just not, in fact, very helpful."(43)
Ft. Detrick sent its Ames strain to places like Porton Down in Great Britain and Suffield in Canada.(44) We can reasonably assume that Ft. Detrick did not send it directly to any supplier in North Korea. Presently, there is no information in the public record as to the strain that Bin Laden purchased in 1997. Informed analysis requires that at least that much be determined.
Working on the assumption that the anthrax purchased from the North Korea supplier was not Ames -- which is a huge and perhaps reckless assumption -- then the question relevant to an Al Qaeda theory is what access to the US Army strain might have been accomplished by someone with 1) a multi millionaire (Bin Laden) backing his play, and 2) a lot of Muslims who believe in his Islamist cause (for example, toppling the Egyptian and Saudi regimes). The possible sources include Russia, Iraq, the US Army, or a facility that obtained Ames from the US Army or other researcher who had it.
This was the instinct of the Administration from early on, according to Woodward's Bush at War:
"They turned to the hot topic of anthrax. The powder in the letter mailed to Senator Daschle's office had been found to be potent, prompting officials to suggest its source was likely an expert capable of producing the bacteria in huge amounts. Tenet said, "I think it's AQ -- meaning Al Qaeda."
"I think there's a state sponsor involved. It's too well thought-out, the powder's too well refined. It might be Iraq, it might be Russia, it might be a renegade scientist, perhaps from Iraq or Russia."
"I'm not going to talk about a state sponsor." Tenet assured them.
"It's good that we don't." said Cheney, "because we're not ready to do anything about it."
The technique to weaponize the anthrax was not the one used by the US Army. (William Patrick's process involved freeze drying and chemical processing whereas it was the Iraqi process that involved spraydrying.)(45)
It appears, according to US bioweaponeer William Patrick, that the electrostatic charge was not removed.(46) This is contrary to what numerous press accounts have reported (based on assumptions outside observers were making dating back to last Fall). Moreover, former Russian bioweaponeer Ken Alibek and Harvard biologist Meselson have opined that there was no special coating.(47) Any silica-like coating, Drs. Meselson and Alibek say, may have been naturally occuring. Both of these points seem to indicate that the production was not state-sponsored, industrial production.
An article in the New York Times in May 2002 noted the views of the bioweaponeer experts Alibek and Patrick based on the admittedly sparse information available:
“As federal experts investigated the residual Daschle sample, they found the picture becoming fuzzier. On one hand, the concentration of the anthrax was extraordinarily high — roughly equal to that made in the abandoned American germ weapons program, a trillion spores per gram. But federal experts now say the particles turned out to have a large size range. While single spores predominated, the experts said, some Daschle clusters ranged up to 40 microns wide — far too big to penetrate human lungs. A micron is one-millionth of a meter, and a human hair is 75 to 100 microns wide. The big clusters suggested the powder was far less than weapons grade. Private experts disagree on just how much less. Ken Alibek, a former Soviet germ official who is now president of Advanced Biosystems, a consulting company in Manassas, Va., called the Daschle anthrax mediocre. 'It was not done with a regular industrial process,' Dr. Alibek said in an interview. 'Maybe it's homemade.' ... But William C. Patrick III, a scientist who made germ weapons for the American military and is now a private consultant on biological defense, rated the Daschle anthrax as 7 on a scale of 10. 'It's relatively high grade,' Patrick said, 'but not weapons grade.' (48)
Dr. Spertzel, on the other hand, remains more impressed with the quality of the product. Perhaps everyone would agree, however, that there is much information that has not yet been disclosed about the process used to weaponize the anthrax, and perhaps that is as it should be.
Motive: The reason Leahy and Daschle were targeted
The letters to the news organizations were mailed -- coincidentally or not -- on September 17 or September 18, the day the Camp David Accord had been signed in 1978 and then approved the next day by the Israeli knesset.(49) The letter read:
THIS IS NEXT
TAKE PENACILIN NOW
DEATH TO AMERICA
DEATH TO ISRAEL
ALLAH IS GREAT.
Taking into account the fact that there was no mail postmarked with a Trenton postmark on Columbus Day, October 8, the letter to Senator Tom Daschle postmarked October 9 may actually have been mailed October 6. October 6 was the day Anwar Sadat was assassinated for his role in the Camp David Accord. (Sadat was assassinated on October 6, which was Armed Forces Day. He was killed during an annual holiday parade which marks the day Egypt made a critical successful surprise attack on Israel during the 1973 war). (50)
The note read:
YOU CAN NOT STOP US.
