Tags: Anthrax | Mystery: | Evidence | Points | al-Qaida

Anthrax Mystery: Evidence Points to al-Qaida

Wednesday, 06 June 2007 12:00 AM

The anthrax attacks in the fall of 2001 have faded from the media spotlight. The FBI appears to have pursued all possible leads, and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales told the Senate Judiciary Committee in January that FBI Director Mueller was committed to seeing it to "some kind of conclusion in the relatively near future."

But an analysis of the anthrax mailings suggests that U.S.-based supporters of one of Osama bin Laden's closest advisers, Ayman al-Zawahiri, were responsible.

Al-Zawahiri was head of al-Qaida's biochemical program. He called it Zabadi or "curdled milk." The Central Intelligence Agency has known of al-Zawahiri's plans to use anthrax since July 1998, when the CIA seized a disc from the Egyptian Islamic Jihad military commander during his arrest by the CIA in Baku, Azerbaijan.

The CIA refused to give the FBI the laptop that al-Zawahiri used. The FBI's bin Laden expert, John O'Neill, head of the FBI's New York office, tried to get around this by sending an agent to Azerbaijan to get copies of the computer files from the Azerbaijan government, who also had the files.

The FBI finally got the files after O'Neill persuaded President Clinton to personally appeal to the president of Azerbaijan. O'Neill, who was head of the World Trade Center security, died in the 9/11 attacks. He died with the knowledge that al-Zawahiri planned to attack U.S. targets with anthrax — and that al-Zawahiri does not make idle threats.

At the time, the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) set up a program at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California to combat the bin Laden anthrax threat.

The CIA also snatched a talkative member of the EIJ shura or policy-making council. His confession runs 140 pages. He confirmed al-Zawahiri's intent to use anthrax against U.S. targets in connection with the detention of militant Islamists. Yet another friend of al-Zawahiri, this one a Cairo lawyer who was the blind sheik's attorney in March 1999, said that bin Laden and al-Zawahiri were likely to resort to the biological and chemical agents they possessed given the extradition pressure senior al-Qaida leaders faced.

Al-Zawahiri and his associates were seeking to recreate Muhammad's taking of Mecca through violent attacks on Egyptian leaders. By the late 1990s, al-Zawahiri had determined that the Egyptian Islamic Jihad should focus on its struggle against the United States and hold off on further attacks against the Egyptian regime.

E-mails in the Spring of 1999 from al-Zawahiri to Egyptian Mohammed Atef, al-Qaida's military commander, and former Cairo police sergeant, indicate that al-Zawahiri was a close student of the the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) anthrax program. He believed that the Quran instructed that a jihadist should use the weapons used by the crusader. "What we know is that he's always said it was a religious obligation to have the same weapons as their enemies," former CIA bin Laden unit counter-terrorism chief Michael Scheuer said.

In March 2003, handwritten notes and files on a laptop seized upon the capture of Khalid Sheikh Muhammad, al-Qaida's No. 3 man, included a feasible anthrax production plan using a spray dryer and addressed the recruitment of necessary expertise.

Atef told his interrogators that Zacarias Moussaoui was not going to be part of 9/11 but was to be part of a "second wave." Khalid explained that Moussaoui's inquiries about crop-dusters may have been related to the anthrax work being done by U.S.-trained biochemist and al-Qaida operative, Yazid Sufaat.

Microbiologist Abdul Qadoos Khan was charged along with his son, Ahmed, for harboring the fugitives. As of March 28, 2003, he was in a hospital for a cardiac problem and had been granted "pre-arrest bail."

In early June 2003, a CIA report publicly concluded that the reason for Atta's and Moussaoui's inquiries into crop-dusters was for the contemplated use in dispersing biological agents such as anthrax. It had long been known that bin Laden was interested in using crop-dusters to disperse biological agents (since the testimony of millennium bomber Ahmed Ressam).

An early September 2003 Newsweek article included a rumor by a Taliban source that at a meeting in April 2003 bin Laden was planning an "unbelievable" biological attack, the plans for which had suffered a setback upon the arrest of Khalid.

Anthrax lab coordinator Hambali was arrested in August 2003 in the quiet city of Ayuttullah, in Thailand. He was sent to Jordan. In Autumn 2003, extremely virulent anthrax was found at a house in Kandahar — after regional operative Hambali was harshly interrogated.

Al-Qaida had the extremely virulent anthrax before 9/11. Sufaat's two principal assistants were also captured in 2003 and are in custody. They had been assisting Sufaat prior to 9/11. The FBI dropped the continuous conspicuous surveillance of Dr. Steve Hatfill in early Fall 2003, after extremely virulent anthrax that they knew could be readily weaponized was found at the house in Kandahar. Prior to that, the "Hatfill theory" had been an alternative hypothesis pursued by one of the squads within Amerithrax.

