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Mail Delivery Shows Limitations of Anthrax Attacks

6 MINS READOct 19, 2001 | 05:00 GMT
By Rodger Baker

The search for a suspect in a recent rash of anthrax-laden mail is beginning to narrow in New Jersey, where a postal worker has been infected with the disease. Investigators believe the woman's delivery route in Ewing, N.J. — a suburb of West Trenton — may turn up more clues in at least some of the attacks.

The number of confirmed anthrax infections has risen to seven with word that a New York Post employee contracted the cutaneous form of the disease. Infections have afflicted employees of several other major media companies, including CBS, ABC and NBC in New York and American Media Inc. in Florida — where the only person to have died so far from the disease was employed. Exposures have occurred in the Hart Senate Office building in Washington, D.C., and at the New York City office of Governor George Pataki.

Although the attacks — coinciding with the U.S. air war over Afghanistan — have heightened fears of bioterrorism, the fact that mail has been the delivery mechanism for anthrax could be an indicator that most average Americans have little to fear at this point. The delivery method sheds light on some of the capabilities and motives of the person or persons responsible for the anthrax attacks and possibly points to limitations that make a broader bio campaign unlikely.

As with the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the anthrax strikes have been conducted using simple yet unconventional methods — converting America's communications infrastructure into a delivery method for bio-agents. But the idea itself of sending anthrax spores through the mail is not new. Between October and December 1998, several letters apparently containing anthrax were sent to clinics and businesses in four states. All proved to be hoaxes.

Anthrax is an attractive agent of death for several reasons. First, the bacterium — Bacillus anthracis — is relatively easy to procure and has long been available to scientists and researchers. The bacteria are easy to culture and isolate and can be highly lethal in certain forms — though others are easily treated. Anthrax also can survive in spore form for long periods with few special storage requirements.

Anthrax can be contracted in three ways: by touch, through ingestion or through inhalation. In the first case, the bacteria or spores enter the skin through cuts or abrasions. This is the most common form of anthrax and the easiest to treat. Without treatment, mortality rates are near 20 percent, but with common antibiotics, the chances of death are extremely small, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association. Gastrointestinal anthrax, contracted by eating undercooked meat from an infected animal, is rare. The deadliest form of the infection, inhalation anthrax, has a mortality rate of nearly 100 percent.

But the fact that the attackers used mail as a delivery vehicle reveals some of the limitations of anthrax as a weapon. Despite the ease with which anthrax bacteria can be obtained and grown, "weaponizing" the spores is much harder. Spores must be isolated, dried and milled into a fine powder, with particles measuring between one and five microns in diameter, for maximum effectiveness.

The relatively refined sample sent to the office of Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle did not necessarily meet the milling specifications for weapons-grade anthrax, according to Army researchers.

The final stage of making anthrax into an aerosol form requires special equipment and facilities to ensure uniformly sized particles with high concentrations of active spores. Some reports, however, suggest that a crude but effective facility for drying anthrax as a powder could be constructed from the same machinery used to make powdered milk. Keeping this final product from clumping together into particles larger than five microns requires additional processing.

The complexity of these final steps has kept many nations from producing weapons-quality anthrax for aerial distribution. Even Iraq, which conducted substantial biological research, prepared anthrax as a liquid, seriously reducing the potential efficacy of any attack. The Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo tried several times to release anthrax and other biological agents in Tokyo between 1990 and 1995, all unsuccessfully.

The use of mail to deliver anthrax suggests the group or groups responsible have not yet produced sufficient quantities of anthrax or acquired the appropriate delivery method for a larger strike. Instead, by targeting the media and government officials, they have gained maximum effect with minimum effort. A few mailed letters have resulted in several thousand false alarms and hoaxes — tying up police, fire, medical and hazmat teams, stirring panic among the populace, interfering with mail delivery and worrying politicians and the military.

There may be another reason the spores are being sent via mail instead of being released in large quantities over a major city — particularly if the attacks are the work of a group related to Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network. Bin Laden, the target of a weeks-long bombing campaign on Afghanistan, sees his main chance for salvation in undermining the U.S. coalition. To do so, however, he must engender the sympathies of Arab and Muslim nations.

The attack on the World Trade Center, which killed more than 5,000 people, was seen by many Muslims as over the top — causing too many civilian casualties to be justified even by Washington's international policy or Israel's killings of Palestinians. In fact, Tahirul Qadri of Pakistan, a prominent Muslim cleric, has publicly denounced bin Laden and his Taliban protectors, saying the destruction of the World Trade Center was "no jihad" and that those responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks "put the lives of millions of Muslims across the world at risk," UPI reported.

Large-scale anthrax attacks on the United States would only serve to further weaken bin Laden's position among Muslim nations. Even Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi has condemned anthrax attacks, calling anthrax a "weapon of mass destruction," according to Reuters.

Political leaders and their mouthpieces in the media, however, could be considered more legitimate military targets. This would allow a continuation of the terror war in America without driving Muslim nations closer to the United States. Given these political restraints and the technical difficulties of deploying anthrax, a widespread anthrax attack on a major metropolitan area remains unlikely.

For the government and the media, however, targeted attacks involving biological and chemical agents remain a threat. But considering the increased attention and security being paid to mail and anthrax at this time, the next terrorist strike in the United States will likely come from another quarter, keeping Washington off balance and disrupting the ability of the United States to get back to normal soon.

Rodger Baker is a senior analyst with STRATFOR.com. Its Web site is www.STRATFOR.com.

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