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Last Updated

19 Nov 2002

Source: Baltimore Sun, March 24, 2002

Hijacker's lesion deepens mystery

U.S. official cautions against linking anthrax and Sept. 11 attacks

By Scott Shane, Sun Staff

A top federal bioterrorism official said yesterday that he found "awfully suspicious" the fact that a Sept. 11 hijacker sought treatment for a lesion resembling cutaneous anthrax.

Dr. Donald A. Henderson, commenting on a report in The New York Times yesterday, cautioned that there isn't necessarily a connection between the hijackers and the anthrax-laced letters that killed five people last fall.

He said there's no way of proving that hijacker Ahmed Alhaznawi was suffering from anthrax in June when he visited an emergency room in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., because no culture was taken.

But Henderson, director of the office of public health preparedness at the Department of Health and Human Services, noted other evidence that the hijackers might have been preparing for a biological or chemical attack. Another hijacker, Mohamed Atta, explored the availability of crop-dusting aircraft and visited a Florida pharmacy seeking help for his red, irritated hands, conceivably caused by use of disinfectants.

Still, most or all of the anthrax-laced letters were mailed from New Jersey on Sept. 18 and Oct. 9, after the hijackers were dead. And there are other reasons to believe the attacker was an American, he said.

"The letters and their targets don't fit very well with politically unsophisticated foreigners," said Henderson. "Are these just weird coincidences? They could be."

The revelation that Alhaznawi was seen for an anthrax-like lesion only deepens the mystery around the anthrax attacks, which remain unsolved after nearly six months of investigation by hundreds of FBI agents and U.S. postal inspectors. The Times reported Alhaznawi's treatment yesterday, as well as the fact that U.S. officials had discovered an uncompleted laboratory in Afghanistan believed to be an al-Qaida biological agent production facility.

The lab, near Kandahar, was abandoned while under construction. But the Times reported that U.S. military officials concluded that the building had been designed to produce anthrax.

There is extensive evidence that the al-Qaida terrorist network has sought biological weapons. Gen. Tommy Franks, head of the U.S. Central Command, reiterated that yesterday.

At the lab near Kandahar, "there was evidence of the attempt, by [Osama] bin Laden, to get his hands on weapons of mass destruction, anthrax, or a variety of others," Franks said in an NBC interview taped yesterday for broadcast today on Meet the Press. The network provided an excerpt to the Associated Press.

But neither at the newly discovered laboratory nor anywhere else has proof been found that the group obtained such weapons.

FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III told Congress this month that despite reports the bureau has focused on U.S. military labs in its anthrax investigation, "we have not excluded any possibility at this point," and agents have also been "looking overseas."

Still, in a statement issued in response to the report of Alhaznawi's treatment in Florida, the FBI seemed skeptical about a connection between the hijackers and the anthrax attacks.

"This was fully investigated and widely vetted among multiple agencies several months ago," the statement said. "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."

In recent weeks, FBI agents have repeatedly visited the Army's biodefense center at Fort Detrick in Frederick, one of more than 20 laboratories in the United States and several foreign countries that have the Ames strain of anthrax used in the mail attacks. The agents have given polygraph exams to employees with access to anthrax and have studied records of the bacteria, said workers at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases.

The institute is preparing a room to receive samples of Ames anthrax subpoenaed last month from labs around the country. But the room is not yet fully equipped to receive the samples, so the labs have been given extensions to comply with the subpoenas, institute spokeswoman Caree Vander Linden said last week.

Henderson, who said the FBI does not share investigative information with him, said he was puzzled that the bureau has taken so long to collect the samples, which are to be compared scientifically with the mailed anthrax.

"You'd think they would have done that in the first couple of weeks," Henderson said. "It's given anyone a chance to get rid of any evidence that may have existed."

An FBI spokesman declined to comment yesterday on the pace of the investigation, referring a reporter to previous statements discussing the need to collect evidence carefully so that it could stand up in court.

According to the Times account and other sources, Ahaznawi, a 20-year-old believed to be a Saudi national, came to Holy Cross Hospital to seek treatment for a lesion on his leg, described as nearly an inch wide, blackish, with raised red edges. He was accompanied by a man authorities believe to be Ziad Jarrahi, who died with Alhaznawi when United Airlines Flight 93 crashed in Pennsylvania.

Dr. Christos Tsonas cleaned the wound, prescribed the antibiotic Keflex and thought nothing more of it until October, when the FBI had him review notes of his treatment of Alhaznawi. "I said, 'Oh, my God, my written description is consistent with cutaneous anthrax.' I was surprised," Tsonas told the Times.

The incident was reviewed more recently by the Johns Hopkins Center for Civilian Biodefense Strategies in Baltimore. Dr. Thomas Inglesby and Dr. Tara O'Toole, who replaced Henderson as the center's director last fall, wrote a brief report for government officials that concluded anthrax was "the most probable and coherent interpretation of the data available."

Henderson said a lesion of the sort described is relatively rare. "The probability of someone this age having such an ulcer, if he's not an addict and doesn't have diabetes or something like that, is very low. ... It certainly makes one awfully suspicious," he said.

In another incident that raised suspicions, hijackers Atta and Marwan al-Shehhi visited a pharmacy in Delray Beach, Fla., last summer seeking medication for Atta's irritated hands.

Pharmacist Gregg Chatterton said yesterday that the two men entered the store and stood in an aisle so long that he became suspicious they might be robbers and approached them. The man later identified as Atta spoke, saying, "My hands - my hands burn, they are itching," Chatterton recalled.

Chatterton asked Atta whether he worked with concrete or harsh cleansers or did gardening, but Atta's answers seemed arrogant and evasive. Chatterton suggested a cream, Acid Mantle, which Atta bought, along with a cough medication for al-Shehhi.

Two other hijackers also frequented the pharmacy while living in Florida, said Chatterton, who recognized their faces when the FBI made the hijackers' photographs public.

The pharmacy is not far from the tabloid newspaper publishing company in Boca Raton where the first anthrax victims worked, and some hijackers had rented an apartment from the wife of an editor at The Sun, one of American Media Inc.'s publications.

Investigators decided the landlord link was probably just a coincidence. No anthrax-laced letter was recovered from American Media, but the FBI concluded such a letter was mailed to one of the company's tabloids, just as similar letters were mailed to other media outlets and two U.S. senators.