Anthrax: The Threat That Won't Go Away

More than two years have passed since the last anthrax envelope was mailed, and no further anthrax attacks have occurred. The search for the perpetrators continues, however, because our government does not have the information it needs to stop future attacks. Who made the anthrax, who sent the envelopes, and why, are questions that have not been answered. Without this information there is no basis from which to assess when, where, or whether there will be further attacks with powdered anthrax.

Where the anthrax came from is unknown. However, by outlining the production process and what is needed to carry it out, the anthrax producers can be more specifically defined. If the anthrax was produced in the United States, there may somewhere be Americans who observed a piece of this puzzle, but did not recognize it for what it was. It could be something as simple as a strong smell of Clorox in a hotel room just vacated by the 9/11 hijackers, or a suite in an industrial park which seems to use abnormally large quantities of water for the business it purports to do, has apparently excessive security, and accepts deliveries only at night. There is a long list of potential indicators, but the best is anything that appears not to fit an expected pattern. Until we know, we remain vulnerable.

Knowing who made the anthrax is key to shutting down the source. The complexity of the production process for anthrax powder of the quality in the envelopes narrows the possibilities. Many laboratories could grow bacteria, but fewer have the equipment necessary to dry the anthrax and produce a particle size that can be inhaled into the lungs. Drying the anthrax not only requires more time and more equipment, but may decrease the potency of the preparation. Nevertheless, dried anthrax has some advantages. It is less risky to transport than a liquid that could leak, and is less likely to settle and form clumps too large to enter the lungs.

Dried anthrax can be more dangerous for the user, however. The anthrax in the envelopes appeared to become very easily airborne. Opening a container of this anthrax could have the same result as opening the envelopes. The slightest draft could lift the anthrax into the air. Whoever placed the anthrax in the envelopes and sealed them ran the risk of anthrax skin lesions or even pulmonary anthrax if the work was not done under tightly controlled conditions. Even handling the sealed envelopes might allow escape of enough anthrax to cause illness, as occurred in U.S. postal facilities.

Some non-weapons laboratories would have the equipment to run the entire production cycle from seed culture of bacteria to a finely divided powder, but many of these are not likely to be outfitted with the specialized equipment needed to keep dangerous bacteria from escaping into the environment and causing illness. Many bacteria grown in laboratories are not harmful, whereas anthrax can kill. Most pathogenic bacteria survive only a short time in the environment; anthrax can persist for years, and even decades under the right conditions. To prevent production leaks of bacteria-laden air or liquid, fittings must be airtight, equipment vents must be routed through filters and decontamination chemicals, and mechanisms must exist to decontaminate or incinerate anything coming into contact with the anthrax. Attempting to produce anthrax without these precautionary measures could lead to an anthrax outbreak that is at the least telltale, and could be disastrous.

The Soviets had a production accident with anthrax that illustrates this risk. In the spring of 1979 in the Soviet city of Sverdlovsk (now called Ekaterinburg) a number of people became suddenly ill with a pneumonia-like disease, and rapidly died. News of this incident did not leak out of the Soviet Union for many months, by which time it had become known that the organism causing the outbreak was anthrax. The origin of the anthrax was identified as a biological weapons plant on the outskirts of Sverdlovsk Those killed included workers in buildings at some distance from the bioweapons plant.

Intelligence organizations in the West charged the Soviets with violating the Biological Weapons Convention that bans production of biological warfare agents. The Soviet government responded that the outbreak was caused by meat from sick animals illegally slaughtered and eaten by the people of that region. This explanation was not generally accepted in the West, however, as eating anthrax-tainted meat causes gastric and intestinal illness rather than the pneumonia-like symptoms seen in Sverdlovsk hospitals.

