By Joby Warrick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 31, 2006
In December 2001, as the investigation into the U.S. anthrax attacks was gathering steam, coalition soldiers in Afghanistan uncovered what appeared to be an important clue: a trail of documents chronicling an attempt by al-Qaeda to create its own anthrax weapon.
The documents told of a singular mission by a scientist named Abdur Rauf, an obscure, middle-aged Pakistani with alleged al-Qaeda sympathies and an advanced degree in microbiology.
Using his membership in a prestigious scientific organization to gain access, Rauf traveled through Europe on a quest, officials say, to obtain both anthrax spores and the equipment needed to turn them into highly lethal biological weapons. He reported directly to al-Qaeda's No. 2 commander, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and in one document he appeared to signal a breakthrough.
"I successfully achieved the targets," he wrote cryptically to Zawahiri in a note in 1999.
Precisely what Rauf achieved may never be known with certainty. That's because U.S. officials remain stymied in their nearly five-year quest to bring charges against a man who they say admitted serving as a top consultant to al-Qaeda on anthrax -- a claim that makes him one of a handful of people linked publicly to the group's effort to wage biological warfare against Western targets.
Rauf, 47, has been under scrutiny in Pakistan since he was detained there for questioning in late 2001, according to U.S. and Pakistani officials who agreed to talk about the case for the first time. But officially he remains free, and Pakistan now says it has no grounds for arrest. Last year, in an acknowledgment of the impasse in its four-year joint investigation with Pakistan, the FBI officially put the case on inactive status.
"We will never close the door, but the chances of getting him into the United States are slim to none," said one U.S. intelligence official, who, like others, agreed to discuss the case on the condition that he not be identified by name.
The documents that first revealed Rauf's role were part of a large stack of papers discovered in a house after coalition forces overran an al-Qaeda base in Kandahar, in southern Afghanistan. He emerges from documents and interviews as one of the most intriguing, and in some ways most troubling, figures in an international investigation into al-Qaeda's biological weapons program.
With the evidence against Rauf, some U.S. officials say they are perplexed about why Pakistani authorities have refused to further pursue him, while acknowledging that the case presents both legal and political difficulties for Pakistan.
To terrorism experts, Rauf is a symbol of a dangerous convergence: a marriage of militancy and technical expertise that could someday yield new kinds of highly lethal weapons to be used against civilians.
"He was someone who at least understood the professional procedures and methods," said Milton Leitenberg, an expert on biological weapons with the University of Maryland's Center for International and Security Studies who reviewed the seized documents. "In theory, if he went in the laboratory and tried and tried, maybe he could have gotten it right."
Exactly how far al-Qaeda progressed with Rauf's help is not publicly known. No one has turned up any links between his work and the U.S. anthrax attacks, in which spores were mailed in letters to news organizations and U.S. Senate offices. Coalition forces discovered rudimentary laboratories in Kandahar but no evidence of bioweapons production. Yet both the White House and a presidential commission have hinted at additional findings suggesting that the terrorists were much further along than was first thought.
Last year's presidential commission on intelligence failures, led by retired judge Laurence H. Silberman and former senator Charles S. Robb (D-Va.), described al-Qaeda's biological program as "extensive" and "well-organized," particularly with regard to "Agent X," a pathogen that terrorism experts say was almost certainly anthrax.
"Al-Qaeda had acquired several biological agents possibly as early as 1999, and the necessary equipment to enable limited, basic production of Agent X," the commission said.
U.S. officials are even more reticent in discussing possible links between al-Qaeda's anthrax program and the 2001 U.S. attacks, which killed five people and briefly shut down the U.S. Capitol. Privately, FBI officials doubt that such a link exists. They note that the attacks came with an explicit warning -- a letter advising the victims to take penicillin, resulting in a far lower death toll -- but without an explicit claim of responsibility. "It doesn't fit with al-Qaeda's modus operandi," one intelligence official said.
Yet U.S. officials have been unable to rule out al-Qaeda or any other group as a suspect. Earlier this month, FBI officials acknowledged that the ultra-fine powder mailed five years ago was simply made and could have been produced by a well-trained microbiologist anywhere in the world.
Several leading bioterrorism experts still contend that the evidence points to al-Qaeda or possibly an allied group that coordinated its attack with the Sept. 11, 2001, strikes on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. These experts point to hijacker Mohamed Atta's inquiries into renting a crop-duster aircraft and to an unexplained emergency-room visit by another hijacker, Ahmed Ibrahim A. Al Haznawi, for treatment of an unusual skin lesion that resembled cutaneous anthrax.
Whether or not al-Qaeda was involved, U.S. officials and bioterrorism experts agree on this: The alliance between the terrorist group and a little-known Pakistani scientist could have yielded disastrous results in time.The Quest for Anthrax
For all his expertise, Rauf was hardly the ideal candidate for helping al-Qaeda realize its ambition of making biological weapons.
