Sunday, August 3, 2008

Early Anthrax Probe of Pakistani-Americans

Dr. Bruce Ivins, a US Army scientist, committed suicide as federal prosecutors prepared an indictment alleging he mailed anthrax-laced letters in 2001 in what authorities said Friday may have been a bizarre attempt to test a vaccine for the deadly poison. Listed as co-inventor of the anthrax vaccine that VaxGen planned to market, the scientist worked at the Army's biodefense labs at Ft. Detrick, Md., for 18 years until his death on Tuesday. While financial gain from the vaccine may have been a motive, the media reports indicate he had a long history of homicidal threats.

Five people died and 17 others became ill when anthrax-laced letters began arriving at congressional offices, newsrooms and post offices soon after Sept. 11, 2001.

"As far back as the year 2000, the respondent (Ivins) has actually attempted to murder several other people, either through poisoning. He is a revenge killer. When he feels that he's been slighted or has had -- especially toward women -- he plots and actually tries to carry out revenge killings," Jean Duley, Ivins's therapist, said.

She added that Ivins "has been forensically diagnosed by several top psychiatrists as a sociopathic, homicidal killer. I have that in evidence. And through my working with him, I also believe that to be very true."

Prior to Ivins, the focus of the investigation was on Dr. Steven Hatfill, American physician, virologist and bio-weapons expert, and several Pakistani-American city employees in Chester, PA.

After wrongly suspecting and investigating Pakistani-Americans and Army scientist Hatfill, the FBI more than a year ago began looking at Ivins, who worked at the same military lab as Dr. Hatfill. Ivins, a decorated scientist who was working on an anthrax cure, killed himself last Tuesday.

Dr. Hatfill was cleared some time ago and he successfully sued the US government for defamation and settled out of court for $5.8m.

Dr. Irshad Shaikh, a Pakistani-American city health commissioner in Chester, PA, reported in November 2001 that the FBI agents broke down his door and entered his house with guns drawn, followed by members of a hazardous materials team in moon suits and gas masks. Dr. Shaikh, 39, who was trained as a radiologist in Pakistan and holds master's and doctoral degrees from Johns Hopkins University was subjected to several hours of questioning along with his brother, Dr. Masood Shaikh, the manager of the city's program to reduce lead hazards for children.

"The F.B.I. can search my house any time," Dr. Irshad Shaikh said in an interview at City Hall with his brother after the FBI raid and questioning. The two are both legal immigrants and are eager to become citizens.

Dr. Masood Shaikh, 40, who was trained as a psychiatrist in Pakistan and holds a master's degree in public health from Johns Hopkins, is so eager to accommodate the F.B.I. that he offered to turn over his passport, said the brothers' lawyer, Anthony F. List, who was present for the interview.

Later, FBI agents subjected the wife of another Pakistani-American, Asif Kazi, to the same treatment. Days after the raid, Mr. Kazi, a city accountant who was born in Pakistan and is now an American citizen, told the media, "I'm still in trauma," he said. "I cannot sleep properly. I cannot eat. You are worried of the fear of the unknown. What's going to happen tomorrow?"

Years after the raid at the brothers' home and at the home of their friend the F.B.I. has charged none of the men. Nor has it provided any detail on what led to the raid, other than to say agents were acting on credible information that they had spent more than two weeks checking out.

But here are some possible reasons why FBI targeted them:

1. The FBI was influenced by the US media hype about Muslim Pakistan as the source of all terrorism, regardless of the Pakistanis' ability to access the Texan strain of anthrax used in the attacks.
2. The FBI found Cipro, an antibiotic often used in anthrax treatment, at the home of Asif Kazi. Cipro is not specific to anthrax. It is a powerful antibiotic that is used to treat many ailments.
3. The FBI agents fell victim to general Islamophobia and xenophobia in the United States which resulted in widespread abuses by the US law enforcement against people with Muslim names or of foreign birth. Post-911, many immigrants of Muslim faith were jailed or deported. A large number left voluntarily.
4. The FBI investigators were misled by Ivins's anonymous letter, included in the anthrax envelopes, that said "Death to Israel" and "Death to America" and assumed the source to be Muslim.

Former Senator Daschle, one of the targets of anthrax attacks, summed up his criticism of the FBI investigation by saying, "From the very beginning I've had real concerns about the quality of the investigation." Daschle further said in a broadcast interview, "Given the fact that they already paid somebody else $5 million for the mistakes they must have made gives you some indication of the overall caliber and quality of the investigation."

While the FBI has apologized and handsomely compensated Dr. Hatfill, there has not even been so much as an apology offered to the Pakistani-American victims of the FBI indiscretion. It is understandable that the FBI may have made mistakes in its zeal to investigate Pakistanis under severe pressure, but it is hard to accept why they have treated Pakistani-American targets differently in its aftermath. The FBI needs to make amends by treating their Pakistani-American targets the same way as they treated Dr. Hatfill.


Riaz Haq said...

