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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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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.