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Is Ayman Zawahiri Behind The Anthrax Mailings?

Is Ayman Zawahiri Behind The Anthrax Mailings?

By Ross Getman

Analysis of the means, motive, modus operandi and opportunity of the anthrax mailings in Fall 2001 suggests that US-based supporters of Ayman Zawahiri were responsible for the anthrax mailings in the Fall of 2001. The Federal Bureau of Investigation appears to have pursued all possible leads and left no stone unturned. Attorney General Gonzales told the Senate Judiciary Committee on January 18, 2007 that FBI Director Mueller was very committed to seeing it to “some kind of conclusion in the relatively near future.”

Vanguards of Conquest

Zawahiri was head of Al Qaeda’s biochemical program. Ayman named it Zabadi or “Curdled Milk.” The Central Intelligence Agency has known of 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 outside a restaurant by the CIA in Baku, Azerbaijan. The CIA refused to give the FBI the laptop. 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. The FBI finally got the files after O’Neill persuaded President Clinton to personally appeal to the president of Azerbaijan for the computer files. O’Neill died on 9/11 in his role as head of World Trade Center security. He died with the knowledge that Ayman Zawahiri planned to attack US targets with anthrax — and that Zawahiri does not make a threat that he does not intend to try to keep.

The military commander claimed that Zawahiri intended to use anthrax against US targets. At the time, the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (”DTRA”) set up a program at Lawrence Livermore to combat the Bin Laden anthrax threat. The CIA also snatched a particularly talkative member of EIJ shura or policy-making council. His confession runs 140 pages. He confirmed Ayman’s intent to use weaponized anthrax against US targets in connection with the detention of militant islamists. Yet another friend of Zawahiri, this one a Cairo lawyer who was the blind sheik’s attorney, in March 1999 said that Bin Laden and Zawahiri were likely to resort to the biological and chemical agents they possessed given the extradition pressure senior Al Qaeda leaders faced.

Zawahiri and the Vanguards of Conquest were seeking to recreate Mohammed’s taking of mecca by a small band through violent attacks on Egyptian leaders. By the late 1990s, 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.


Emails in the Spring of 1999 from Zawahiri to Egyptian Mohammed Atef, Al Qaeda’s military commander, and former Cairo police sergeant, indicate that Ayman was a close student of the USAMRIID anthrax program. He believed that the Koran 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 KSM, Al Qaeda’s #3, included a feasible anthrax production plan using a spray dryer and addressed the recruitment of necessary expertise. Mohammed told his interrogators that Moussaoui was not going to be part of 9/11 but was to be part of a “second wave.” KSM explained that Moussaoui’s inquiries about crop dusters may have been related to the anthrax work being done by US-trained biochemist and Al Qaeda operative, Malaysian 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 Central Intelligence Agency (”CIA”) report publicly concluded that the reason for Mohammed Atta’s and Zacarias Moussaoui’s inquiries into cropdusters was for the contemplated use in dispersing biological agents such as anthrax. It had long been known Osama Bin Laden was interested in using cropdusters 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 Shaikh Mohammed.

Anthrax lab coordinator Hambali was arrested in August 2003 in the quiet city of Ayuttullah, Thailand, which is about half way between Bangkok and Chang Mai. 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 Qaeda had the extremely virulent anthrax before 9/11. Sufaat’s two principal assistants were also captured 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 a house in Kandahar pointed out by Hambali. 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 Mohammed 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 Zawahiri acquired the anthrax strain — the “Ames strain” first isolated by the Texas Veterinary Medical Diagnostic Lab in 1980. The US 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 a Qaeda camp in Darunta, Afghanistan US forces found 100+ pages of typed and handwritten pages of documents that shed light on Al Qaeda’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 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 Qaeda.” 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 Qaeda was responsible for the anthrax mailings in the Fall of 2001, the FBI and CIA knew based on the growing documentary evidence available by December, that Al Qaeda 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 Abdur Rauf 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 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.

