New questions are being raised about a possible connection between al Qaeda and the U.S. anthrax mailings, The New York Times says.
The newspaper reports in its Saturday editions that a Florida doctor now believes a man he treated in June had skin anthrax. That man, it turns out, was one of the Sept. 11 hijackers, the newspaper reports in its Saturday editions, prompting suspicions among investigators about a possible link between Osama bin Laden's terrorist group and the mailings.
Separately, U.S. troops are said to have found another biological weapons research lab near Kandahar, one that that was eyeing anthax.
The Times says two men identified themselves as pilots when they came to the emergency room of Holy Cross Hospital in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., last June. One had an ugly, dark lesion on his leg that he said he developed after bumping into a suitcase two months earlier. Dr. Christos Tsonas thought the injury was curious, but he cleaned it and prescribed an antibiotic for infection, according to the Times.
But after Sept. 11, when federal investigators found the medicine among the possessions of one of the hijackers, Ahmed Alhaznawi, Dr. Tsonas reviewed the case and arrived at a new diagnosis. The lesion, he said in an interview with the Times this week, "was consistent with cutaneous (skin) anthrax."
The possibility of a connection between the Sept. 11 attacks and the subsequent anthrax-laced letters has been explored by officials since the first anthrax cases emerged in October. But a recent memo, prepared by experts at the Johns Hopkins Center for Civilian Biodefense Strategies, and circulated among top government officials, has renewed a debate about the evidence, says the Times.
The group, which interviewed Dr. Tsonas, concluded that the anthrax diagnosis "raises the possibility that the hijackers were handling anthrax and were the perpetrators of the anthrax letter attacks."
A senior intelligence official, who spoke to the Times on the condition of anonymity, said, "No one is dismissing this. We received the memo and are working with the (FBI) to insure that it continues to be pursued."
In their public comments, federal officials have said they are focusing largely on the possibility that the anthrax attacks were the work of a domestic perpetrator. They have hunted for suspects among scientists and others who work at laboratories that handle germs, the Times points out.
But Assistant FBI Director John Collingwood played down the
possible anthrax connection Saturday.
"This was fully investigated and widely vetted among multiple agencies several months ago," he said in a written statement. "Exhaustive testing did not support that anthrax was present anywhere the hijackers had been. While we always welcome new information, nothing new has, in fact, developed."
Alhaznawi died on United Airlines Flight 93, which crashed in Pennsylvania. Federal officials believe the man who accompanied him to the hospital in June was another hijacker, Ziad al-Jarrah, thought to have taken over the controls of United Flight 93, the Times says.
Law enforcement officials told the Times that in addition to interviewing Dr. Tsonas in October and again in November, they thoroughly explored any connection between the hijackers and anthrax. They said the F.B.I. scoured the cars, apartments and personal effects of the hijackers for evidence of the germ, but found none.
Dr. Tsonas's comments add to what the Times calls "a tantalizing array of circumstantial evidence." Some of the hijackers, including Alhaznawi, lived and attended flight school near American Media Inc. in Boca Raton, Fla., where the first victim of the anthrax attacks worked.
Some of the hijackers also rented apartments from a real estate agent who was the wife of an editor of The Sun, a publication of American Media, the Times points out.
In addition, in October, a pharmacist in Delray Beach, Fla., said he had told the F.B.I. that two of the hijackers, Mohamad Atta and Marwan al-Shehhi, came into the pharmacy looking for something to treat irritations on Mr. Atta's hands, reports the Times.
If the hijackers did have anthrax, they would probably have needed an accomplice to mail the tainted letters, bioterrorism experts knowledgeable about the case said to the Times.
The four recovered anthrax letters were postmarked on Sept. 18 and Oct. 9 in Trenton. It is also possible, experts added, that if the hijackers had come into contact with anthrax, it was entirely separate from the supply used by the letter sender.
For his part, Dr. Tsonas told the Times he believed that the hijackers probably did have anthrax.
"What were they doing looking at crop-dusters?" he asked, echoing experts' fears that the hijackers may have wanted to spread lethal germs. "There are too many coincidences."
American troops in Afghanistan have found nothing so far to show that bin Laden's al Qaeda network had succeeded in obtaining anthrax or making germ weapons, said Gen. Tommy Franks, head of U.S. Central Command.
U.S. forces recently discovered a site near the southern Afghan city of Kandahar that appeared to be an al-Qaida biological weapons lab under construction.
At the lab, "there was evidence of the attempt, by bin Laden, to get his hands on weapons of mass destruction, anthrax, or a variety of others," Gen. Tommy Franks, head of the U.S. Central Command, said in an NBC interview taped Saturday and airing Sunday on "Meet the Press." The network provided an excerpt Saturday.
The site near Kandahar was one of 50 to 60 possible al-Qaida weapons sites in Afghanistan examined by U.S. forces, Franks and Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said Saturday.
Those searches found extensive evidence that al-Qaida wanted to develop biological weapons, but came up with no evidence the terrorist group actually had anthrax or other deadly germs, they said.
Elsewhere in Afghanistan, U.S. forces have discovered an al-Qaida site in Afghanistan that appear to be an explosives factory and a crude biological weapons research facility, officials said.
The site, discovered March 13, held explosives and equipment to make more explosives, as well as medical supplies, U.S. Central Command spokesman Cmdr. Dan Keesee said Friday. He said he did not know whether the factory, found in the embattled Shah-e-Kot valley in eastern Afghanistan, was in a cave or buildings.
No evidence of chemical or biological weapons research or production was found at the Shah-e-Kot site, Keesee said.
Marine Corps helicopter gunships also destroyed as many as a dozen ammunition caches in the area, the scene of the March 2-18 U.S. offensive named Operation Anaconda.
U.S. surveillance teams remain in the Shah-e-Kot valley area, despite the end of the operation, a Marine Corps spokesman in Afghanistan said.