Jewish World Review March 4, 2003 / 30 Adar I, 5763
Bioterror nightmare approaching --- how it could likely happen
People began appearing at Oklahoma City hospitals complaining of fever and
weakness, and exhibiting a nasty rash. Within days, the rash blossomed into
pus-filled bumps. Patients with identical symptoms started showing up at
hospitals in Philadelphia and in Atlanta.
Nearly a week went by before the Center for Disease Control could identify
the mysterious illness. It was smallpox. By the time the diagnosis was made,
there were hundreds of cases. Within a month, thousands. The month after
that, tens of thousands.
Smallpox causes unspeakable misery. Layers of skin separate as fluid fills
the spaces between them. Pustules line the nose, mouth and throat, making
swallowing painful. About 30 percent of all who get smallpox die, typically
within 10 to 16 days. Most survivors suffer disfiguring scars. Many are
The nightmare described above hasn't happened yet. It was the scenario for
Dark Winter, a bioterrorist exercise played at Andrews Air Force Base two
months before Sept. 11, 2001. Ironically, the game players hypothesized that
the smallpox had been spread by three two-man teams of al-Qaida terrorists,
who had released it in the form of an aerosol spray in shopping malls in
Oklahoma City, Atlanta and Philadelphia.
Dark Winter ended in catastrophe. There are no cures for smallpox save
vaccination and isolation. Because the disease had been declared eradicated
in 1977, few Americans had been vaccinated. By the time it was diagnosed, it
was too late for isolation.
Though smallpox no longer existed in nature, it lived on in weapons labs in
several countries. When Ken Alibek was the second in command of Biopreparat,
the Soviet Union's biological weapons program, the Soviets manufactured at
least 20 tons of smallpox pathogen.
That likely was overkill. Because smallpox is so contagious - smallpox can
transfer to anyone standing within six feet of an infected person - not much
is required to create a pandemic. Bill Patrick, who worked on biological
weapons programs at the U.S. Army lab at Fort Detrick, Maryland, said a gram
of powdered smallpox - a quarter of a teaspoon - would be enough to infect
The Soviet Union is no more, and Russia, officially, is out of the
bioweapons business. But some of the stock of Soviet biological and chemical
weapons remains unaccounted for, and the whereabouts of many of the
scientists who worked on these programs is unknown. In the 1990s, Iranian
officials were offering former Biopreparat biologists and engineers as much
as $5,000 a month to come to work for them. Former Soviet allies Iraq and
North Korea, and France are the other nations thought to have weaponized
Al Qaida has made extensive efforts to get its hands on biological, chemical
and nuclear weapons. On March 22, 2002, U.S. forces in Afghanistan found
near Kandahar an al Qaida lab under construction that, they said, would have
been used to produce anthrax.
Al Qaida may already have experience using anthrax against Americans. Three
months before the Sept. 11 attacks, Ahmed al-Haznawi, who was one of the
hijackers of United Air Lines Flight 93, came into the emergency room at
Holy Cross hospital in Fort Lauderdale for treatment of a black lesion on
his leg. Dr. Christos Tsonas, the emergency room physician who treated him,
later told the FBI that the lesion probably was cutaneous anthrax.
The FBI is still focusing on former U.S. Army bioweapons researcher Steven
Hatfill as its primary "person of interest" in the case of the anthrax-laden
letters that were mailed to two news organizations and two U.S. senators in
the fall of 2001. But former Israeli intelligence officer Danny Shoham
thinks al Qaida terrorists, using anthrax supplied by Iraq, are the more
"Installations, not just a one or two room laboratory, are needed to produce
the kind of anthrax powder that was used in these cases," said Shoham, now a
senior researcher at Bar Ilan university. "The resources needed...point to a
state that sponsors terrorism."
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© 2002, Jack Kelly