WE HAVE THIS ANTHRAX.
YOU DIE NOW.
ARE YOU AFRAID?
DEATH TO AMERICA.
DEATH TO ISRAEL.
ALLAH IS GREAT.(51)
In an interview broadcast on al-Jazeera television on October 7, 2001 -- which was about when the second letter saying "Death to America'" and "Death to Israel" was mailed -- Ayman Zawahiri echoed a familiar refrain sounded by Bin Laden:
"O people of the U.S., can you ask yourselves a question: Why all this enmity for the United States and Israel? Your government supports the corrupt governments in our countries."(52)
Senator Daschle is the majority leader of the Senate, which approves appropriations that support the governments in countries such as Egypt, Israel and Pakistan. Senator Leahy is Chairman of the Judiciary Committee, which has oversight jurisdiction over the FBI and INS. (53) That role alone would explain why Senatory Leahy was targeted as a symbol. But to more fully appreciate why Leahy -- a human rights advocate and liberal democrat -- might have been targeted as a symbol, it is important to know that Senator Leahy is head of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Foreign Operations, the panel in charge of aid to Egypt and Israel. That aid goes to the core of Al Qaeda's complaint against the United States. (The portion going to Egypt and Israel constitutes, by far, the largest portion of US foreign aid, and most of that is for military and security purposes.)(54) Pakistan is now a grudging ally in the "war against terrorism" largely due to the US Aid it now receives in exchange for that cooperation. In September 2001, the press in the US and in muslim countries discussed the waiver of the curbs under the Leahy Law in light of the war against terror.(55)
The "Leahy Law" plays a key role in the secret "rendering" of Egyptian Islamic Jihad (Al Qaeda) operatives to countries like Egypt, Jordan and Algeria where they are allegedly tortured. Although humanitarian in its intent, the law permits continued appropriations to military and security units who conduct torture in the event of "extraordinary circumstances." According to the New York Times,
"Egypt's intelligence service has a reputation for being among the most formidable and ruthless in the Middle East, and several of those arrested in other countries have been sent to Egypt for interrogation or trial. According to evidence gathered for a 1999 trial in Egypt of more than 100 defendants from the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, the intelligence agents regularly used torture to obtain confessions from suspected terrorists."(56)
A video clip dealing with the rise of militant Islam in Egypt features a jailed Zawahiri in the early 1980s ferociously condemning torture and other human rights violations by the Egyptian government.(57)
After 9/11, national security interests sometimes have been deemed to override such concern for human rights. (US officials recently complained about an Egyptian-American academic who has been imprisoned, but Al Qaeda/Egyptian Islamic Jihad operatives have not merited our concern). (58) Dr. Ayman Zawahiri's associates and even his brother have been spirited off by jet planes to destinations where interrogations might be more fruitful.
In a videotape that circulated in the summer of 2001, Zawahiri said
"In Egypt they put a lot of people in jails -- some sentenced to be hanged. And in the Egyptian jails, there is a lot of killing and torture. All this happens under the supervision of America."(59)
One associate of Zawahiri was secretly grabbed in southeast Asia and turned over to Egypt, and a Yemeni microbiologist was seized in Pakistan in October and turned over to Jordan.(60) At the time Ayman Zawahiri was getting his biological weapons program in full swing, his brother Mohammed was picked up in the United Arab Emirates and secretly rendered to Egyptian security forces.(61) According to his recent autobiography, Zawahiri himself reportedly was tortured while imprisoned after the assassination of Anwar Sadat.
The appropriations to these military and security units have prevented Al Qaeda from achieving its aims. Zawahiri discusses this torture, the secret rendering of jihadists, and the US Aid and cooperation with Egyptian and other military and security forces throughout his 2001 book "Knights Under the Prophet's Banner."(62) The people who suggest that Al Qaeda would have had no motivation to send weaponized anthrax to Senators Daschle and Leahy -- because they are liberal -- are mistaken. The main goal of Dr. Zawahiri is to topple President Mubarak. He views the US Aid as the chief obstacle and is indifferent to this country's labels of conservative and liberal.
