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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."

None of which by itself makes Abbas particularly noteworthy or ties him, even inferentially, to the anthrax letters or any other form of terrorism. True, it turns out that the FBI, pursuing some thus far undisclosed lead, originally went looking for Abbas--in the first few days after September 11--at his presumed address on the top floor of a commercial building in Fort Lee. And Fort Lee is thought to have been home at some point to Nawaq and Salem Alhamzi, both of whom helped fly American Airlines Flight 77 into the side of the Pentagon. And the FBI could not locate Abbas at first because, so says his former landlord, the man had suddenly abandoned his Fort Lee lease more than a month before--and had disappeared without a trace.

But Abbas wasn't really on the lam, reports his court-appointed lawyer; he'd merely flown home to Pakistan to care for his dying father. And in (nearly) every other respect, Abbas is indistinguishable from hundreds of other Middle Eastern immigrants swept up--in Fort Lee and other such communities--by the FBI's post-9/11 dragnet. Most have been questioned and released. A few dozen of them have been lengthily detained, pending deportation, for minor immigration violations. And a handful, like Abbas, have been subject to other criminal charges, like bank fraud, that carry no explicit whiff of terrorism. Syed Athar Abbas is not that big a deal, you would think. In fact, Syed Athar Abbas is someone you and I would otherwise never have heard of, because so far as I can tell, in the entire world of internet journalism--and legitimate journalism, too--no one has ever before so much as mentioned his name . . .

Except for a single reporter named Rocco Parascandola, who covers law enforcement and the courts for Newsday in New York. Only Rocco Parascandola--in two short dispatches for his paper, one this past December 27 and one just this week, on Monday--has noticed something interesting about Mr. Abbas. Rocco Parascandola has noticed, because his "law enforcement sources" have told him as much, that when the FBI first sought to interview Abbas back in September, they did not discover that he was a run-of-the-mill check-kiting scam artist who nevertheless loved his father like every good boy should. No, what the FBI discovered, instead, was that Syed Athar Abbas was an abruptly vanished fugitive who, using an alias, had recently "arranged to pay $100,000 in cash"--roughly the amount he'd stolen from Wells Fargo and Fleet--for the purchase and shipment of a "fine-food particulate mixer," a "sophisticated machine used commercially" to do various things you wouldn't expect an outfit called "Computers Dot Com" to do. Like "mix chemicals," for example.

Oh.

Mr. Parascandola reports that it's been established Abbas did take possession of this machine at the "Computers Dot Com" offices in Fort Lee last summer, but had the thing "immediately transported elsewhere" before taking off himself for Pakistan. Federal investigators, Parascandola adds, "have not been able to locate the industrial food mixer" in question, which problem continues to be of some "concern." All the more so because, despite his guilty plea and promise of restitution to the banks he bilked, Abbas has "refused to cooperate with investigators trying to find out more about his accomplices or the mixer."

Oh.

The $100,000 particulate mixer Parascandola describes, incidentally, is the exact same technology commonly employed by major food and pharmaceutical manufacturers to process fluid-form organic and inorganic compounds into powder: first to dry those compounds; next to grind the resulting mixture into tiny specks of dust, as small as a single micron in diameter; then to coat those dust specks with a chemical additive, if necessary, to maximize their motility or "floatiness"; and finally to aerate the stuff for end-use packaging. In other words, this is how you'd put Aunt Jemima pancake mix in its box. Or place concentrations of individual anthrax spores into letters addressed to Senators Tom Daschle and Patrick Leahy.

Oh.

Again, mind you, I know of no hard evidence to suggest that Syed Athar Abbas is "the" anthrax terrorist--or any kind of anthrax terrorist, for that matter. My only point is this: Nicholas Kristof and the rest of them have no hard evidence that poor Steven "Mr. Z" Hatfill is "the" anthrax terrorist, either, and yet they're all but calling him guilty anyway. Why? Mostly because he fits their preexisting suspect profile, that's why: Hatfill is a native-born American citizen with a scientific background in toxic organisms. Were Hatfill instead a Pakistani immigrant who'd recently completed a suspicious purchase of the expensive machinery necessary to weaponize toxic organisms, well . . . how much you want to bet he'd have gone completely ignored? The way Mr. Abbas has been ignored?

David Tell is opinion editor of The Weekly Standard.