September 18, 2001: Anthrax attacks in the US

A week after 9/11 a series of letters laced with anthrax were sent to US senators and news outlets, killing 5 and wounding 17: the case was never 100% solved.

Terrorist attacks using biological agents are rare: thank God for that!

UNITED STATES — I would imagine that the days following the 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington are a blur for most people. We all sat there staring at our screens on that Tuesday morning, refusing to believe what we had just witnessed. The next week was a constant stream of analysis and speculation about what happened, who did it and what would happen next.

For those of us in security intelligence that time was more so a blur as we worked around the clock trying to see what we knew and what we didn’t. More importantly, we wanted to make sure that another attack, hopefully not of the scale of the one we had just seen, was in the offing.

We did not have to wait long.

On this day in 2001

Beginning on September 18 of 2001 a number of letters containing high-grade anthrax, a bacterium common in livestock but deadly for humans, were sent to several US senators and news organisations. Over the next few weeks five people died and 17 were injured.

Anthrax makes a good weapon because it can be released quietly and without anyone knowing. The microscopic spores could be put into powders, sprays, food, and water. Because they are so small, you may not be able to see, smell, or taste them.

US Center for Disease Control (CDC)

A series of false leads – one accused,  a scientist who worked in the government’s biodefense labs at Fort Detrick, Md., received a US$5.9 payout for defamation. Bruce Edward Ivins, another government scientist suspected in the anthrax attacks, commited suicide in July 2008. The FBI told a Senate committee that “Evidence developed from [the] investigation established that Dr. Ivins, alone, mailed the anthrax letters.”

Some disagreed, saying that the evidence was not that strong and that the real culprit may not have been found. It is thus, in a way, an unresolved case. Thankfully we have not had a repeat. Bioterrorism may make for riveting Hollywood movies but it has yet to transform into a common event.


By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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