One islamist summarized why the anthrax was sent:in an ode "To Anthrax" on November 1, 2001:
"O, anthrax, despite, your wretchedness, you have sewn horror in the heart of the lady of arrogance, of tyranny, of boastfulness!"(63)
Modus Operandi: Egyptian Islamists' earlier WTC letter bombs
This was not the first time the Egyptian islamists sent letter bombs to newspaper offices in connection with an attack on the World Trade Center. A dozen letter bombs were sent to newspaper offices in New York City and Washington, D.C. in December 1996/January 1997. The letter bombs were sent from Alexandria, Egypt, to the London, New York, and Washington, D.C. offices of the newspaper Al Hayat.(64) The paper, owned by a member of the Saudi royal family, is the leading international Arabic-language newspaper.(65)
Two people were injured when one bomb went off in London. Bombs were also sent to the prison officials at the Kansas prison where the WTC plotters were being jailed. (66) The blind sheik the previous year had given an interview complaining of mistreatment by prison officials and asking that he be avenged. The key WTC bomber imprisoned at Leavensworth had also complained of mistreatment and the conditions.(67)
One commentator has noted:
“It has been stated that the tactics of enclosing warnings in the letters shows the attacker did not intend to commit murder. This is nonsense. The death of Robert Stevens was public knowledge before the Senate letters were mailed. The attacker knew full well that he was placing large numbers of people in deadly peril and acknowledged this in the text of the Senate letters. As Brian Jenkins [Deputy Director of Kroll Associates] has famously noted, 'terrorists want a lot of people watching, not a lot of people dead.' The letter tactics were chosen to maximize the scope of terrorism, not to limit or avoid casualties."(68)
Sending poisonous letter bombs is part of Al Qaeda's modus operandi in that the Al Qaeda operations manual, the most recent version on CD-ROM, had a chapter on "Poisonous Letter." (69) As with the insertion of biologicals into food, the key is mass panic, not mass casualty.
Al Qaeda is concerned with handling its efforts in such a way as to develop and maintain the Arab hatred of the US and Israel -- and that requires a delicate balance and choice of suitable targets. Zawahiri divines from his religious texts that it is moral to kill American civilians on the grounds that they stood silent as taxpayers while US-bought weapons were used on Palestinians. The al Qaeda shura (policy-making council), however, may deem that Al Qaeda needs to choose the methods of attack carefully so that they are both are effective and calculated to gain the support of others. (Gassing the Kurds ultimately was a public relations debacle for Saddam once the world stopped looking the other way). Just recently Zawahiri was invited to participate by telephone or internet in a conference of islamists in Cairo. The seeds he has planted are bearing fruit. (70) Where there are democratic processes, islamists have made substantial recent gains, to include in Pakistan, Morocco, Bahrain and Turkey.
When Zawahiri's Islamic Jihad or related egyptian islamist group (led by the blind sheik) sent letter bombs to newspaper offices in Washington, D.C. and NYC in 1997 -- to include the "Parole Officer" and other prison officials where a key WTC bomber was imprisoned -- it apparently was because Al Hayat didn't support the radical islamist cause and because the WTC prisoners had complained of mistreatment. Why would the Islamic Jihad target AMI, the publisher of the National Enquirer? Just a dispute with a landlady over a security deposit? (The wife of the AMI owner was the landlady for some of the hijackers). (71) Was there an early first letter to AMI so that the hijackers would be in a position to receive feedback on the effectiveness of the weaponized anthrax? Or had Bat Boy given Bin Laden the finger prior to 9/11? What coverage did those publications give the blind sheik and the WTC bombers? The FBI is investigating and went back to AMI.(72)
In the anthrax mailings, Dr. Zawahiri appears to have accomplished the attack on the US "structure" he intended.(115) With the planes, Al Qaeda struck the US trade dominance (World Trade Center) and its military might (Pentagon). If you credit Zubaydah (rather than Atta's roommate Ramzi), Al Qaeda was intending to strike the White House with the plane that went down in Pennsylvania.
With the anthrax he appears to have rounded out the field that he imagines provides support to Israel -- the legislative branch and media. In addition to the Senate majority leader, anthrax was mailed to the position symbolic of the 50 billion in appropriations that has been given to Israel since 1947 (and the equally substantial $2 billion annually in aid that has been keeping Mubarak in power in Egypt and the militant islamists out of power).
The statement this June by the spokesperson who explained that Al Qaeda had a right to kill 4 million and had the right to use biological or chemical weapons needs to be factored into the bureaucratic reckoning.(116) The potential downside of not discovering the perpetrator is far greater if that turns out to be the motivation.(117)