By Oliver Guitta for Middle East Times
In the middle of the massive coverage of U.S. President Barack Obama's inauguration, a rather troublesome news story emerged. Unfortunately, it failed to get the coverage it deserves. If confirmed, it deserves the full attention of the Obama administration: the story has to do with bio-terrorism.
The story began with a Jan. 6 report in the Algerian newspaper Echorouk that a number of terrorists had died of the plague in one of al-Qaida's Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) training camps in Tizi Ouzou. Another Algerian newspaper En-Nahar, affirmed that 50 terrorists have been diagnosed with the plague, 40 of whom have already died.
Now some analysts dismissed outright this story saying it was totally fallacious. But a few observations at this point give credibility to this story, even though one cannot be sure of the provenance of the plague. Consider the following:
1. Algerian authorities have been totally silent. Reliable sources usually willing to share information declined to comment on this report. As can be expected, Algerian authorities were not too pleased that the story was confirmed by American sources. Indeed the Washington Times confirmed through a senior U.S. intelligence official that an incident had taken place at an AQIM training camp that had to be shut down as a result.
2. Coincidence or not: 60 terrorists from AQIM from Tizi Ouzou (the same region where the incident allegedly occurred) decided to surrender to the authorities. It is very rare that such a large number of AQIM operatives defect at the same time. That could mean that they possibly got really scared by what had taken place in the training camp and did not want to get involved in biological weapon experimentation that could likely result in their deaths.
3. Over a year ago, Pakistani terrorists came to train in AQIM training camps and may have one way or another contributed to the production of that biological agent. Interestingly, the Washington Times mentions an intercepted communication between AQIM leaders and AQ Central in Pakistan relating the mishap.
4. Al-Qaida operatives in Europe had tried to develop biological weapons in the recent past. In France, Menad Benchelalli, a terrorist specialized in poisons had produced small amounts of ricin and Botulinum toxin that he intended to release in France. He was arrested in 2002. Then in 2003, British authorities arrested seven individuals accused of also producing ricin.
5. AQIM was "hired" by AQ central mostly because of their extensive network in Europe that could allow them to strike Europe at some point. AQIM's leadership has been under intense pressure to attack European targets in order to maintain its credibility. In fact, by not using a "conventional" weapon, AQIM would prove its value to AQ Central. If the group was indeed developing a biological weapon, it was surely destined for delivery in Europe, and most likely in France.
Interestingly, AQIM did not wait long to refute this story. On Jan. 21, in a communiqué the group accused "some hypocrites who quoted their masters at the Algerian intelligence agency" of being behind this false story. The group also noted that this story was planted to dry up the well of new AQIM recruits. If indeed that is the case, it might be a very smart strategy that maybe should be copied.
Another explanation for the alleged deaths of the AQIM operatives is very bad hygienic situation in the camps. Indeed, several former AQIM terrorists told the Algerian En-Nahar newspaper that living conditions are horrendous and that numerous deaths resulted from poor hygiene. They add that the AQIM emirs (chiefs) quarantine the sick right away, because the disease propagates itself very quickly.
Whatever the explanation, it seems that there have been unexplained deaths among AQIM operatives. At this point, the developments of this story and its possible implications need to be closely monitored. Indeed a nightmarish scenario could unfold if one of the infected individuals boarded a flight to Paris, London or New York. This person could become de-facto the means of "delivering" the weapon.
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Olivier Guitta is an adjunct fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and a foreign affairs and counterterrorism consultant. You can read his latest work at www.thecroissant.com/about.html