In January 2007, Muhammad Hanif, a spokesman for the Taliban, spoke quietly to the camera. Taliban leader Mullah Omar, he said, was living in Quetta under the protection of the Pakistan ISI. In a press conference, the governor of the province on the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan reported that they had found packets of powdered anthrax in his home upon his arrest.

As reported by Afghan Islamic Press news agency and translated by BBC Worldwide Monitoring, the governor said: "A biological substance, anthrax, was also seized from those arrested. They planned to send the substance in envelopes addressed to government officials . . ." The governor's claim has not yet been confirmed.

In March 2007, Khalid confessed before a military tribunal that "I was directly in charge, after the death of Sheikh Abu Hafs [Atef] of managing and following up on the cell for the production of biological weapons, such as anthrax and others, and following up on dirty-bomb operations on American soil."

A key question is how al-Zawahiri acquired the anthrax strain — the "Ames strain" first isolated by the Texas Veterinary Medical Diagnostic Lab in 1980. The U.S. Army recipe from the 1950s was not used, and obtaining the unprocessed Ames strain of anthrax does not warrant the weight given it by some press accounts. Although coveted as the "gold standard" in vaccine research, the "Ames strain" is known to have been at about a score of labs and over the years an estimated 1,000 people may have had access.

After a bombing raid at an al-Qaida camp in Afghanistan U.S. forces found over 100 typed and handwritten pages of documents that shed light on al-Qaida's early anthrax planning.

It was not clear whether or not they had yet acquired virulent anthrax or weaponized it, but it was clear that the planning was well along. When Cheney was briefed on the documents in late 2001, he immediately called a meeting of the FBI and CIA. "I'll be very blunt," the vice president started. "There is no priority of this government more important than finding out if there is a link between what's happened here and what we've found over there with al-Qaida."

A June 1999 memo from Ayman to military commander Atef said that "said the program should seek cover and talent in educational institutions, which it said were ‘more beneficial to us and allow easy access to specialists, which will greatly benefit us in the first stage, God willing.'"

Thus, in determining whether al-Qaida was responsible for the anthrax mailings in 2001, the FBI and CIA knew, based on the growing documentary evidence available by December, that al-Qaida operatives were likely associated with non-governmental organizations and working under the cover of universities. From early on, the CIA and FBI knew that charity is as charity does.

Among the supporters of these militant Islamists were people who blended into society and were available to act when another part of the network requested it. Two letters — one typed and an earlier handwritten one — written by a microbiologist named Rauf Ahmad detail his efforts to obtain a pathogenic strain of anthrax. The Defense Intelligence Agency, in response to a request under the Freedom of Information Act, gave me a copy of a typed memo reporting on a lab visit, which included tour of a BioLevel 3 facility.

The progress report to al-Zawahiri began ominously: "I successfully achieved the targets." The memo mentioned the pending paperwork relating to export of the pathogens. A handwritten letter was reporting on a different, earlier visit, where the anthrax had been nonpathogenic.

There are handwritten notes about the plan to use non-governmental-organizations (NGOs), technical institutes, and medical labs as cover for aspects of the work, and training requirements for the various personnel at the lab in Afghanistan.

Ahmad attended conferences on anthrax and dangerous pathogens such as one in September 2000 at the University of Plymouth cosponsored by DERA, the UK Defense Evaluation, and Research Agency.

A handwritten letter from 1999 is written on the letterhead of the oldest microbiology society in Great Britain. The 1999 Ahmad documents seized in Afghanistan by U.S. forces describe Ahmad's visit to the special confidential room at the BL-3 facility where thousands of pathogenic cultures were kept; his consultation with other scientists on some of technical problems associated with weaponizing anthrax; the bioreactor and laminar flows to be used in al-Qaida's anthrax lab; a conference on dangerous pathogens cosponsored by the U.K.'s Porton Down and Society for Applied Microbiology he attended, and the need for vaccination and containment.

Ahmad had arranged to take a lengthy post-doc leave from his employer and was grousing that what the employer would be paying during that 12-month period was inadequate. Yazid Sufaat, who told his wife he was working for a Taliban medical brigade, got the job instead of Ahmad.

In late February 2003, authorities searched the townhouse of Ali al-Timimi, a graduate student and employee in bioinformatics at George Mason University who shared a department fax with famed Russian bioweapons expert Ken Alibek and former USAMRIID head and anthrax researcher Charles Bailey.

