- Anthrax, smallpox, ebola virus - Ken
Alibek spent his life turning them into weapons. Now this former Soviet
officer is breaking his silence to issue a warning about germ warfare.
Interview by James Langton.
- KEN Alibek motions vaguely with the first
two fingers of his right hand that he would like a cigarette. On the next
table a young woman sheathed in black and her friend look up disapprovingly
from their game of Scrabble. "You want to smoke?" The remark
is heavy with irony. "Please don't worry about us."
- But these days, even in a café
on Manhattan's Upper West Side, there are worse perils than passive smoking
to consider. A canister of anthrax placed on the New York subway which
rumbles beneath our feet, perhaps. Or a jet infested with smallpox landing
at Kennedy Airport.
- This last example is Dr Alibek's favourite.
He imagines a terrorist inoculated against the disease spraying smallpox
into the cabin of a fully laden Boeing 747: "By the time the aircraft
landed in New York, each passenger would have become a biological weapon.
- "From there, they might leave to
travel all over the United States, to Detroit, to Florida, each one a new
focus for the disease. The incubation period of smallpox is two to 14 days,
so before people realised they had been infected, they would be infecting
other people. The hospitals would be overwhelmed." He pauses. "Thousands
- perhaps hundreds of thousands - might die."
- If biological weapons are the West's
latest nightmare then Ken Alibek should know why. Until six years ago,
he was the head of Biopreparat, the largest biological warfare production
complex in the world, at Stepnagorsk in what is now the Central Asian independent
Republic of Kazakhstan, but was then one of the most closely guarded secrets
in the Soviet Union's arsenal.
- In his prime, Dr Alibek was the Third
Horseman of the Apocalypse. His personal pestilence was a form of anthrax
developed at Stepnagorsk in the late 1980s and said to be four times more
virulent than the ordinary variety. This may be the kind now being concealed
from UN weapons inspectors in Iraq. Many of his former colleagues are thought
to have been recruited by Saddam Hussein. Others may be in Iran, Libya,
Syria, North Korea, possibly India and Pakistan, maybe even Israel.
- Dr Alibek came to the United States,
spirited from the wreckage of the former Soviet Union in 1992, with CIA
help and in circumstances he still refuses to discuss. He was the second
senior member of the Russian biological weapons programme to flee west.
The first, Vladimir Pesechnik, a microbiologist who had turned the Black
Death from a medieval plague into a 20th-century weapon of war, defected
to British intelligence in 1989.
- Alibek is 47, with thick black hair and
narrow oriental eyes. He speaks slowly and hesitantly, but probably more
from natural caution than lack of fluency in English. For the past five
years he has been little more than a rumour in intelligence circles, but
has now decided to speak out, for the first time in a British newspaper,
against the weapons he helped to create.
- In another life, before he changed his
name and his nation, Ken Alibek was Dr Kanatjan Alibekov, the son of a
senior Kazakhstani policeman, with family blood ties to the pre-revolutionary
aristocracy. Despite leaving school at 15, he studied medicine at night
school, eventually securing several higher degrees and specialising in
the spread of infectious diseases.
- Almost inevitably he was recruited by
the secret Soviet biological weapons programme. Between 1975 and 1991,
in his own words, "I moved pretty fast" to become a full Colonel
in the Soviet Army and first deputy chief of research and production, with
a staff of 32,000 and a budget of billions of roubles.
- During this time, the Soviet Union resolutely
denied it was developing biological weapons. To do otherwise would have
been to admit a direct contravention of the 1973 Biological and Toxin Weapons
Convention, signed by 140 countries, including Great Britain and the United
States. Biopreparat was set up in 1974.
- Dr Alibek says he shared the almost universal
belief among his fellow countrymen that the West was also ignoring the
Convention and developing biological weapons of its own: "All the
time we were told that the United States and Britain had such a programme.
You know very often when I talk to people here in the West, they discuss
some sort of spiritual, ethical or moral issue. But in the Soviet Union
these were not the issues. We had to develop weapons and we did it and
it didn't matter how many people would die."
- In early 1991 he discovered the truth.
"It's a long story why I decided to quit, but my final decision was
after coming back from the United States. I was part of a visiting inspection
team and I found out that there was no offensive programme in the United
States. So I decided to quit. Within two weeks I left the Army and my job.
I became unemployed."
- Chronically short of money, the Soviet
biological weapons programme was already at the point of collapse. At its
height, though, the former superpower had stockpiled hundreds of tons of
strategic biological weapons.
