Does Al Qaeda Have Anthrax? Better Assume So

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The outlook. So what to assume? Bryen notes that dropping anthrax in the mail was a very primitive way to distribute it. "It's not how regimes think about dispersing a biological or chemical weapon," he said. "Which should say that the guy distributing it was a total amateur." That, in turn, argues for what Bryen calls the "sample" theory. "The sample theory being that somebody gave these guys a small amount. It has all the characteristics that it was given to people who didn't have any idea how to use it."

Or maybe, on the other hand, not. Paul Ewald, a biologist at Amherst College and the author of Plague Time: The New Germ Theory of Disease, suggests that inefficient distribution might have been exactly the point. "If this attack was caused by the Al Qaeda group -- and I think that's the best explanation, given the evidence available -- this small release would be most useful as a demonstration that they have anthrax on U.S. soil."

If the terrorists are dumb, Ewald says, they made or obtained a few grams of anthrax and mailed off their whole supply. "We'd be wiser if we planned for the smart-terrorist possibility," he says. Smart terrorists would have made or obtained larger quantities of the stuff and stashed it, probably (if they're smart) before setting off alarms by sending out a few grams. Later, with the potency of their weapon proved, they could mount, or threaten to mount, a much larger attack.

Ewald argues for a policy that assumes this is what's going on and that urgently enlists the public's eyes and ears and memories. "We should be alerting people to let authorities know of any suspicious activity they may have seen that would relate to people hiding canisters or objects or doing something that didn't look right," Ewald says. The question is not whether Ewald is right, but whether we want to bet he is wrong.

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