- BRITISH intelligence has uncovered evidence of a plot by Saddam Hussein
to flood the West with anthrax in bottles disguised as duty-free goods
if military strikes are launched against Iraq.
- An "all-ports warning" has
been issued by the Home Office on the Prime Minister's orders, even though
there is no sign that the plot has been implemented. Downing Street said
that although the matter was being taken seriously, "we do not believe
there is cause for alarm".
- The apparent threat was contained in
a confidential document sent to Customs and Excise, Special Branch, police,
the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence. No comparable countrywide
warning about a feared biological attack has been issued before.
- The Times understands that a source with
access to intelligence in Baghdad gave the alert before Christmas. Some
information about the threatened plot was sent to senior customs officials
and police officers last Wednesday, but the all-ports warning was not circulated
until yesterday. That said: "Iraq may launch a chemical and biological
attack using materials disguised as harmless fluids. Could officers therefore
be alert for any items which may contain harmful substances. Particular
attention should be given to containers of any size holding liquids with
- Details of the intelligence report were
sent to President Clinton and other members of Nato, and Tony Blair is
believed to have discussed the threat in private conversation with fellow
- The document shows that the Iraqis were
apparently prepared to smuggle large quantities of anthrax into hostile
countries inside bottles containing spirits, cosmetics perfume sprays and
cigarette lighters. The warning did not identify particular brands or say
where the bottles would have been sold or impregnated.
- The Home Office warning would have included
an assessment of the risk carried out by the intelligence services. It
is believed the assessment was that while there was a potential threat,
it was considered to be a low probability. And Mike O'Brien, a Home Office
minister, was keen to play down the threat. He said: "Periodically
we have information that there are threats and we step up vigilance when
that occurs. We don't want to get people particularly scared at the moment."
- The Home Office, MI5, police and emergency
services have well-rehearsed contingency plans for dealing with terrorist
attacks involving nuclear, biological or chemical weapons. These were exercised
before the 1991 Gulf War and were re-examined during the recent crisis
with Iraq over United Nations arms inspections.
- Then, the Government advised all service
personnel sent to the Gulf to have a series of anthrax vaccines. George
Robertson, the Defence Secretary, volunteered to set an example and has
had his first vaccination.
- Anthrax is the most deadly toxic substance
in Saddam's armoury. A "spoonful" of the spores could kill 100,000
people if distributed effectively - for example through aerosols or crop-spraying
equipment - and anyone ingesting the spores would die within five days.
- The potency of the disease was shown
by a Ministry of Defence experiment on a remote Scottish island in 1942.
Spores were released next to sheep tethered to the uninhabited land of
Gruinard, and the animals monitored as they died. But even after the sheep
had been destroyed and the heather burnt, it was found that the spores
had penetrated the soil and the island remained a forbidden toxic zone
for nearly half a century.