Al-Timimi was a celebrated speaker and religious scholar associated with the Islamic Assembly of North America (IANA), an Ann Arbor, Mich.-based charity. The Washington Post later summarized: "The agents reached an alarming conclusion: ‘al-Timimi is an Islamist supporter of bin Laden' who was leading a group ‘training for jihad,' the agent wrote in the affidavit.

The FBI even came to speculate that al-Timimi, a doctoral candidate pursuing cancer gene research, might have been involved in the anthrax attacks."

In October 2002, al-Timimi drafted a letter from dissident Saudi Sheik al-Hawali threatening disastrous consequences if the U.S. invaded Iraq and had it hand-delivered to all members of Congress. Al-Hawali was one of two dissident Saudi sheiks who inspired bin Laden and remained in contact with him.

Al-Timimi was thought of by colleagues as a "numbers guy" rather than having hands-on drying expertise, and was not known to have worked on any biodefense projects. There is every reason to think the FBI concluded that al-Timimi was neither the processor nor the mailer, given that the government never charged him with the anthrax crimes. And the FBI would know: The FBI knows what he had for dinner on Sept. 16, 2001, just two days before the first mailing.

Brian Williams reports that investigators have told NBC that the water used to make the spores came from the northeastern United States based on an analysis of isotope ratios. That finding likely has served to focus the FBI's investigation.

Just because al-Qaida likes its truck bombs and the like to be effective does not mean they do not see the value in a deadly missive. As Brian Jenkins once said, "terrorism is theater." A sender purporting to be Islamist sent cyanide in both early 2002 and early 2003 in New Zealand and ingredients of nerve gas in Belgium in 2003. There's even a chapter titled "Poisonous Letter" in the al-Qaida manual.

Princeton Islamist scholar Bernard Lewis has explained that while Islamists may disagree about whether killing innocents is sanctioned by the laws of jihad, extremists like al-Zawahiri agree that notice must be given before biochemical weapons are used. "The Prophet's guidance," says Michael Scheuer, an al-Qaida analyst retired from the CIA who once headed its bin Laden unit, "was always, 'Before you attack someone, warn them very clearly.'"

The tactic of lethal letters was not merely the modus operandi of the militant Islamists inspired by al-Zawahiri, it was their signature. The Islamists sent letter bombs in late December 1996 from Alexandria, Egypt to newspaper offices in New York City and Washington, D.C. and people in symbolic positions. Musical Christmas cards apparently postmarked in Alexandria, Egypt on Dec. 21, 1996 (which is Laylat al-Qadr, literally the "Night of Decree") contained improvised explosive devices.

The letters were sent in connection with the earlier bombing of the World Trade Center and the imprisonment of the blind sheik Abdel Rahman. The former leader of the Egyptian Al-Gamaa al-Islamiya ("Islamic Group"), Abdel-Rahman was also a spiritual leader of al-Qaida. The FBI suspected the letter bombs were sent in connection with the treatment of the Egyptian Islamists imprisoned for the earlier attack on the WTC and a related plot.

The purpose of the letter bombs — which resulted in minimal casualties — apparently was to send a message. There was no claim of responsibility. There was no explanation. Once one had been received, the next 10, mailed on two separate dates, were easily collected. Sound familiar?

Two bombs were also sent to Leavenworth, where a key World Trade Center 1993 defendant was imprisoned, addressed to "Parole Officer." (The position does not exist.) The FBI suspected the Vanguards of Conquest, a mysterious group led by Egyptian Islamic Jihad head al-Zawahiri. The group can be thought of as either the military wing of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad or perhaps just EIJ.

The anthrax that infected the first victim, Bob Stevens, was contained in a letter to AMI, the publisher of tabloids — in a goofy love letter to Jennifer Lopez enclosing a Star of David and proposing marriage. A report, by the Center for Disease Control, of interviews with AMI employees (as well as detailed interviews by author Leonard Cole) supports the conclusion that there were not one, but two, such mailings containing anthrax. (The letters were to different AMI publications — one to the National Enquirer and another to The Sun.)

The "Federal Eagle" stamp used in the anthrax mailings was a blue-green. It was widely published among the militant Islamists that martyrs go to paradise "in the hearts of green birds." In the very interview in which they admitted 9/11 and described the codes used for the four plane targets, the masterminds admitted to the Jenny code, the code for representing the date 9/11, and used the symbolism of the "Green Birds."

Osama bin Laden later invoked the symbolism in his video "The 19 Martyrs." A FAQ on the Azzam Publications Web site explained that "In the Hearts of Green Birds" refers to what is inside.

The mailer's use of "Greendale School" as the return address for the letters to the senators is also revealing. A May 2001 letter that al-Zawahiri sent to Egyptian Islamic Jihad members abroad establish that he used "school" as a code word for the Egyptian militant Islamists.

Green symbolizes Islam and was the Prophet Muhammad's color. By Greendale School, the anthrax perp likely was being cute, just as Yazid Sufaat was being cute in naming his lab Green Laboratory Medicine. "Dale" means "river valley." Greendale likely refers to green river valley — i.e., Cairo's Egyptian Islamic Jihad or the Islamic Group.

The mailer probably is announcing that the anthrax is from either Egyptian Islamic Jihad, Egyptian Islamic Group or Jihad-al Qaida, which is actually the full name of the group after the merger of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad and al-Qaida. At the Darunta complex where jihadis trained, recruits would wear green uniforms, except for Friday when they were washed. In a Hadith the messenger of Allah explains that the souls of the martyrs are in the hearts of green birds that fly wherever they please in the Paradise.

The "4th grade" in the return address "4th Grade, Greendale School," is American slang for "sergeant" — the rank of the head of al-Qaida's military commander Mohammed Atef, who along with al-Zawahiri had overseen Project Zabadi, al-Qaida's biochemical program.

The business-size sheet of stationery containing the anthrax to the National Enquirer was decorated with pink and blue clouds around the edges. In admitting that he had taken over supervising the development of anthrax for use against the U.S. upon Atef's death (in November 2001), Khalid Sheikh Mohammed separately noted that "I was the Media Operations Director for Al-Sahab or ‘The Clouds,' under Dr. Ayman Al-Zawahiri."

As to the reason Sens. Daschle and Leahy would have been targeted — they are commonly simplistically viewed as "liberals." Al-Zawahiri likely targeted Sens. Daschle and Leahy to receive anthrax letters, in addition to various media outlets, because of the appropriations made pursuant to the "Leahy Law" to military and security forces. That money has prevented the militant Islamists from achieving their goals.

Al-Qaida members and sympathizers feel that the FBI's involvement in countries like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Indonesia, and the Philippines undermines their prospects of establishing a worldwide Caliphate. The fall 2001 letter from al-Qaida spokesman al-Kuwaiti, directed to the American public — but which was not released until 2006 — claimed that the green light had been given for a U.S. bio attack (1) from people who were U.S. based, (2) above suspicion, and (3) with access to U.S. government and intelligence information.

He explained: "There is no animosity between us. You involved yourselves in this battle. The war is between us and the Jews. You interfered in our countries and influenced our governments to strike against the Moslems."

Sen. Leahy was chairman of both the Judiciary Committee overseeing the FBI and Appropriations Subcommittee in charge of foreign aid to these countries. In late September 2001, it was announced that the president was seeking a blanket waiver that would lift all restrictions on aid to military and security units in connection with pursuing the militant Islamists.

This extradition and imprisonment of al-Qaida leaders, along with U.S. support for Israel and the Mubarak government in Egypt, remains foremost in the mind of al- Zawahiri. At the height of the development of his biological weapons program, his brother was extradited pursuant to a death sentence in the "Albanian returnees" case.

It's hard to keep up with the stories about billion dollar appropriations, debt forgiveness, and loan guarantees to countries like Egypt and Israel and now even Pakistan. Those appropriations pale in comparison to the many tens of billions in appropriations relating to the invasion of Iraq.

In late January 2001, the immigration minister in Canada and the justice minister received an anthrax threat in the form of anthrax hoax letters. The letters were sent upon the announcement of bail hearing for a detained Egyptian Islamic Jihad leader who had managed bin Laden's farm in Sudan. Canada announced on Jan. 18, 2001, that an Egyptian Islamic Jihad Shura member, Mahmoud Mahjoub, would have a Jan. 30 bail hearing.

Soon after, someone sent an anthrax threat letter to the minister of Citizenship and Immigration. Minister Caplan had signed the security certificate authorizing Mahjoub's detention.

After arriving in Canada in 1996, Mahjoub continued to be in contact with high level militants, including his former supervisor, al-Duri, an Iraqi reputed to be bin Laden's chief procurer of weapons of mass destruction.

In February 2001, the CIA briefed the president in a Presidential Daily Bulletin ("PDB") on "Bin Laden's Interest in Biological and Radiological Weapons" in a still-classified briefing memorandum. Like the PDB on bin Laden's threat to use planes to free the blind sheik, the February 2001 PDB likely would illustrate the wisdom that most intelligence is open source.

