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Anthrax Mailed to Pakistan’s Prime Minister: Linked to US 2001?

Posted on by Laurie Garrett

Ten years after anthrax spores were mailed to political and media leaders in the United States, somebody reportedly sent similarly lethal missives to Pakistan’s Prime Minister. Though the episode has garnered little attention in the U.S. it was big news in Pakistan, and may have implications for Americans.

Before going further, we should in fairness note that top Pakistan-watchers in the U.S. intelligence and think tank communities warn that wild conspiracy allegations are common features of both Pakistani media and political affairs. It is possible, they warn, that none of this is true. It is also possible that the reason all news coverage of this incident suddenly came to a full stop in Pakistan a couple of weeks ago is because there is, indeed, a great deal of truth to this tale and powerful individuals in the country have a stake in hushing it up. Given the near-impossibility of sifting fact and fiction in Islamabad these days I would probably have shrugged this off myself, had I not written a book about anthrax and 9/11.

Here is the tale.

A letter laced with anthrax spores, apparently mimicking those sent to American targets in 2001, was delivered to the office of Prime Minster Yousaf Raza Gilani on October 18, 2011. The episode was announced to Pakistani media in February  after scientists at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research on February 2 confirmed that the spores were Bacillus anthracis. Why six months elapsed before police and Gilani publicly acknowledged the event is merely one of a long list of mysteries and plot twists. An official police report was not filed in Islamabad until January 31, 2012. The case came to widespread Pakistani media attention on February 3 when a formal notice of investigation was filed in Islamabad court.

In 2001, amid the anthrax nightmare in the U.S., Pakistani police arrested two men in November, charging them with mailing anthrax to The Daily Jang¸ the country’s biggest newspaper. Two separate anthrax-laden mailings were delivered to the newspaper. Officials have said nothing regarding possible links between the old newspaper case and the latest allegedly-attempted poisoning of the Prime Minster.

In January 2012, Gilani’s press secretary told reporters that the culprit behind the mailing was a female professor from Jamshoro University in Islamabad. Or the mysterious professor may have been at Sindh University (Police officials say the envelope bore the stamp of Sindh University Campus Colony, Jamshoro, Pakistan). The professor may be mentally ill, government spokesmen said, and have easily stolen anthrax from a university lab, mailing the spores to Gilani without homicidal intent. The Prime Minister never touched the envelope and nobody in his office was exposed, as the mailing trigged an anthrax scanning device. It managed to bypass other screening steps before the Prime Minister’s office, including a postal office run by state intelligence services.

The intent behind this mailing is cloudy. The culprit inserted spores inside a sealed plastic bag, which did not leak or spill. The assailant in 2001 in the U.S. did not do so: those spores were placed loosely inside paper envelopes, from which they escaped to contaminate the American postal system.

By early February the official police story changed completely. There was no mysterious female Sindh University professor involved, the university stamps were not on the envelope, and the investigation had no clues. “The probe into tracing the culprits behind the parcel has apparently reached a dead end but still efforts are under way to avoid recurrence of such incidents in [the] future," a police official told reporters on February 5. "There is no concrete evidence to link the parcel with the professor."

Two weeks later  the investigation, as well as the anthrax samples and envelope, were apparently trapped in jurisdictional disputes between the police and Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) – a fight akin to NYPD and FBI declining to share information and evidence. After a week of media buzz regarding the jurisdictional squabbles and whereabouts of the evidence the entire story died, and no further news on the matter has issued from Islamabad.

Pakistan’s leadership has for many months been locked in crises of coups and scandal amid “Memogate.” A memo was allegedly written by Pakistan’s Ambassador to Washington and businessman Mansoor Ijaz, and sent to Admiral Mike Mullen, requesting American military support to protect President Asif Ali Zardari. The memo, which appeared in Foreign Policy in November, named top leaders of the Pakistani military that are tied to al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and harbored Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad. It requested U.S. military help to prevent a coup, as Pakistan’s military reacted to the assassination of bin Laden and subsequent allegations of their collaboration with al-Qaeda.