Many years after the event, we have probably the most accurate account we will ever get of what really happened at Sverdlovsk - an account that underscores the absolute necessity of preventing leaks during anthrax production. In 1999 Dr. Ken Alibek, who had defected to the West some years earlier, published an account of this incident in his book, Biohazard (Random House). A scientist and high ranking official of the Soviet military-industrial biological weapons organization, Dr. Alibek was not in Sverdlovsk at the time of the incident, but learned details of the accident through his contacts in the bioweapons program. A clogged filter that was part of the biocontainment system at the plant had been removed and was not replaced before the anthrax production line was restarted. Anthrax-laden air that should have been caught by the missing filter was allowed to exhaust into the outside air where it was carried downwind in sufficient concentration to cause illness and death. The number of people who died in this accident has never been officially acknowledged, but as many as 100 may have lost their lives.

The biosafety requirements narrow the field of possible producers of the 2001 anthrax. The first place to look is bioweapons programs, which of necessity have the basic equipment and the containment outfittings to safely produce dangerous pathogens. Iraq would certainly be a suspect, having experience with anthrax production and biocontainment. Although the anthrax Iraq declared in the 1990s to the United Nations was in liquid form, the British Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) credited Iraq with the ability to design and construct centrifuges (to remove excess liquid) and spray dryers in its 2002 Dossier, Iraq's Weapons of Mass Destruction. Iraq has had enough time with no on-the-ground oversight to construct the equipment and produce the dried anthrax. However, America's swift response to 9/11 should have left no doubt in the mind of Saddam Hussein that he too would become an immediate target if anthrax used against the U.S. were linked to his laboratories. That might have been deterrent enough to dissuade him from an anthrax attack against the U.S. even if he had the material to carry it out.

Iraq is by no means the only country that could have produced dried anthrax. Over the years various lists have been published of countries suspected of developing biological weapons, including countries considered part of the "axis of evil" and others in the Middle East and Asia as well as the Soviet Union and China. Any one of these might have been the source of the anthrax powder. In addition there are many countries that have never appeared on any of these lists, but have resident technical expertise developed in pharmaceutical industries or vaccine production plants. Among them may be nations that have as yet undiscovered biological weapons programs.

It is also possible that the 2001 anthrax was prepared by a terrorist or dissident group rather than a country. This was the case with the chemical and biological warfare work done by the Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo. That group developed and used chemical warfare agents in small but sufficient quantities to cause illness and death in the Tokyo subway. Aum Shinrikyo was also reported to have disseminated anthrax from the roof of a Tokyo building, but no illness resulted and the intended attack went unnoticed. There may be other groups following the same path that are as unknown to us as Aum Shinrikyo was before its Tokyo subway attack. It is also possible that well-known terrorist groups that previously restricted their attacks to explosives and firearms have adopted new weapons. Any of these organizations could use the technical expertise of scientists from a bioweapons program or from non-weapons related research or production to prepare the quantity of anthrax delivered in the envelopes.

One group that should be considered in the search for the perpetrator is al Qaeda. The timing of the anthrax attacks relative to 9/11 seems too close to be pure coincidence. Although far from conclusive, several data points might link the 9/11 hijackers to the anthrax attacks. The hijackers' interest in crop dusters is tantalizing, as this equipment could be used to disseminate anthrax. A car left by one of the hijackers in an airport parking lot on 9/11 was reported to contain a crop dusting manual. The manager of a crop dusting company on Florida's West Coast reported that 9/11 hijackers had visited, asking many questions about his aircraft's capabilities. However, crop dusters would require many times the quantity of anthrax found in the envelopes to deliver an infectious dose from the air. Al Qaeda's interest in crop dusters might have been linked to the dissemination of chemical warfare agent rather than anthrax. Alternatively, al Qaeda might have placed larger stores of anthrax in the U.S. before 9/11, of which the material delivered in envelopes was only a small sample.

There also were two reports of 9/11 terrorists with skin infections - a problem that could arise from exposure to anthrax during the filling of envelopes.. In South Florida, one of the hijackers asked a pharmacist for advice on treating a skin rash. In New England, a physician reported that one of the terrorists came to him with a skin lesion that he later identified as characteristic of anthrax.

