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Brian Levin: Militias and bioterrorism

Brian Levin is the executive director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernadino. A criminologist, Professor Levin specializes in the analysis of hate crimes, terrorism, and legal issues. He joined the chat room from California.

CNN: How likely is it that these anthrax occurrences could be the work of domestic terrorist groups, rather than as a result of directives from Osama bin Laden?

LEVIN: Great question. Right now, I think most of the attacks probably are foreign-based, but that's subject to change as more information comes in. I think there are about four reasons why. The first is the location. We know that some of the terrorists have been associated with northern New Jersey and southern Florida.

The second factor is timing. The anthrax scare came shortly after the September 11 attacks. Additionally, this required a sophisticated effort, something that I think is more likely to come from the better coordinated overseas terrorist cells.

And one last thing is that there were apparently references to Allah in the letters to Brokaw and Daschle. One of the hijackers had previously met with an Iraqi official, and he was also interested in dermatological medication, as well as a crop duster. These are all circumstantial, and not positive, but it leads me to believe that the preponderance of the evidence in at least these attacks point overseas.

Investigators notice similarities in anthrax cases involving offices of a U.S. senator and NBC news anchor. CNN's Jonathan Karl reports (October 17)

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An already jittery Washington grows more nervous after a letter sent to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle's office tests positive for anthrax. CNN's Jonathan Karl reports (October 16)

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In Depth: The anthrax investigation
Testing for anthrax
Message board: Anthrax and bioterrorism 
Dr. Sanjay Gupta: What is anthrax? 
Ken Alibek: Preparing for bioterrorism 
 If you receive a suspicious package:
  • Handle with care; don't shake or bump
  • Isolate and look for indicators
  • Don't open, smell or taste
  • Treat it as suspect; call 911

  • Source: FBI

    CHAT PARTICIPANT: How likely is it that Iraq is the source of the anthrax?

    LEVIN: It is hard to tell. Previously, Iraq has had a very aggressive scientific program to cultivate anthrax. It is believed that they even attempted to arm their scud missiles with the bacteria. Also, the Iraqis have not been cooperative with regard to international monitoring of their programs that develop agents like anthrax. But it's still an open book. I wouldn't rule them out.

    CHAT PARTICIPANT: You monitor a whole host of hate groups and militias. How have they responded to the September 11 attacks?

    LEVIN: A really interesting question. You don't have the same unity of opinion that was evident five to eight years ago. Some groups want to help out with homeland defense, but most others are very suspicious of greater federal authority and international cooperation. Many others also appear to be split between blaming Jews and Israel on the one hand, and immigrants, Muslims, and people of Arab descent on the other. One racist stated within 20 minutes of the September 11 attacks "Let the World Trade Center burn to the ground... for his wrath is upon his enemies." So, a great diversity of opinion from anti-government and racist groups.

    CHAT PARTICIPANT: The Oklahoma bombing was originally though to be a terrorist act, but was subsequently found to be an internal act. Can we assume this kind of threat doesn't currently exist in the U.S.?

    LEVIN: Both are terrorist attacks. It is certainly possible that these anthrax attacks are coming from a domestic American terrorist. Many of them have grievances against the news media and the federal government. Additionally, the Miami Herald is reporting that a letter sent to an abortion clinic preliminarily tested positive for anthrax. We don't know whether or not that is a false positive, and it very well could be a copycat attempt unrelated to the other anthrax-laden mail.

    CHAT PARTICIPANT: Where do the Aryan Brotherhood and other white supremacist groups stand?

    LEVIN: The Aryan brotherhood is primarily involved in the prison system, and thus would be least likely to be involved in this current scare. However, the use of anthrax has been glorified as a weapon throughout the neo-Nazi movement, and a few years ago a member of Aryan Nations violated his probation by possessing inert forms of anthrax.

    CHAT PARTICIPANT: Does the potency of the anthrax sent to the Senator's office support the theory of domestic terrorism or diminish the chances it's internal?

    LEVIN: It diminishes it somewhat, but certainly does not eliminate it. There might very well be a lone wolf or small numbers of domestic terrorists who have the sophistication. Indeed instructions on anthrax cultivation have made the rounds of anti-government movements for years. However, it is not an easy thing to do. A cult in Japan had scientists working on making anthrax a weapon back in 1993. They failed. I think that foreign terrorists have been trying to do this for some time, but we do not have any intelligence that a group like al Qaeda was able to do this alone. So, if in fact they did, they possibly received assistance from elsewhere, possibly the Iraqi government. But again, this is merely educated speculation.

    CHAT PARTICIPANT: What is the reaction of black supremacist groups like the Nation of Islam to the World Trade Center attacks?

    LEVIN: Their response has been somewhat diffuse. They don't advocate the attack, but do not appear overly sympathetic to many of the components of American culture. They have also suggested at various times that African Americans under certain conditions should separate from the rest of the country. Ironically, this is a view shared by white supremacists, and in the past they have even held public discussions on this with the white supremacists.

    CNN: Do you have any closing comments for us today?

    LEVIN: First, please feel free to check our Web site at for continuing daily updates. As someone who has studied terrorism for years, I think the best inoculation against terrorism is a dose of knowledge and calm. With relatively minor alterations, we can just be a little bit more careful, and not significantly restrict our activities. 280 million pairs of focused eyes and careful hands are a great deterrent to terrorism.

    CNN: Thank you for joining us today, Brian Levin.

    LEVIN: Thank you so much for having me. It's been a pleasure.

    Brian Levin joined the chat room via telephone from California and CNN provided a typist. The above is an edited transcript of the interview on Wednesday, October 17, 2001 at 11 a.m. EDT.



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