Rauf 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 documents seized in Afghanistan by US forces by Rauf describe the author’s visit to the special confidential room at the BL-3 facility where 1000s 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 Qaeda’s anthrax lab; a conference on dangerous pathogens cosponsored by UK’s Porton Down and Society for Applied Microbiology he attended, and the need for vaccination and containment. Rauf 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. Malaysian Yazid Sufaat, who told his wife he was working for a Taliban medical brigade, got the job instead of Rauf.

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 bioweaponeer 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-based charity. The Washington Post later summarized: “The agents reached an alarming conclusion: ‘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 Timimi, a doctoral candidate pursuing cancer gene research, might have been involved in the anthrax attacks.”

On October 6, 2002, Ali Al-Timimi drafted a letter from dissident Saudi Sheik Al-Hawali threatening disastrous consequences if the US invaded Iraq and had it 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. Ali Al-Timimi was thought 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’s 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. The FBI knows what he had for dinner on September 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 isotopes. That finding likely has served to focus the FBI’s investigation..

Modus Operandi

Just because Al Qaeda 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 Qaeda 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 Zawahiri agree that notice must be given before biochemical weapons are used. “The Prophet’s guidance,” says Michael Scheuer, an al-Qaeda 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 Ayman 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 December 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, Sheik Abdel Rahman. The former leader of the Egyptian Al-Gamaa al-Islamiya (”Islamic Group”), Abdel-Rahman was also a spiritual leader of Al Qaeda. 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 casualty — apparently was to send a message. There was no claim of responsibility. There was no explanation. Once one had been received, the next ten, mailed on two separate dates, were easily collected. Sound familiar? Two bombs were also sent to Leavenworth, where a key WTC 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 Ayman Zawahiri. The group can be thought of as either the military wing of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad or perhaps just EIJ by another name.

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 targets for the planes, 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 website 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 Zawahiri sent to Egyptian Islamic Jihad members abroad establish that Zawahiri used “school” as a code word for the Egyptian militant islamists.35/ Green symbolizes Islam and was the Prophet Mohammed’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 Qaeda, which is actually the full name of the group after the merger of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad and al Qaeda. 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 Qaeda’s military commander Mohammed Atef, who along with Zawahiri had overseen Project Zabadi, Al Qaeda’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 US upon Atef’s death (in November 2001), KSM separately noted that “I was the Media Operations Director for Al-Sahab or ‘The Clouds,’ under Dr. Ayman Al-Zawahiri.


As to the reason Senators Daschle and Leahy would have been targeted — they are commonly simplistically viewed as “liberals.” Zawahiri likely targeted Senators 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 Qaeda 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 Qaeda 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 US -bio attack (1) from folks that were US-based, (2) above suspicion, and (3) with access to US 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.”

Senator 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 Qaeda leaders, along with US support for Israel and the Mubarak government in Egypt, remains foremost in the mind of Dr. 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 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 January 18, 2001 that an Egyptian Islamic Jihad Shura member, Mahmoud Mahjoub, would have a January 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 or 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.

The FBI’s Investigation

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 Dr. 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 Dr. Hatfill had reported. By late 2003, all conspicuous surveillance had ended, according 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 Qaeda had an ambitious biological weapons program and was making advances in its ability to produce anthrax prior to September 11. According to Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet, al Qaeda’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-Qai’da’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 September 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 4 but could not rule out that it was obtained overseas. Thus, not only was it likely that an Al Qaeda 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 US government. Although sometimes reports referred to its “ubiquitous” distribution, the major revelation on the subject came in 2005 when pursuant to two treaties, samples of anthrax was evaluated from Georgia and Azerbaijan and it was determined that former Republics of Russia also had Ames. Just as former bioweaponeer Ken Alibek had said in 2001, Russia had obtained Ames years earlier through a spy at Ft. Detrick.

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.


The FBI’s profile includes a US-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 US-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, 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, CIA 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 Dr. Steve Hatfill, FBI Director 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 US scientist Dr. Steve 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 Internet 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.


Mr. Getman maintains the website

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