Al-Qaeda Gathered Equipment for Biological Weapons Laboratory Before 9/11, Documents Indicate

Al-Qaeda was working to develop a biological weapons laboratory prior to the Sept. 11 attacks, letters released last week by the Defense Department indicate (see GSN, March 2).

According to the letters, an unnamed al-Qaeda scientist tried to buy anthrax vaccines during a visit to an unspecified laboratory, the New York Times reported Saturday. He purchased a sterilizer, a respirator and an air-contamination detector, according to one letter.

Another letter lists equipment that would be needed for a laboratory, including an incubator and a centrifuge, according to the Times.

The letters suggest it would likely have taken al-Qaeda at least two to three years to produce enough anthrax to use as a weapon, two biological weapons experts said Friday.

“They were moving to try to get the right stuff,” said D.A. Henderson, an expert on biological weapons. “But not in a very sophisticated way.”

Many of people involved in the plot have been arrested or killed, said Milton Leitenberg, a senior research scholar at the University of Maryland School of Public Policy

“It is not likely that anything is going on right now,” said Leitenberg.  “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.”

Pakistani microbiologist Abdur Rauf is believed to have written the letters, according to one biological weapons researcher (Eric Lipton, New York Times, May 21).