FBI Denies That Hijacker Had Skin Anthrax
WASHINGTON -- FBI officials said Saturday that a report that one of the Sept. 11 terrorists may have had a case of cutaneous anthrax last summer is just one of many dead-end leads that have bedeviled investigators.
A Florida doctor who treated Ahmed Ibrahim A. Al Haznawi for a dark lesion on his leg in June now believes that wound may have been caused by exposure to anthrax, according to experts at the Johns Hopkins Center for Civilian Biodefense Strategies. The case was first reported Saturday by the New York Times.
That information persuaded the bioterrorism experts that there may be a link between the terrorists--who hijacked four planes Sept. 11, crashing two into the World Trade Center and another into the Pentagon--and the subsequent mailings of anthrax-laced letters.
After interviewing Dr. Christos Tsonas, who treated Haznawi at Holy Cross Hospital in Fort Lauderdale, the experts concluded that cutaneous anthrax was "the most probable and coherent interpretation of the data available," they wrote in a recent memorandum that has circulated among federal investigators.
But Saturday, FBI officials said they still believe the 19 hijackers never came into contact with anthrax, noting that authorities scoured their cars, apartments and personal effects for traces of the deadly bacteria and found none.
"This was fully investigated and widely vetted among multiple agencies several months ago," FBI chief spokesman John E. Collingwood said in a statement in response to the report. "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," said Collingwood, an FBI assistant director. Another FBI official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the anthrax case is ongoing, confirmed that one of the hijackers had been treated at a South Florida hospital for a "leg lesion" and that the suspected lead hijacker, Mohamed Atta, had sought treatment for skin irritation on at least one of his hands.
Those incidents, coupled with the hijackers' reported interest in gaining access to crop dusters, would appear to give some credence to the theory that the Sept. 11 attacks could be somehow linked to the anthrax mailings, the FBI official acknowledged.
But the official said FBI agents, a battery of specially trained scientists and other biochemical experts all had aggressively investigated the issue and found no connections.
"We did look into this some time ago. This was fully investigated," said the FBI official. "It's a theory, but there's no evidence. It's just not there. We just have no evidence to feed the speculation that any of those guys came into contact with anthrax."
The FBI hypothesizes that the anthrax mailings are the work of a disgruntled American male loner with some kind of scientific expertise, access to anthrax and a laboratory, and some kind of grudge against the government.
One senior Justice Department official, also speaking on the condition of anonymity, said recently that authorities are so stumped by who may have sent the envelopes that investigators fear they may be in for a "Unabomber-type investigation," in which it may take years--and a lucky break--to determine who was responsible.
FBI agents believe their most promising avenue for solving the mystery may be a scientific breakthrough that can distinguish between stocks of the virulent Ames strain of anthrax, which was used to kill five people and sicken at least 13 others last fall.
Tsonas could not be reached for comment Saturday. A spokeswoman for Holy Cross Hospital said it is cooperating with authorities but, at their request, would not discuss the matter.
Tsonas said Haznawi came to the Holy Cross emergency room with another man, believed to have been hijacker Ziad Samir Jarrah, according to the New York Times. Haznawi told Tsonas that he developed the sore after bumping into a suitcase. Tsonas cleaned the lesion and prescribed an antibiotic. He never considered that the infection was anthrax--a rarely seen disease at that point -- until he reviewed the case in October at investigators' request.
Steven M. Block, a professor of biology and applied physics at Stanford University who has advised the government on bioterrorism, cautioned against making assumptions based on the report that Haznawi may have had an anthrax lesion.
"This may or may not be related to the anthrax letters that killed Bob Stevens and four others," he said, referring to the first anthrax victim, a photo editor at American Media Inc. in Boca Raton, Fla. "There are lots of possibilities here," Block said. "One shouldn't jump to conclusions."