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Tuesday, 30 October, 2001, 13:09 GMT
Q&A: The anthrax mystery

Following anthrax attacks that have killed three people in the United States, BBC News Online examines where the anthrax-carrying powder may have come from and who might be behind the plot.

Where has the anthrax used in the US attacks come from?

The US authorities are treating their investigation into the outbreak as a criminal case. They say there are hints - but no hard evidence - about the origin of the strain.

Washington has been working under the "operating suspicion" that the outbreak of anthrax contaminations are linked to the 11 September terrorist attacks, though no specific evidence for this has been given.

Previously President George Bush has pointed the finger at Osama Bin Laden and al-Qaeda, but he also gave no specific evidence.

"There are a lot of theories out there. We just need some facts to turn a theory into reality," Tom Ridge, the Homeland Security Director, said recently.

What do we know about the anthrax from chemical analysis?

Scientists in the US have been carrying out tests on the anthrax samples from the attacks in the hope of determining who produced them, and whether they are the result of a state sponsored weapons programme or some smaller type of operation.

Tests carried out by the US Army's Medical Research and Materiel Command Center on the anthrax spores sent to the office of Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle and the New York Post show that the spores were not mixed with Bentonite.

This is a mineral compound used to prevent the spores clumping together into larger particles. The larger the particle, the less likely it is to penetrate deep into a victim's lungs, where it can cause a more severe form of the infection.

Coating an anthrax spore with Bentonite is a technique associated with the Iraqi biological weapons programme.

Studies on the anthrax samples used in the attacks do suggest the presence of silica.

This "recipe" for the preparation of anthrax as a weapon - using silica to perform a similar function as Bentonite - is a technique associated with US experiments in the 1960s with anthrax as a weapon.

What does this tell us about the source of the anthrax?

These findings suggest that US-based terrorists are behind the attacks, rather than extremists from abroad or a foreign government.

This is by no means conclusive. Though the evidence seems to suggest attackers based in the US, it tells us nothing about the identity or motives of the attackers. The recent findings do not discount the possibility of a connection between the 11 September attacks and anthrax findings.

Foreign states are still under suspicion. More than 30 countries around the world are known or are believed to stock anthrax cultures for research facilities.

Some suspicion has fallen on Iraq, which is known to have bought anthrax spores from the US in the 1980s, and is thought to have developed the capability to use them in warheads and in aerial attacks.

The Soviet Union had a state-run biological weapons programme. Some of the stocks and expertise from this could have fallen into the hands of other states or organisations.

What route have the US anthrax samples taken?

The FBI has linked two letters carrying anthrax - one sent to Tom Daschle and one sent to NBC news. The handwriting on each envelope was the same and both contained the messages "Death to America" and "Allah is great".

Both the NBC and the Daschle letters were sent from Trenton, New Jersey.

The two of the three victims on the anthrax campaign were postal workers employed at the Brentwood post office in Washington DC that sorted mail for the US Congress and handled the letter containing anthrax which was sent to Mr Daschle.

Anthrax has been found at an office which handles post for the White House. No connection with the other cases has been established yet.

The Florida case, which killed a man working for the Boca Raton Sun, has not been connected to the other attacks.

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