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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

What is Known about Iraq’s Biological Weapons Program — Could it be the Source of America’s Anthrax Attack?

Filed under: Iraq, Israeli Security
Publication: Jerusalem Issue Briefs

Vol. 1, No. 8    October 29, 2001

White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer stated on October 26 that the anthrax sent to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle was not necessarily manufactured by a foreign government. Yet, Fleischer did not rule out foreign involvement either. One Middle Eastern state with vast proven experience in biological warfare is Iraq, which actually tested biological agents on Iranian prisoners in the 1980s. Moreover, Iraq’s biological weapons program was scrutinized by the UN Special Commission on Iraq (UNSCOM) from 1991 through 1998. Only a handful of states possess sophisticated biological weapons capabilities.

The Iraqi biological weapons program was the most secretive of all Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction efforts. Indeed, Iraq only acknowledged this capability in August 1995 after the defection of Lt. General Hussein Kamel to Jordan. UNSCOM’s former Executive Chairman, Richard Butler, recently noted in the New York Times (October 18, 2001) that biological weapons were closest to Saddam Hussein’s heart “because it was in this area that his resistance to our work reached its height.” Nonetheless, UN inspectors were able to discern significant details about Iraq’s biological efforts. Below are some of the relevant findings from UNSCOM’s reports to the UN Security Council (and from other documentation) for ascertaining the source of the current anthrax attacks in the U.S.


The Iraq Biological Weapons Program — Relevant Facts:

  1. Iraq’s Anthrax Surplus: Iraq developed several biological weapons agents, according to UN documents: anthrax, aflatoxin (causes liver cancer), clostridium botulinum toxin, clostridium perfringens spores, ricin, and wheat smut (for destroying crops). In its final report to the Security Council, UNSCOM determined that Iraq had not accounted for 520 kilograms of yeast extract growth medium specifically for anthrax. This amount of growth medium is sufficient for the production of 26,000 liters of anthrax spores — more than three times the amount that Iraq declared before the UN. Iraq’s planned storage capacity for all its biological agents reached 80,000 to 100,000 liters.

  2. Weaponized Anthrax in Iraq: Anthrax spores were not developed for laboratory use alone, but were actually weaponized on a large scale by Iraq. UNSCOM inspectors found traces of anthrax spores in seven warheads from long-range al-Hussein missiles, with a range of 640 kilometers and thus capable of reaching Israel. Around 200 biological aerial bombs were additionally produced. However, according to the UN, Iraq’s most effective biological weapons platform was a helicopter-borne aerosol generator that worked like an insecticide disseminator (perhaps this was intended for domestic use or against Iranian troops close to the Iraqi border). The disseminator was successfully field tested. Dispersal research for biological weapons was conducted by the Salman Pak Technical Research Center. Iraq engaged in genetic engineering research in order to produce antibiotic resistant strains of anthrax spores. The success of this research is unknown.

  3. Iraq Possessed Drying Technologies for Biological Weapons: The Iraqis began working with drying technologies as early as 1974 in order to extend the shelf-life of these biological weapons. Iraq actually conducted drying studies for anthrax in 1989-90. Nonetheless, Iraq formally denied having a drying capability in documents it submitted to the UN Security Council dated February 1999. According to Baghdad’s National Monitoring Directorate, Iraq was blocked from importing a special spray dryer for anthrax from a Danish company, Niro Atomizer. Claiming that its biological weapons were kept only in a wet slurry form, and thereby possessed a limited shelf-life, Iraq argued that any remaining biological materials were no longer toxic, as it sought the lifting of UN sanctions. Butler wrote that Iraq was trying to refine its crude anthrax “to the more potent, longer-living form of dry, small particles,” but UNSCOM was not able to ascertain what level of proficiency had been achieved. Butler’s former weapons inspectors told ABC News on October 26 that Iraq had used bentonite as an additive to keep anthrax particles small.


Assessing the Iraqi Connection to the U.S. Anthrax Attacks

  • Prior to 1995, when Iraq first admitted that it possessed an active biological weapons program, it is highly unlikely that Baghdad would have shared any details of its highly-secretive program with any external terrorist group. From 1995 through 1998, when UNSCOM was still monitoring Iraq, any information leaks about its clandestine biological program would have endangered Baghdad’s hopes of removing UN sanctions.

  • After 1998, with UN inspectors removed, Iraqi cooperation with international terrorist groups in the biological field cannot be ruled out. Salman Pak, outside of Baghdad, has been a notorious training ground for terrorists for years. Iraqi defectors have reported that “Islamicists” trained on a Boeing 707 in Salman Pak during 2000 (William Safire, New York Times, October 22, 2001). As noted, Salman Pak had also been one of the main Iraqi biological weapons centers, as well. Thus, equipping international terrorists with biological agents and training them could be accomplished in one location.

  • Iraq could have supplied weapons-grade anthrax powder to international terrorist groups. Iraq probably possesses large amounts of anthrax growth medium for continuing production. While the Soviet Union developed an antibiotic-resistant anthrax strain, Iraqi progress in the field is less certain. The anthrax used in the U.S. is responsive to antibiotic treatment. According to ABC News, the additive that Iraq characteristically put into its dried anthrax, bentonite, was found by a Maryland laboratory in the anthrax sent to Senator Daschle. Still, a White House official called this determination “an opinionated analysis.”

  • Iraq has an interest in employing international biological terrorism. Iraq presently has no means of deterring a massive American-led attack on Baghdad. Using international terrorist cells planted in the U.S., Iraq could be sending a message that it possesses the ability to retaliate against a decapitation strike against the Iraqi leadership. In this context, it is important to note that UNSCOM discovered the involvement of Iraq’s Special Security Organization in its biological weapons program. This is the military unit that personally protects Saddam Hussein.

Biological weapons are potentially as destructive as small nuclear weapons. During the period of UN weapons inspections in Iraq, Saddam Hussein demonstrated more determination to hide his biological weapons capability than all of his other non-conventional and missile programs. Biological weapons are Saddam Hussein’s weapons of choice, in the near term. But these are political weapons, useful against the enemies of the Iraqi regime: aflatoxin does not work on the battlefield but rather causes liver cancer over many years. Butler told the Jerusalem Center last year that Tariq Aziz, Iraq’s Prime Minister, admitted privately that Iraq’s biological weapons are for “the Zionist entity.”

It is premature to conclude at this point that Iraq stands behind the anthrax attacks in the United States. But the evidence from the UN weapons inspections of the 1990s makes Iraq a prime suspect. Should Iraq become an actual target of the U.S. war on terrorism at a subsequent stage, and Saddam Hussein feel his regime is threatened, adequate domestic preparations need to be made in the U.S. and Israel in the event that Iraq decides to use biological weapons as a retaliatory option. Even if U.S. officials decide that Iraq is not the source of the anthrax attack, but nonetheless Iraq is attacked for other reasons, a biological response by Iraq cannot be ruled out.