Published on Sunday, October 21, 2001 in the Independent/UK
Anthrax Attacks Now Being Linked to US Right-Wing Cranks
by Chris Blackhurst
In Wynnewood Manor they know her as Terry, the mother in her mid-30s who collected their mail every weekday for three years. Today, Terry is being treated for exposure to anthrax, and black-jacketed FBI agents are swarming over the route she took. The net is closing on the anthrax terrorists and Terry might just be their critical mistake.
Terry did not pick up from public post boxes; she dealt only with residential addresses in Wynnewood Manor, a suburb of Ewing, New Jersey, a working-class town west of Trenton, the nearby city. Somebody left Terry a letter to post.
If she checked the address, she may have been surprised to see it was for Tom Brokaw, the veteran NBC anchorman. What the suburban terrorist did not realize was that while the envelope to Mr Brokaw was stamped "Trenton, NJ", it also had a Postal Service bar code, which narrowed it down to Terry's sorting office. When she was found to be suffering from anthrax, the search narrowed: she was on duty the day the bar code was franked on Mr Brokaw's envelope; probably, she collected it.
Teams of FBI officers questioned residents along the postal worker's tree-lined postal route. Samantha Pae, 34, her fiancé, and her fiancé's mother were interviewed by the FBI, who asked them how long they had lived in the area and whether they had noticed any suspicious activity or observed vehicles with out-of-state plates. Charlotte Piepszak, who has lived in the area for 30 years, said FBI agents asked her if she knew any chemists.
One mailbox where the FBI suspects at least one anthrax-laced letter began its journey has now been identified. It has been taken away for tests.
Thomas J Ridge, the Bush administration's new director of homeland security, confirmed the FBI "has been able to identify the site where the letters were mailed". At first, given the proximity of the anthrax mailshots to 11 September, the authorities thought they had to be linked to extreme Muslim fundamentalists, probably Osama bin Laden and his Al Qa'ida organization. But in the last few days that view has changed, with the "crank" theory gaining ground.
Investigators are increasingly convinced that a lone individual or group of people living in the US are behind the mailings of the white powder, which have claimed the life of a British-born picture editor and brought parts of the US media, political and economic infrastructure to a standstill.
Despite the letters sent to Mr Brokaw in New York and to Tom Daschle, the Senate majority leader in Washington, calling for "death to America" and praising Allah, agents are quick to point out the messages do not mean anything. The letters could have been sent by a right-winger, trying to stir up racial tension in the wake of 11 September and using the hijackings as cover.
There is plenty of other circumstantial evidence pointing to the letters being the work of someone sympathetic to the 11 September hijackers but it is only circumstantial. Trenton is a major Muslim area and New Jersey has featured already in the hijackings. Jersey City, not far from Trenton, was home to two men who boarded a plane on the day of the hijackings only for the flight to be grounded in the aftermath of the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks.
The following day, the pair, Ayub Ali Khan and Mohammed Azmath, were picked up in Texas, with $5,000 in cash and the same sort of knives used by the hijackers. They are in custody, along with a third man who shared their home. When it was searched, agents found press clippings of articles about biological warfare.
Agents also know that the man they suspect was the hijackers' leader, Mohamed Atta, wanted to acquire a crop-spraying aircraft. And he lived near the newspaper offices in Florida where the only person to die in the anthrax attacks worked. But they have found nothing in the credit card details and emails of the hijackers to indicate that they had a quantity of anthrax or were aware that another type of attack was imminent. One of the letters containing anthrax, sent to Kenya, was posted before 11 September.
Investigators are also puzzled by the choice of targets. They do not bear the hallmarks of the hijackers. Selecting media organizations guarantees publicity but they are not politically symbolic. Mr Daschle, despite his prominence as majority leader, is a Democrat not a Republican (indeed, investigators have noted, few politicians have riled the right as much as Mr Daschle, with websites calling for a concerted effort to do him down).
Investigators have matched the anthrax used in the Florida, New York and Washington letters. They are all from the Ames strain, a variety of anthrax developed in the US but also exported overseas. This has made them revise an early thought that the anthrax may have originated in Russia or Iraq, two countries with a history of developing biological weapons. Neither country is thought to have had that particular strain.
Much has been made of the timing of the attacks, that coming so soon after 11 September they must be linked. But anthrax terrorism is not a new phenomenon, especially in the US. For the last four years, the country has been in the grip of anthrax. It is an American phenomenon: in 1999, the latest year for which records are available, there were 83 criminal incidents worldwide where a quantity of anthrax was actually present, of which 81 were in the US.
The obsession with anthrax began in April 1997, when a petri dish labeled"anthrachs" was sent in a package to a Jewish organization. in Washington.
The dish contained a red, jelly-like substance, which after nine hours' examination was pronounced harmless. That was after an area of the capital had been cordoned off and the building evacuated. Emergency workers insisted that police, who forgot to wear protective clothing and entered the "hot zone", stripped off and had showers there and then. It was the first major anthrax scare. It received plenty of publicity and hundreds followed it.
In one year alone, 1999, according to The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, there were hoax anthrax threats made against a department store, a nightclub, NBC, the Washington Post, a post office and a government building. In just four days in February, there were 35 anthrax scares. In one, in Missouri, 20 people had to leave an abortion clinic and have an outdoor shower in a snowstorm (they kept their clothes on).
For right-wing groups in particular, making false claims about anthrax is a weapon of choice. So frequent were the alarms that Neil Gallagher, assistant director of the FBI's national security division, has vented his frustration: "Not a day goes by without us hearing from somewhere in the US about an anthrax threat." In 1994, there were 27 stories listed in the New York Times's archive concerning "biological and chemical warfare" in the US. By 1998, it had risen to 278. Media interest hoaxes were often treated in the press as though they had been real plus a spate of films and novels sent fears about anthrax attacks spiraling upwards. This was not helped by William Cohen, the then defense secretary, appearing on national television with a bag of sugar in his hand and claiming an equal amount of anthrax would wipe out half the population of Washington.
Individual states carried out doomsday tests based on imaginary anthrax outbreaks; these often involved emergency workers donning terrifying looking suits and were usually conducted in the full glare of local publicity. One national test, the "Topoff exercise" in May 2000, saw the federal authorities trying to cope with simultaneous chemical, biological and nuclear attacks in three widely separated metropolitan areas and failing. The resulting publicity sent national paranoia to new levels, and just may have encouraged today's attacker.
Iraq seeking revenge for defeat in the Gulf war was seen as one likely threat. But there were others. In 1998, Larry Wayne Harris, a microbiologist linked to a white supremacist group, was arrested after allegedly threatening to release "military-grade anthrax" in Las Vegas. He did have anthrax but on examination it turned out to be a harmless veterinary-grade strain.
Somebody, somewhere has now got hold of a lethal variety and is putting it in the mail. They may be supportive of the hijackers or they could, just as easily, be fulfilling a long-threatened ambition.
Another US postal worker has been confirmed as suffering from anthrax. This is the third postal worker from New Jersey to be diagnosed as suffering from the infection, and is the ninth person in the US to contract it.
© 2001 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd