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Who Is Syed Athar Abbas?

And what was he doing with a $100,000 "fine particulate mixer" last summer?

10:00 AM, Jul 17, 2002 • By DAVID TELL
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BACK IN APRIL, having marinated myself in a decade's worth of published microbiology research and whatnot, I wrote a longish story for the Standard expressing near total bewilderment about the FBI's investigation of last fall's anthrax terrorism. Specifically, I couldn't understand why the Bureau seemed so strongly inclined to the view that its suspect was a lone American scientist--and so little inclined to take seriously the possibility that those mail-borne murders might somehow have been connected with the hijackings of September 11.

Well, three months have gone by now, and even though solid evidence seems ever more elusive the FBI says it still prefers the domestic terrorism scenario--far and away--over any and all competitors. And while I still have (all) my doubts, I feel obliged to note that the trend of opinion in the community of outside anthrax investigation kibbitzers is running hard against me.

Barbara Hatch Rosenberg of the Federation of American Scientists, the influential conspiracy theorist whom I cuffed around sarcastically in my April piece, has grown increasingly confident--and precise and personal--in her speculations about "the" American perpetrator. Other such internet-based anthrax sleuths have gone further, fingering Rosenberg's current top suspect by name: He is a former staff scientist at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Ft. Detrick, Maryland, one Dr. Steven Hatfill. Indeed, so appealing is the idea of Hatfill's guilt, apparently, that no less an eminence than Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times has twice published columns (here and here) describing him in exhaustive detail--thinly disguised as "Mr. Z"--and wondering aloud why the FBI hasn't long since busted the guy.

Seems to me the Times's libel attorneys must be mighty relieved that Kristof has chickened out with that "Mr. Z" business. Seems to me the case against Hatfill is based entirely (and torturously) on the circumstantial overlap of his biography with an arbitrary suspect profile. Seems to me that if the Bureau does wind up running him in--they've already searched his apartment while tipped off news crews from local Frederick, Maryland TV stations hovered overhead in helicopters--we could well have another Richard Jewell situation on our hands. Seems to me that the anthrax conspiracy junkies are excited by Hatfill for the same perfectly understandable but not especially persuasive reason that they are unexcited by any number of other possible culprits: Human nature makes us want to bend and improve reality the better to fit our preconceptions.

Me, though, I like to think I don't have any preconceptions about the anthrax case. Could be the bad guy was an American, I figure. On the other hand, could be someone from, say . . . Pakistan.

Speaking of which--and trusting that the discussion will not spoil my status as a down-the-line anthrax-case agnostic--let me here introduce you to a Pakistani gentleman named Syed Athar Abbas.

The Newark, New Jersey office of local U.S. Attorney Christopher J. Christie has kindly provided me a fax copy of the April 23, 2002 plea agreement--signed by Mr. Abbas on June 10--according to which said Pakistani gentleman now waives his right to prosecution by indictment and agrees, instead, to acknowledge guilt in connection with a one-count felony "information" alleging his participation in an elaborate check-kiting scheme. Abbas, it appears, "from on or about June 7, 2001, through on or about July 10, 2001," defrauded two banks, a Wells Fargo branch in Woodland Hills, California and a Fleet Bank branch in Fort Lee, New Jersey, of slightly more than $100,000--by manipulating three checking accounts he'd opened for a bogus Fort Lee business alternately known as "Dot Com Computer" and "Cards.Com."