Anthrax – the Unacceptable RiskMay 5, 2011
In the wake of the killing of Osama bin Laden by U.S. forces a number of national security and Congressional leaders are expressing concern about the increased risk of a bioterrorist attack. An Op Ed in the Washington Post discusses this risk: http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/osama-bin-laden-is-dead-now-what/2011/05/11/AF3sBU1G_story.html
While the death of Osama bin Laden has struck a major blow to al Qaeda, security experts are concerned that it may cause al Qaeda or bin Laden sympathizers to seek retaliation. Such an attack could come from either organized elements of the al Qaeda network, including a number of spin off and aligned groups, such as al Qaeda in the Arabian Penninsula, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and al-Shabab.
Alternatively, such a retaliatory attack could be waged by a lone attacker, in particular a U.S. citizen—or homegrown terrorist—who simply sympathizes with bin Laden and al Qaeda, or is somehow otherwise drawn to the moment. CQ quotes Sen. Joseph Lieberman, chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, saying, “My own great concern in the days ahead is that a so called lone wolf, a single individual who has been radicalized, will now mobilize himself or herself to take action here at home against the American people.”
Of the potential retaliatory attacks that these experts are most concerned about is a possible bioterrorist attack, in particular anthrax.
Sen. Tom Harkin, the chairman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that oversees public health, released a statement saying that despite progress in biodefense since Sept. 11, “more needs to be done. A bioterrorism attack is a very real threat, yet we are still using the same anthrax vaccine that was developed forty years ago.”
Harkin’s concerns about the threat of anthrax are well founded.
While we have eliminated the number one terrorist threat in bin Laden, the so-called “CEO of al Qaeda's anthrax program,” Yazid Sufaat, remains at large.
According to the 9-11 Commission, early in 1999 Sufaat was taped by al Qaeda’s number two, Ayman al Zawahiri, to lead an effort to jumpstart the terror group’s anthrax development program. Sufaat then spent several months seeking to develop weaponized anthrax in a laboratory near the Kandahar Airport, which was at the time an al-Qaeda stronghold. According to Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, a former senior Central Intelligence Agency official who led the government's efforts to track terrorist Weapons of Mass Destruction programs, “in August 2001, Zawahiri personally inspects Ahmed's completed laboratory in Kandahar. He separately meets with Sufaat for a weeklong briefing on the reportedly successful efforts to isolate and produce a lethal strain of anthrax.” In December of 2001, with the U.S. moving in to Afghanistan, Sufaat returns to Malaysia, where he is arrested by the Malaysian authorities. However, in 2008, the Government of Malaysia subsequently releases him. As of April 2009, Interpol lists him as free and living in Taman Bukit Ampang, Malaysia.”
Additionally, it should be noted that a bioterror attack is the sort of high impact, high visibility attack that fits with al Qaeda’s overall modus operandi. The death of bin Laden only amplifies the desire among his supporters to strike out in some dramatic fashion, and an anthrax attack would certainly fall within that category.
All this together reminds us that while the face of al Qaeda, and indeed all global terror, is no more, we remain at war with a global, ideologically-driven terrorist network that now, perhaps more than ever, wants to harm us. While we should give thanks for the elimination of bin Laden, we cannot become complacent. Until we have in hand new medical countermeasures that can effectively remove weapons like anthrax from the terrorists’ arsenal, we remain unacceptably at risk.
At PharmAthene we remain ever more dedicated to that task and committed to working with our partners in the U.S. government to strengthen our national security.