Al Qaeda Near Biological, Chemical Arms Production
Sunday, March 23, 2003
Al Qaeda leaders, long known to covet biological and chemical weapons, have reached at least the threshold of production and may already have manufactured some of them, according to a newly obtained cache of documentary evidence and interrogations recently conducted by the U.S. government.
Three people with access to written reports said the emerging picture depicts the al Qaeda biochemical weapons program as considerably more advanced than U.S. analysts knew. The picture continues to sharpen daily, one official said, because translation and analysis of the documents continues, and because the operative captured with them began divulging meaningful information about production plans only this week. Authorized government spokesmen declined to discuss the subject, saying it is classified.
Leaders at the top of al Qaeda's hierarchy, the evidence shows, completed plans and obtained the materials required to manufacture two biological toxins -- botulinum and salmonella -- and the chemical poison cyanide. They are also close to a feasible production plan for anthrax, a far more lethal weapon, which kills 90 percent of untreated victims if spread by inhalation and as many as 75 percent of those treated when the first symptoms become evident. Among the documents seized was a direction to purchase bacillus anthracis, the bacterium that causes anthrax disease.
Most of the new information comes from handwritten documents and computer hard drives seized during the March 1 capture of Khalid Sheik Mohammed, regarded by some government analysts as al Qaeda's most important operational planner. Known inside al Qaeda as "the Brain," Mohammed has acknowledged being the principal author of the Sept. 11, 2001, plot. Significantly, one official noted, Mohammed was arrested at a Rawalpindi, Pakistan, home owned by Abdul Quddoos Khan, a bacteriologist with access to production materials and facilities who has since disappeared.
Because of Mohammed's central role in operations, one senior official said, his apparent connection to biochemical weapons is a "very scary" sign that al Qaeda's efforts reach well beyond the hypothetical. At first analysts were unsure of Mohammed's direct involvement because the documents were not written in his hand and were seized in a house that does not belong to him. But digitally scanned images of the same documents have been extracted from one of Mohammed's computer hard drives. Confronted with that evidence, a second U.S. expert said, Mohammed has begun to talk about the production program in the past two or three days.
What the documents and debriefings show, the first official said, is that "he was involved in anthrax production, and [knew] quite a bit about it."
Government experts are also filling out their picture of Ayman Zawahiri, al Qaeda's second-ranking leader, as the central figure in overseeing and funding the biological and chemical weapons effort. Investigators have known since the late 1990s that in early experiments, al Qaeda killed animals with homemade contact poisons at its Derunta camp in Afghanistan. The project there fell under the command of Midhat Mursi, an Egyptian who uses the alias of Abu Kebab and is among the most-wanted al Qaeda operatives still at large. But Mursi is not thought to have sophisticated knowledge of biology.
What is new in the recent documents is al Qaeda recruited competent scientists, including a Pakistani microbiologist whom the officials interviewed this week declined to name. The documents describe specific timelines for producing biochemical weapons and include a bar graph depicting the parallel processes that must take place between Days 1 and 31 of manufacture. Included are inventories of equipment and indications of readiness to grow seed stocks of pathogen in nutrient baths and then dry the resulting liquid slurry into a form suitable for aerosol dispersal.
U.S. officials said the evidence neither establishes nor rules out that al Qaeda completed manufacture. The documents are undated and unsigned and cryptic about essential details. They do not mention the whereabouts of actual or planned production. Because of al Qaeda's limited sophistication, the documents do not support a theory that al Qaeda had a role in the anthrax letters mailed in late 2001 to Senate and news media offices that killed five people.
Mohammed has told interrogators nothing -- "nothing yet," one official emphasized -- about the intended use of the weapons.
Analysts suspect an ambition to poison the food supplies of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, which are cooked in large batches and accessible to locally hired civilians. Botulism or salmonella poisoning would kill relatively few healthy young men or women but would disable many of them for a time and render them vulnerable to other forms of attack. If used in the United States, a more difficult kind of attack for al Qaeda, the Tylenol poisoning scare of 1982 suggests it could lead to widespread fear and economic consequences.
Two officials said this month's discoveries have changed their minds about the significance of an abandoned laboratory found a year ago in Kandahar, Afghanistan's largest southern city, after U.S.-led troops drove al Qaeda and Taliban forces from the area. At the time, Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said there were traces of anthrax in or near what he called an unfinished laboratory facility, but in "such minute amounts they could be naturally occurring." He said U.S. troops had found "some equipment" that could be used to manufacture anthrax, but "not all the equipment you would need."
Some government analysts believe the Afghan laboratory may have been fully equipped and even operating before U.S. ground forces arrived. One knowledgeable official said it is likely that al Qaeda managed to spirit the equipment away. "It has been moved elsewhere, in another country, and we haven't been able to find it," the official said.
A second official, in the Defense Department, said "there is obviously a connection" between the documents and the evacuated lab. Al Qaeda need not have smuggled equipment out to rebuild the facility, he said, because "if you've got funding, this is equipment you can buy over the counter."
Among the consolations in the captured documents is that al Qaeda's manufacturing plans show no knowledge of advanced techniques used in the most efficient biological weapons. There is no reference, for example, to the special processing needed to produce very fine anthrax spores that resist clumping and linger in the air as free-floating particles.
Another reassuring sign, officials said, is that the strain of anthrax involved in al Qaeda's planning is not among the most virulent. The Los Alamos National Laboratory has catalogued some 1,200 varieties, some of which are better suited to be used as weapons. Officials interviewed for this article, speaking on condition of anonymity, declined to name the strain that al Qaeda sought.
Some officials said the greatest danger remains that the organization will obtain advanced biological weapons or nerve agents from a state sponsor.
Though the al Qaeda plans describe valid manufacturing techniques, a defense official said, they do not indicate how long it would take to produce finished weapons.
"If I have all this equipment and everything works, this would be a production timeline," the official said. "But you don't know when it's going to go online and what is the skill level of those involved. The fact that they're obviously recruiting sympathetic scientists is a big warning flag."