Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Qaeda Letters Are Said to Show Pre-9/11 Anthrax Plans

Written by New York Times
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By ERIC LIPTON

WASHINGTON, May 20 -Al Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan began to assemble the equipment necessary to build a rudimentary biological weapons laboratory before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, letters released by the Defense Department show.

The operatives were not immediately able to obtain a sample of the deadly anthrax strain that they wanted to reproduce in their laboratory, according to the letters.

The letters are among the documents recovered in late 2001 after the invasion of Afghanistan that United States intelligence officials have frequently cited as evidence that Al Qaeda was working to develop biological weapons.

The letters, recently made public as a result of a Freedom of Information Act request, detail a visit by an unnamed Qaeda scientist to a laboratory at an unspecified location where he was shown "a special confidential room" with thousands of samples of biological substances.

The scientist tried to buy anthrax vaccines, which would be necessary to protect any Qaeda members working with the material. He also bought a sterilizer, a respirator and an air-contamination detector, one letter said.

"The conference was found to be highly beneficial for our future work," the letter said. "I finalized all the accessories required for the smooth running of our bioreactor."

A separate handwritten letter includes a detailed list of additional equipment that would be necessary, like an incubator and a centrifuge, as well as a crude layout of a four- or five-room laboratory.

The letter specifies a training program for the staff, lasting six to eight months for senior workers and two to four months for technicians.

The letters appear to be the same documents referred to in the report of a special presidential commission on intelligence failures and unconventional weapons led by former Senator Charles S. Robb of Virginia and Judge Laurence H. Silberman of the federal appeals court.

The report, released in March, describes a biological weapons program that "was extensive, well organized and operated two years before the Sept. 11."

Two biological weapons experts who have read the letters said in interviews Friday that the letters suggested that the laboratory construction was at an early stage and that it would have most likely been at least two to three years, if not more, before the Qaeda team would have been able to produce enough anthrax to use as a weapon.

"They were moving to try to get the right stuff," said D. A. Henderson, an expert on biological weapons who is a former top scientific adviser to the Health and Human Services Department. "But not in a very sophisticated way."

The second of the two experts, Dr. Milton Leitenberg, a senior research scholar at the University of Maryland School of Public Policy, said many of people who were involved in the effort had been arrested or, in one case, killed.

"It is not likely that anything is going on right now," said Dr. Leitenberg, author of "The Problem of Biological Weapons" (2004). "And in the three years they were working on this, as best as is known, they did not succeed in obtaining a pathogen or reach the stage of growing the pathogen in the laboratory."

The writer of the two letters is widely believed to be Abdur Rauf, a Pakistani microbiologist who is known to have attended a conference before 2001 sponsored by the Society for Applied Microbiology, said a biological weapons researcher who insisted on anonymity because of his work investigating Al Qaeda.

One letter was written on a notepad from the Society for Applied Microbiology, a prominent British organization of microbiologists.

All the names on the letters are blacked out on the copies that were released to Ross Getman, a lawyer from Syracuse who filed the Freedom of Information Act request.

At the same camp where the letters were found, officials recovered articles from medical journals that detailed an approach to isolating, culturing and producing bacteria, including anthrax.

The second letter says that so far no toxic sample of anthrax needed for the laboratory had been secured.

"Unfortunately," it says, "I did not find the required culture of b. anthrax, i.e. pathogenic. However, I have started correspondence with [name blacked out] for the supply of the culture."
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