There is little doubt that several U.S. institutions have been intentionally attacked with anthrax. While most of the exposures reported have been of the cutaneous variety--where anthrax spores penetrate the body through cuts in the skin--the two cases of inhalation anthrax discovered in Florida should be of special interest.
Inhalation anthrax is contracted when enough aerosolized spores of one to five microns in diameter find their way into the lungs, where they have a direct route to the bloodstream. Once infection has set in, death is almost always assured. However, producing and disseminating inhalation anthrax is no easy feat. The spores must be cut to size and dried to ensure their extended suspension in the air. This is a complicated and expensive process.
The Washington Times on Saturday cited a senior defense official as saying the U.S. believes that Al Qaeda terrorists "have a crude chemical and possibly biological [weapons] capability." That would seem to exclude the ability to indigenously produce inhalation anthrax.
Two other sources may thus seem more likely: the largely defunct Soviet biological weapons program or Iraq.
Kenneth Alibek--who was, before his defection to the U.S. in 1992, the first deputy director of Biopreparat, the civilian arm of the Soviet Union's biological weapons program--told the House subcommittee on national security on Friday that "Russian biological weapons are no longer contained within its borders." The fear that some ex-employee of the Soviet program would seek to sell his skills or a stolen vial of germs to a rogue regime or a well-funded terrorist organization has haunted the U.S. for some time.
Given Al Qaeda's vast financial resources, its efforts to acquire mass-destruction weapons and its emphasis on fostering links within the former Soviet republics, it would seem reasonable to assume that the source of the inhalation anthrax discovered in Florida is Russia or its environs.
Under this scenario, the Taliban and Al Qaeda are responding to the current U.S. offensive by launching crude biological attacks against targets on U.S soil. The aims are to exact a price for the U.S. "aggression"; to demonstrate America's inability to defend itself against the warriors of Islam; and to undermine the U.S. will to fight by sowing fear at home. Attacking U.S. media outlets with anthrax is thus not coincidental.
More intriguing is the Iraqi connection. Scientists investigating the attacks say the bacteria used are similar to the "Ames" strain of anthrax cultivated at Iowa State University in the 1950s and later given to labs throughout the world, including ones in Iraq. Last week, the Associated Press cited a senior Czech government official as indicating that Mohamed Atta, believed to have piloted one of the planes that crashed into the World Trade Center, had met with an Iraqi diplomat "more than once" in June 2000 in Prague. Last April, the Iraqi diplomat was expelled after what Czech authorities described as "activities incompatible with his status as a diplomat." On Sunday, the London Observer reported that U.S. investigators were talking to Egyptian authorities who say members of Al Qaeda detained and interrogated in Cairo had obtained vials of anthrax in the Czech Republic.
Why would Saddam Hussein involve himself in Osama bin Laden's plot, given the risks of exposure and severe retaliation by the U.S.? There are two possibilities.
First, Hussein was not necessarily aware of the scope of Bin Laden's plan. The Iraqi leader's idea was to secretly foment trouble inside the U.S. as punishment for the continuing embargo on Iraq. He might even have hoped to divert U.S. attention from Iraq to free his hand to strike against the Kurds or to reinvade Kuwait. Hussein might have thought that once the U.S. realized he possessed inhalation anthrax, it would hesitate rather than react to his planned military moves.
Alternatively, Hussein and Bin Laden are cohorts. These biological attacks are an integral part of the plot to undermine the U.S. Moreover, they are meant to signal to the U.S. that it should think twice before punishing Baghdad for the Sept. 11 attacks.
Thus, if Hussein is behind the inhalation anthrax in Florida, he is also trying to send a deterrent message to the U.S. If he is responsible for this anthrax demonstration, he is seeking to convince Washington of his ability to hold the U.S. population hostage to full-scale biological warfare. The U.S. ought to call his bluff promptly.