The culprit anthrax mailing arrived at the Prime Minister’s office one week after the “Memogate” document was leaked to U.S. and Pakistani media.

In the three weeks after the anthrax letter was allegedly found, Pakistan’s President Zardari fled to Dubai, supposedly for medical care; Pakistan’s Ambassador to the U.S. was forced to resign; the country’s High Court opened an investigation into Memogate, which is ongoing; and Gilani reportedly ordered a cover-up on the anthrax mailing, telling police the incident was too volatile to disclose in the Memogate environment.

Currently, it is not clear where the anthrax/letter evidence is located. It may not even exist. Federal investigators claim to have left the materials in the hands of police, while police officials insist the FIA seized all evidence.

President Zardari’s spokesperson through all of this was a stand-in for his official media advisor,  Farahnaz Ispahani, who fled Pakistan in mid-January claiming she was at risk of assassination. Ispahani is married toHusain Haqqani, the former Ambassador to the U.S. who was accused of collaborating in the Memogate incident. Haqqani was under house arrest in Pakistan, facing charges of treason in the high court investigation of the memo. He denies all claims of involvement in the memo incident. After fleeing the country Ispahani told reporters, “What we’re seeing is the systematic killing or silencing of anyone who stands up to the institutionalisation of a militarised Islamist state, who advocates positive relations with the West or stands up for tolerance. I’m scared, even the government can’t even protect itself.”

Mysteriously, Haqqani recently turned up in London, having been released from his house arrest. According to his lawyer the former Ambassador is either currently in the U.S. or UK.

In a few days Prime Minister Gilani will meet with President Barak Obama at the nuclear summit in Seoul. Though North Korea and Iran top the list of nuclear concerns at the moment, Pakistan, according to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, is undergoing the most rapid build-up of nuclear weapons in the world, and now has more than 150 warheads. Relations between Pakistan and the U.S. have been icy since the Osama bin Laden killing, the November NATO airstrike that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers, and the entire Memogate unfolded. On March 20 the Pakistani Parliament called for a complete review of relations between the country and the U.S. in response to American use of drone attacks inside Pakistani territory, which have killed 38 people in recent months.

In the lead-up to this March 27 summit tensions inside Pakistan have further worsened, in what amounts to a 3-way battle between the Judiciary (which is executing legal actions against Zardari on corruption charges, and separately in the Memogate fiasco against key Zardari allies), the Inter-Services Intelligence (or ISI, which is Pakistan’s secret police and top national security establishment) and Zardari’s supporters. Zardari opponents are leading Parliamentary attacks. And, in a routine change-of-command, a new leadership has coincidentally  taken over the ISI and Pakistani Air Force.

Amid this chaos it seems unlikely we will hear more about the alleged Bacillus anthracis mailing. Did it occur? If so, where is the deadly envelope full of spores? Has anybody determined the strain of anthrax inside that envelope?

If any of this anthrax saga is true, I would like to know if the spores are Ames strain Bacillus anthracis. According to evidence provided by the FBI to the U.S. National Academy of Sciences in late 2010 Ames strain anthrax was found in a laboratory located in Tora Bora, Afghanistan,  in a set of caves in which Osama bin Laden hid after the 9/11 attacks. Raided by U.S. Special Forces in late 2001, the laboratory was swabbed twice for spores, testing positive for the Ames strain on both occasions (though negative years later when swabbed by the FBI). As discussed in my book, I Heard the Sirens Scream, the Ames strain was deployed in Amerithrax, and is not native to the Indian subcontinent. If Pakistan’s Prime Minister Gilani was targeted with Ames strain anthrax, links between the 2001 mailings in the U.S. and Pakistan, protection of al-Qaeda’s leadership inside Pakistan, Memogate, and the unfolding drama surrounding possession of anthrax evidence may become apparent.

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