Here's a Guardian report suggesting that the Pakistani-American who trained 7/7 London bombers was an FBI informer:

An American jihadist who set up the terrorist training camp where the leader of the 2005 London suicide bombers learned how to manufacture explosives, has been quietly released after serving only four and a half years of a possible 70-year sentence, a Guardian investigation has learned.

The unreported sentencing of Mohammed Junaid Babar to "time served" because of what a New York judge described as "exceptional co-operation" that began even before his arrest has raised questions over whether Babar was a US informer at the time he was helping to train the ringleader of the 7 July tube and bus bombings.

Lawyers representing the families of victims and survivors of the attacks have compared the lenient treatment of Babar to the controversial release of the Lockerbie bomber, Abdelbaset al-Megrahi.

Babar was imprisoned in 2004 – although final sentencing was deferred – after pleading guilty in a New York court to five counts of terrorism. He set up the training camp in Pakistan where Mohammad Sidique Khan and several other British terrorists learned about bomb-making and how to use combat weapons.

Babar admitted to being a dangerous terrorist who consorted with some of the highest-ranking members of al-Qaida, providing senior members with money and equipment, running weapons, and planning two attempts to assassinate the former president of Pakistan, General Pervez Musharraf.

But in a deal with prosecutors for the US attorney's office, Babar agreed to plead guilty and become a government supergrass in return for a drastically reduced sentence.

The Guardian has obtained a court document which shows that on 10 December last year – six years after his initial arrest and subsequent guilty plea – he was sentenced to "time served" and charged $500 (£310) by the court in a "special assessment" fee. The document also reveals that Babar had by then spent just over four years in some form of prison and more than two years free on bail.

Freed from prison and no longer in the witness protection scheme, it is not known where Babar is currently living. Visiting Babar's childhood home in the Jamaica area of Queens, New York, the Guardian was told that Babar's mother was on holiday in Pakistan. The woman who answered the door and identified herself as Babar's cousin did not know where Babar was living and refused to comment further.

Riaz Haq said...

In a Newsweek interview, Japanese-American historian Francis Fukuyama warns that "the entire internment episode was a grave injustice. Any person of Japanese-American ancestry watching today’s Islamophobia has to be very sensitive."

Riaz Haq said...

The Associated Press is reporting that an package containing Anthrax spores was sent to Pakistani Prime Minister's residence in Islamabad:

ISLAMABAD — A university professor allegedly sent a packet containing anthrax to the Pakistani prime minister’s office in October, his spokesman said Wednesday, raising new security concerns in a country battling Islamist extremists.

No one was made ill by the deadly spores in the package, which was sent by a female professor who was not otherwise identified, said Akram Shaheedi, a spokesman for Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani. He added that the motive was not clear.

Shaheedi said tests at laboratories run by Pakistan’s Council for Scientific and Industrial Research in Islamabad confirmed the substance in the package was anthrax.

Shaheedi said the package was received in October. He did not say why the case was publicized only now.

Islamabad police officer Hakim Khan said the prime minister’s office informed the force of the incident a few days ago, and a criminal case was filed on Tuesday, a formal step in a police investigation. He said no arrests had been made yet.

Al-Qaida and other Islamic militants have carried out scores of gun and bomb attacks against the Pakistani state and Western targets in recent years. But militants have not been known to send letters or packages containing toxic material.
Exposure to anthrax spores can be deadly, but preparing the bacteria in a form that can be easily delivered needs specialist knowledge and access to a laboratory.

Soon after the devastating Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States, anthrax-laced letters were sent to media and government offices, including a leading U.S. Senator. Five people were killed and 17 others were made ill. The FBI announced in 2008 that a scientist at a U.S. army research institute was responsible, and the suspect killed himself as investigators closed in.

Riaz Haq said...

Here's more from NY Times on alleged Anthrax sent to Pakistan Prime Minister's office:

The package was intercepted by the prime minister’s security staff in October, according to the spokesman, Akram Shaheedi. The Pakistan Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, a government laboratory, established that the suspicious white powder it contained was anthrax spores, he said. A criminal case was filed on Tuesday, according to an Islamabad police officer, The Associated Press reported.

Government officials gave contradictory accounts of the identity of the sender, and they offered little sense of motive. While Islamist militants have repeatedly targeted senior government officials in suicide and bomb attacks, an assassination attempt using biological weapons would be an anomaly.

Mr. Shaheedi said that law enforcement authorities had identified the sender as an associate professor at Jamshoro University in the southern province of Sindh. But he could not say whether the professor, a Ms. Zulekha, had been arrested or detained.

A senior police officer in charge of presidential security, Hakim Khan, gave a different account. He denied any knowledge of the suspect Mr. Shaheedi named, but he confirmed that a police team had been sent to Jamshoro to investigate. The packet had been sent from a small post office on the Jamshoro University campus, he said.

Mr. Khan said the case had been registered under a provision of Pakistan’s penal code that deals with the act of sending poison with the intention of causing harm.

In November 2001, suspicious letters containing anthrax spores were sent to three private businesses, including the country’s largest Urdu-language daily, Jang, in the southern port city of Karachi. No motive was ever determined.