If al Qaeda was responsible for the 2001 anthrax, why has it acknowledged 9/11 and other attacks, but not the anthrax envelopes? Does lack of acknowledgement suggest that bin Laden was not responsible? Or does it mean that a larger anthrax attack is planned by al Qaeda, which wishes to call no further attention to bioterror until the attack has been launched? Al Qaeda has established a record of moving around the world undetected, transferring and storing weapons and setting up attacks in a number of countries. We generally learn of their presence only after an attack has occurred. Our government has warned that al Qaeda operatives are still in the U.S., but information as to where they are and what they are doing has not been provided. Counterterrorism officials most likely hope that will be revealed as al Qaeda members already identified lead them to previously unknown people and activities.

The FBI is still exploring the possibility of an American perpetrator. The fact that the anthrax in the envelopes was identified as the Ames strain, isolated in the United States, may seem to point in that direction but cannot be considered proof. While a number of U.S. scientists have the technical background to produce the anthrax powder, there are other possibilities. Over the years, strains isolated in the United States have been carried or sent all over the world, sometimes as informal exchanges without systematized record-keeping. This may have happened with the Ames strain. It is also possible that a sample of the Ames strain was removed surreptitiously from a U.S. laboratory. Before bioterrorism became a recognized threat, many American laboratories stored pathogens in unlocked refrigerators where they were accessible to anyone with a reason to be in the area. It would take only minutes to transfer anthrax from the original culture to another tube, and the original could be replaced apparently untouched before anyone took notice.

For any sub-national group attempting to produce anthrax, the establishment of a secret laboratory in which to do the work is a necessity. It is highly unlikely that the processes required to produce anthrax powder could be carried out in a kitchen or garage without telltale escape of anthrax and resulting infections. The caves of Tora Bora and other undeveloped sites are equally unlikely because of the need for pure water and a steady source of electricity. In many lesser developed countries electricity and pure water could be the primary difficulties encountered. In countries where they are readily available, the greater difficulty might be secrecy and security. Equipment to produce the anthrax is manufactured and sold throughout the world for use in non-weapons related work. Purchasing it for use outside of the U.S., especially from European or Asian companies could complicate tracking and discovery. The equipment as it comes, however, would not be configured for work with pathogens, and biosafety provisions would have to be added by the users. They would also have to be sufficiently familiar with the equipment to make any repairs or other alterations needed for operation.

Establishing a formal registry for sales of equipment that could be used to produce biological warfare agents could significantly decrease the likelihood that terrorists would produce their own. Assembling the equipment and establishing the necessary safeguards is a difficult enough job. Having also to manufacture the equipment would likely put biological weapons out of reach of most if not all terror groups. Countries like Iraq, which often depend upon foreign equipment suppliers for their weapons of mass destruction programs, might also find producing those weapons much more difficult.

Creating a tracking system for equipment that is generally used for purely peaceful purposes may seem extreme, but as the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction has just jumped up another notch, it may be a timely option to explore. For biological weapons production equipment, it may be possible to narrow the field by focusing on elements that are unnecessary for work with non-harmful substances. This endeavor would have to be a United Nations sponsored effort with all countries participating in order to be effective. At this point, however, it is clear that the Biological Weapons Convention is not binding all countries, and has no control whatsoever over sub-national terror groups. Perhaps it is time to try another approach to the problem.

When the 2001 anthrax attacks occurred in the United States, there was little information on this subject available to the general public. To address this, Elizabeth Terry wrote the Survival Handbook for Chemical, Biological and Radiological Terrorism (Library of Congress Number: 2003094544; ISBN 1-4134-1935-6) as well as several news articles.

As a member of the National Intelligence Council at the time of the first war with Iraq, Elizabeth Terry guided the Secret Service, FBI, and Department of Defense in identifying vulnerabilities of key Government facilities, including the White House, Capital Building, and Pentagon, to chemical, biological, and radiological terrorism and establishing protective measures. Since that time, she has worked with major U.S. corporations, providing vulnerabilities studies and awareness seminars focusing on this special type of terrorism.

Survival Handbook for Chemical, Biological and Radiological Terrorism is written for people without scientific or technical backgrounds to provide the information they need to protect themselves, their families and their businesses against chemical, biological, or radiological (CBR) terrorism. Co-authored with J Paul Oxer, P.E., who contributes his invaluable expertise in water supply security concerns, the book addresses the realities and hype surrounding CBR terrorism.