In connection with defending a civil rights claim by former USAMRIID scientist Steve Hatfill, the FBI described the anthrax probe as "unprecedented in the FBI's 95-year history." Agents had spent 231,000 hours up to that date.

The head of the investigation said that the investigation was "active and ongoing" and said agents' time was divided between checking into individuals who might be connected to the attacks and a scientific effort to determine how the spores themselves were made using "cutting-edge forensic techniques and analysis."

The court papers did not indicate that Hatfill was still among those being investigated. Hatfill was labeled a "person of interest" in the probe in August 2002 by Attorney General John Ashcroft in responding to press inquiries for the reason for searches and surveillance that Hatfill had reported.

By late 2003, all conspicuous surveillance had ended, according to two unnamed federal law enforcement officials who spoke on condition of anonymity. The head of the investigation cautioned that Hatfill's lawsuit could force the FBI to divulge its "interest in specific individuals," who could flee the country, destroy evidence, intimidate witnesses, or concoct alibis.

In a statement issued June 16, 2004, the 9/11 Commission staff concluded that "al-Qaida had an ambitious biological weapons program and was making advances in its ability to produce anthrax prior to Sept. 11. According to Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet, al-Qaida's ability to conduct an anthrax attack is one of the most immediate threats the United States is likely to face."

Authorities had received information, for example, from at least one detainee at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, that there was an anthrax storage facility in the Kabul area. Amerithrax Agents checked the Kabul area in May 2004 but came up empty. Then in November 2004, on further information, agents had spent several weeks unsuccessfully searching an area in the Kandahar mountains, several hundred miles outside of Kabul. In 2005, an internal report was prepared summarizing the status of the investigation.

On March 31, 2005, the Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction, in its "Report to the President of the United States," concluded "al-Qaida's biological program was further along, particularly with regard to Agent X [anthrax], than pre-War intelligence indicated.

The program was extensive, well-organized, and operated for two years before Sept. 11, but intelligence insights into the program were limited. The program involved several sites around Afghanistan. Two of these sites contained commercial equipment and were operated by individuals with special training."

MSNBC, relying on an unnamed FBI spokesperson, reported that the FBI has narrowed the pool of labs known to have had the US Army anthrax strain known as the "Ames strain" that was a match from 16 to four but could not rule out that it was obtained overseas. Thus, not only was it likely that an al-Qaida perpetrator was associated with an NGO and university, but there had to have been access to a virulent anthrax strain that was only in a score or so of known labs, most of which were affiliated in some way with the U.S. government.

In a court filing dated May 20, 2005, an attorney for the United States Department of Justice wrote: "The investigation into the anthrax attacks is one of the largest and most complex investigations in law enforcement history. To bring those responsible to justice, the investigation remains intensely active."

In a press conference in October 2005, Director Mueller said that the FBI was pursuing all domestic and international leads. He said, "Remember Oklahoma City. Remember 9/11." He declined to say if they had a suspect. That year, FBI agents visited Asia, Africa and Afghanistan in the course of the Amerithrax investigation.

In his recent book, former CIA Director George Tenet noted: "The most startling revelation from this intelligence success story was that the anthrax program had been developed in parallel to 9/11 planning."

The FBI's profile includes a U.S.-based supporter of the militant Islamists. Attorney General Ashcroft once explained that an "either-or" approach is not useful. The media has tended to overlook the fact that when the FBI uses the word "domestic" the word includes a U.S.-based, highly-educated supporter of the militant Islamists.

Whatever your political persuasion, and whatever disagreements about individual issues relating to due process and civil liberties, the FBI and CIA deserve our support on this issue. The country, after all, is facing this threat together.

First, the nature of such an investigation is that we lack sufficient information to second-guess (or even know) what the FBI agents and Postal Inspectors on the Amerithrax Task Force are doing. Media reports are a poor approximation of reality because of the lack of good sources. Indeed, there has been compartmentalization and divergent views even within the Task Force. After the leaks regarding Hatfill, Mueller instituted "stovepiping" even within the Task Force so as to minimize the risk of further leaks.

Second, hindsight is 20/20.

Third, now that the leaks relating to Hatfill seem to have long since been plugged, it is not likely we could do better in striking the appropriate balance between due process and national security.

Based only on the "open source" material readily available through databases such as "Google News" and the CIA's Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS), it appears that the solution to the Amerithrax case lies at the intersection of Ayman Avenue and Rahman Road. If the FBI does not succeed in its investigation, we might be looking at a different crossroads altogether.

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The anthrax attacks in the fall of 2001 have faded from the media spotlight. The FBI appears to have pursued all possible leads, and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales told the Senate Judiciary Committee in January that FBI Director Mueller was committed to seeing it to...
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