- Dr Alibek claims that Soviet scientists
even managed to engineer a new virus that combined smallpox and Ebola.
The effect of this genetic monster on centres of population is almost incalculable.
As it is, at present, the United States has fewer than seven million shots
of smallpox vaccine for a population of nearly 260 million.
- Like the British and Americans, who closed
down their offensive programmes in the 1960s, the Soviet Union tested its
biological weapons on monkeys. While there are persistent reports that
Iraq has tested its weapons on Iranian prisoners of war, the only known
example in modern warfare is when Germany attempted to infect horses and
mules with anthrax during the First World War.
- Few people have witnessed the effects
of biological - as opposed to chemical - weapons. Dr Alibek, however, is
one of them. In 1988 he received a call from an old friend and former colleague
at a research centre in western Siberia.
- He was told that a 44-year-old researcher,
Nikolai Ustinov, had accidentally pricked his finger through two layers
of rubber gloves while handling the Marburg virus, a close relative of
Ebola and also thought to have originated in Africa.
- When Alibek learned of the accident,
Ustinov was already quarantined behind air-tight steel doors and prevented
from seeing his wife and children. On the fourth day, his eyes began to
haemorrhage and spontaneous bruises developed. Shortly after, he vomited
blood and passed black diarrhoea. Attempts to give Ustinov transfusions
failed because the new blood flowed directly out of his mouth and rectum.
- Incredibly, through the last weeks of
his life, the Russian scientist kept a scientific diary of what was happening
to his body. When he died, after a month, the blood was even seeping though
his pores. It left bloody fingerprints on the pages of his journal.
- Afterwards, Ustinov's spleen and a sample
of his blood were removed during a post-mortem examination. A new strain
of the disease, now named Variant U, was replicated, then mass-produced
as a weapon. Tests on monkeys using inhalable dust showed it to be several
hundred times more likely to infect the animals than conventional anthrax.
- Dr Alibek is reluctant to dwell on Ustinov's
death, but says that: "We had always used monkeys, but here for the
first time we saw the real effect of the Marburg virus. We saw an actual
Marburg infection and it was scary.
- "Of course, we knew it was dangerous
and could kill us. But I was in the military and we had to follow orders.
But when somebody dies it hurts. Especially when it's a good scientist,
a good fellow, a father of children."
- The accident was clearly a turning point:
"What especially hurts is that they used his organs to fashion a new
type of biological weapon." Still, he says, he continued to work on
the programme: "I cannot say it was a breakthrough. But you know there
were some thoughts that this is not the right way when your friend is dying."
- These days he admits to: "Some regrets,
but no guilt" about the weapons he helped create. "I do not have
sleepless nights. I have said before that we were proud of what we were
doing. We believed these weapons were necessary."
- He believes now that Russia no longer
retains an offensive biological weapons stockpile but also that it has
secretly retained the nucleus of a research programme which it still conceals
from the West. Russia has denied this, hinting that his motivation for
moving to the United States was financial. Dr Alibek points out that he
must support himself. He only recently started work for a small, private
consultancy just outside Washington. Life in America has not always been
easy. He is divorcng his wife, who followed him West with their two sons
and a daughter, who is now at an Ivy League college.
- Of the thousands of scientists who worked
under him: "Many have gone overseas." Does he know where? "Nobody
knows. Some are in the West, but unfortunately many are in the East."
Including Iraq and Iran? "That's a high possibility. For a long period
after the collapse of the Soviet Union, it was possible to leave without
too many questions. And if you lose your job, you have to feed your family.
So if you get a proposal to work overseas you take it."
- On the question of bioterrorism, he says:
"I'm not trying to scare people. I don't want to over or underestimate
this problem. I'm not an expert in counter-intelligence. But in my opinion,
biological weapons - or at least the most primitive variants - are not
a problem to manufacture or to apply. They are not complicated to make
like nuclear weapons.
- "It would be very easy to use them
and escape undetected. Nobody will die immediately, but suddenly, after
a few days, we will see a massive influx into hospitals. Only then will
we realise this is a terrorist attack."
- If the West is to counter this threat,
he says, Iraq's biological weapons must be dealt with first: "We need
to destroy them completely and without any discussion as to whether we
should do this." Next he wants pressure to force Russia to open up
the remains of its biological warfare programme to international scrutiny.
- In both cases, says Dr Alibek, he is
prepared to offer his services as an inspector. "I would know at once
what they are doing. Who else would know better?"