The terrorist attacks are over...

Can I be serious? With the government warning that new attacks are imminent, with the vulnerability of the US exposed for all the world to see, how can I be so optimistic? Well, maybe I am being unrealistic. But let me outline a scenario that strikes me as being closer to reality than anything you are hearing on the news, or from the government.

Soon after Sept. 11, the US government said that it had "credible evidence" that a second wave of terrorist attacks was imminent. Most people have been waiting for it ever since. It appears to me that the second wave has already occurred: the anthrax letters. But -- people argue -- that could not have been it. Only three people have died (so far, as of Oct 26). That was tragic, but nothing like the 5000 killed on September 11. So the next attack must still be coming.

I will argue that the anthrax letters represent a terrorist attack that basically failed. Yes, it killed three people. Yes, a couple of dozen more are infected, and expected to recover. Yes, it has caused a great deal of anxiety and worry. But I think the terrorists had every reason to expect that the attack would kill thousands, not just a few, and that the people killed would be among the most prominent and famous, and maybe even the most important people in the United States. If you had told them that they would kill a photo editor from the National Enquirer, and several postal workers, they would have looked for a different attack.

I've been looking over the literature on the dangers of anthrax, the literature that was published prior to September 11. Everything I have found makes it look as if an anthrax attack was simple, foolproof, and devastating. For example, in December 1993, the Office of Technology Assessment published a report titled "Technologies Underlying Weapons of Mass Destruction." The entire report is still available on the web; here is the section (in pdf format) on Anthrax. If you read it, you'll see what the terrorists saw: that an anthrax attack looks easy, and devastating.

So here is my scenario. Shortly after the airplane attacks, the terrorists saw that the international police cooperation was occurring much faster than they had expected. Many of their people were being arrested. They decided to launch their second wave immediately. It was designed to be so widespread and devastating that it would completely intimidate the world, and result in great pressure being brought on the US not to attack Afghanistan. Letters to Tom Brokaw and the New York Post were postmarked September 18. On September 21, a petrochemical plant in Toulouse France suffered an explosion that killed 29 people, injured several thousand, and destroyed numerous buildings. A warehouse that contained 300 tons of ammonium nitrate fertilizer is now a 150-foot-wide crater, surrounded by debris. A tie to the U.S. attacks is suspected, but the evidence is all circumstantial. See the New York Times account. Other attacks were planned (e.g. an attack on the US embassy in Paris) but failed because of rapid police action.

But the main assault was going to be anthrax. The lethal dose of anthrax is about one billionth of a gram! One gram could kill a billion people. How devastating would be a single gram placed in an envelope? Everyone in the building would die -- or at least that is what they probably expected. Maybe even the entire area would be contaminated. The first mailings appear to have been directed at newspapers and TV news personalities.

To the surprise of the terrorists, the whole attack was almost unnoticed. In fact, it probably would have been completely missed if an alert doctor hadn't become suspicious of the death in Florida, and decide to investigate further. (The first diagnosis was not anthrax. That is too rare a disease for most doctors to be familiar with.) A suspicious letters arrived at NBC news, and so the police were called in. It turned out to be anthrax, but nobody was harmed. Slowly, a few people exposed (initially, to the Florida letter) got skin anthrax, which is easily treated.

What had failed? Where were the thousands of dead bodies? The terrorists (who now feared for their lives, since the police roundup had begun) knew something was wrong. They guessed that they have overestimated the potency of the anthrax. The US bombing of Afghanistan began on October 7. Bin Laden released his famous tape of warning on Oct 8. The terrorists decided to send out a second set of mailings, and this time to their ultimate targets: the political leaders of the United States. They would not hold back -- they send the undiluted anthrax, all that they had, because that was the best (worse?) that they could do. On October 9 they mailed (along with others) a letter to Tom Daschle with undiluted anthrax. The letter arrived in Daschle's office on Oct 12, and was opened on Oct 15, after passing through the Brentwood Post Office. Other letters were sent to President Bush, to the CIA headquarters, and elsewhere. By Monday, October 22, two postal workers at Brentwood died, and others became ill.

This all sounds pretty bad. So how can I be optimistic? I'm guessing that the terrorists used all their remaining anthrax when the first set of letters produced only one death. I'm guessing that they were desperate, since the police sweep had destroyed many of their cells (particularly abroad) and made further operations very dangerous. The letters to Daschle said, "We have this anthrax. You die now. Are you afraid?" Obviously they overestimated the potency of the letter.

Will more people die? That is possible, particularly if they were exposed and don't know it. We may also discover additional people who died from anthrax in the last few weeks, but were misdiagnosed. We will probably find anthrax spores at other sites. But I am not worried about a new wave of anthrax attacks in the near future that will kill large numbers of people.

A whole new wave of bioterrorism is possible, even likely, in the long run. It is only the short-run danger that has passed. What is the solution for the long run? We could sterilize our mail, or resort to email. But the real answer is international police work, with no sanctuaries allowed.