The tall, thin and bespectacled scientist held a doctorate in microbiology but specialized in food production, according to U.S. officials familiar with the case. He had to learn about anthrax and other bioterrorism agents as he went along, slowing his progress considerably.
"He could potentially do a great deal of harm because of his knowledge and skills," said one U.S. intelligence expert connected with the case. "On the other hand, he lacked the specific knowledge and training al-Qaeda needed most."
Exactly how he became acquainted with Zawahiri remains unclear. Rauf worked at the prestigious Pakistan Council of Scientific and Industrial Research in his home town of Lahore, and officials speculate that he may have crossed paths professionally with Zawahiri, a physician.
In any case, captured documents suggest a close collaboration between the two men as they sought equipment for a bioweapons lab.
"I hope my letter will find you in the best of health and circumstances by the God Almighty," Rauf writes to Zawahiri in one of three intercepted notes.
The heavily redacted notes and other documents were obtained from the Defense Department through the Freedom of Information Act after they were first described in the journal Science in a 2003 article by three researchers at the National Defense University. Rauf's name was redacted, but U.S. and Pakistani officials confirmed his authorship in interviews with The Washington Post. Rauf's name was first publicly associated with the documents by Ross Getman, a New York lawyer who maintains a Web site devoted to the 2001 anthrax attacks.
Rauf was a member of the Society for Applied Microbiology, an international professional organization based in Britain, and he appears to have used his membership to make contacts and arrange visits related to his quest. One note from Rauf was handwritten on the group's stationery, apparently while he was attending a 1999 scientific conference at Porton Down, Britain's premier biodefense research center in the southern city of Wiltshire.
Rauf, who writes to Zawahiri in occasionally faltering English, admits in one note to several setbacks. For starters, he had found a supplier who could sell him Bacillus anthracis -- the bacterium that causes anthrax -- but it was a harmless strain incapable of killing anyone.
"Unfortunately, I did not find the required culture of B. anthrax -- i.e., pathogenic," he writes to Zawahiri. He then describes a new attempt to acquire a lethal strain from a different lab.
In a later note he is more upbeat, telling his patron he had "successfully achieved the targets" and had "tried to solve technical problems of our work." He ticked off a list of items he had acquired or arranged to purchase, including respirators, a fermenter used for growing bacteria and vaccines to protect lab workers against accidental exposure.
Rauf also describes an unusual visit -- apparently as the guest of another scientist -- to a high-containment biological lab where dangerous pathogens such as anthrax are kept.
"I visited along with [the host] all the units . . . including the special confidential room in which thousands of cultures are placed," the note reads.
Another handwritten note includes a crude diagram of a biological lab, identifying how space should be allocated for major tasks such as animal testing and growing bacteria.
A recurring theme in the notes is money, or Rauf's apparent lack of it. He complains in one note that his salary was cut while he was on leave from his job for postdoctoral research. "This is highly objectionable, unaffordable and unpracticable with me," he writes.
Rauf's money demands may have led to a falling-out with Zawahiri, who appears to have decided to explore other options for obtaining bacteria and lab equipment, said Rohan Gunaratna, an al-Qaeda expert with the Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies in Singapore.
Gunaratna said al-Qaeda leaders also collaborated with Yazid Sufaat, a member of an allied Southeast Asian group called Jemaah Islamiyah, in purchasing equipment for the Kandahar lab. Sufaat, who once studied chemistry at California State University at Sacramento, has been in custody since late 2001.
"Rauf was financially driven, and al-Qaeda didn't entirely trust him," Gunaratna said.Investigation Breaks Down
Rauf's detention kicked off a joint U.S.-Pakistani investigation that at first was remarkably successful.
"There was great cooperation at the start," said one U.S. intelligence official who closely followed the case.
The FBI's New York office took the lead U.S. role, and its agents worked closely with the CIA and bureau officials in Pakistan in carrying out interrogations. Though not formally charged with any crimes, Rauf consented to questioning and provided useful leads, U.S. and Pakistani officials said. But problems began when the U.S. side sought to expand the investigation with the goal of pursuing criminal charges, including possible indictment and prosecution in the United States, officials from both countries confirmed.
In earlier cases, the Pakistani government incurred the wrath of Islamic leaders when it sought to prosecute professionals for alleged ties to al-Qaeda.
In 2003, the Pakistanis shut off U.S. access to Rauf. According to Pakistani officials familiar with the case, there simply was not enough evidence showing that he succeeded in providing al-Qaeda with something useful.
Since then, Rauf has been allowed to resume his normal life. Whether he has returned to his former workplace is unclear; officials at the research council declined to respond to requests for information about the scientist. Attempts to contact Rauf in Lahore were unsuccessful.
"He was detained for questioning, and later the courts determined there was not sufficient evidence to continue detaining him," said Tariq Azim Khan, Pakistan's information minister. "If there was evidence that proved his role beyond a shadow of a doubt, we would have acted on it. But that kind of evidence was not available."
Special correspondent Kamran Khan in Karachi, Pakistan, contributed to this report.