‘The Anthrax Attacks’ Explained: Who Was The Perpetrator Behind The Deadly Anthrax Attacks In The USA?


Latest Netflix documentary, “The Anthrax Attacks,” presents the terrifying case of Anthrax used as a bio-weapon in the USA a very short time after the 9/11 attacks and the following investigation into it. Combining real footage as well as staged recreations of scenarios, the documentary provides an insight into the biggest investigation the FBI had ever conducted till then and how it ultimately could not yield definitive results. Overall, “The Anthrax Attacks” is a neat watch, entertaining enough for fans of the documentary genre.

What Exactly Were The Anthrax Attacks?

A few weeks after the September 11th attack that shook the United States, a new terror alert started gripping the minds of people in the country when a bioterrorism scare was suspected. Although the circumstances were indeed unusual, the beginning of this scare was not like a typical event, as a tabloid news reporter in Florida contracted an Anthrax infection and eventually died from it, becoming the first US citizen in twenty-five years to die from the bacteria. Officials called the case a single event unrelated to anything else and suggested that the person reported had contracted the bacteria from the outdoors or from some natural source. While speculations were still being made about the exact nature of this incident, a similar case occurred just eight days later when a worker at NBC in New York contracted the bacteria in her office. The news assistant who fell sick had actually opened a letter addressed to a senior journalist in the office and had come terribly close to a packet of something granular, almost like a combination of sand and brown sugar. While this packet definitely contained the Anthrax bacteria, the letter was even more alarming. Reminding the reader of the very recent 9/11 attacks and calling for the death of America, the note seemed to be a message from an Islamic fanatic warning that more such attacks were in the works. Just three days later, a similar letter with the purpose of spreading Anthrax was sent to the Senate Majority Leader in Washington, DC, and by now, citizens were terrified. It was clear that someone or a group was trying to spread the bacteria as a form of bio-weapon since the Anthrax spores have tremendous and adverse effects not just on humans but also on plants and animals.

Within a short few weeks, a couple more such letters were received by individuals in Washington, and a number of people fell sick with the disease. In this very short time, five people were killed by the Anthrax, including the reporter from Florida and two mail-workers in Washington’s Brentwood facility. The FBI very quickly started an investigation into the matter and also appointed Anthrax specialist scientist, Dr. Paul Keim, to help with the case. With the chronology of events, it was widely suspected and speculated that these new attacks definitely had something to do with either Al-Qaeda or Iraq, and the investigation was being headed to find any such ties. However, things soon turned out to be very different when the Anthrax samples left with the letters were investigated and looked into. The samples revealed something called the Ames strain in the bacteria, a strain that was only developed in laboratories in the United States and was not found anywhere else on the planet. What had begun as a possible terrorist threat from the Middle East quickly turned out to be an attack on the USA from within itself.

What Did The FBI’s Largest Investigation In History Find Out About The Anthrax Attacks?

With the knowledge that the Anthrax attacker was certainly someone living inside the US and also working in one of the country’s select few laboratories of this kind, the FBI started working with the USAMRIID. The United States of America Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) is a defensive research facility of the US Army that studies infectious diseases that can be potentially used as bioweapons, and it was in the labs of this institute that the Ames strain of Anthrax was first researched and produced. Understandably, the FBI started looking into the scientists that worked at the place and tried looking for any ties, such as matching the exact Anthrax samples from the letters to the samples that each of the scientists had at their disposal. While no such match could be found, the officials had an initial suspicion on a lead anthrax researcher and scientist named Bruce Ivins. When no incriminating evidence against Bruce could be found, and the man himself readily helped the investigators in their case, the FBI agents now looked to other sources.

Almost eight months after the Anthrax attacks had taken place, a former army researcher called Dr. Steven Hatfill was investigated by the FBI as the prime suspect. Although they did not (obviously) name him as their immediate suspect right at the moment, the heavily publicized investigation that the authorities carried out made it clear that Hatfill was the man they were trying to get. The agents who had worked on the case said in their interview how Hatfill fit the bill for someone having the potential to carry out attacks like the ones that took place. The researcher had been fired by the army for violating lab procedures and had gotten a job after it but had failed to join it after failing security clearance for it. There had been instances to make one feel that Hatfill had anger against the US government and authorities, and it was believed that this could have been the reason why he had committed such a crime. While the FBI did not really have any more evidence against the man than all these factors about his character, the authorities very openly conducted search operations in his house and left no subtlety about their actions. Steven Hatfill denied all accusations against him, and he and his defense lawyer made it clear that he was being framed by the desperate FBI. Although nothing significant could ever be found against the former researcher, the FBI kept following the man around, looking for anything suspicious and almost trying to find any speck of dirt against him. What was surprising was that the officials were so bold and carefree in their attempts that most of the time, Hatfill and anyone with him could easily see the men tracking him. The authorities were basically trying to force Hatfill to either make some mistake and reveal himself, or to force him into admitting that he was the real perpetrator. While that might not have been the correct outcome of the investigation, it was gradually becoming clear that the FBI now wanted at least someone to pin the crime on. However, Hatfill never spooked, and, finally, the FBI had to officially remove him from their list of suspects.

Years passed on to 2006, almost five years after the attacks, and the FBI was still investigating the case, with a new agent taking over the lead. By this time, there had also been a new and massive development with regard to scientific research, as the ability to sequence genomes came into existence. With this new development, the FBI and the USAMRIID started to essentially develop a DNA fingerprint of the Anthrax spores found on the letters to identify from which samples these particular spores had been developed. When the individual samples of every scientist with Anthrax at their disposal at the USAMRIID had been tested, no match had been found. Therefore, that meant that someone must have developed the Anthrax from their research samples, and with genome sequencing, the FBI could find out whose research samples the Anthrax might have belonged to. The testing traced back the Anthrax from the letters to a single laboratory flask titled the RMR-1029, and this flask had been created by Bruce Ivins to grow anthrax spores for his research. It was now clear to the FBI that it was Bruce, in all possibility, who had carried out the attacks, or had at least, grown the bacteria. The agents now started looking into Bruce Ivins’ character and found a number of oddities about the man and his recent actions. To begin with, Ivins had spent extensive work hours with Anthrax at his laboratory right before the days on which the attacks took place, suggesting that he might have been developing or testing the bacteria before using it on others. The man also had multiple names that he used and also used different mailboxes at different places to send letters and mail. There was even a record of him taking long drives away from his house only to post letters, and therefore, it was very likely that he was the one mailing the letters with the bacteria inside discreetly. Ivins also seemed obsessed with a sorority girls’ group from his college and had even stolen their book of codes as revenge for a rejection he had faced from one of them while in college. The man wrote extensive emails to a few of his friends and colleagues, and one such friend was a woman to whom he would write a number of things about his mental distress. Bruce Ivins did have mental struggles, and he wrote in his email that there would be times when he would lose control over his actions, and instead, a hateful, angry, mean-spirited nature would take over and make him do things. The FBI soon started interrogating the scientist and searching his house for any more clues, but Ivins still denied any wrongdoing.

Bruce Ivins also had a deep love for codes and codified messages, and the letters that had been sent with the Anthrax also had certain letters in them, especially the Ts and the As, bolded, which made them look like codes of some sort. Investigators at the FBI came to the conclusion that the codes in the letters translated to FNY, which is a verbal assault on New York, and this matched with the fact that Ivins had mentioned a number of times in his emails and conversations how he hated New York a lot. Perhaps the most incriminating evidence against Bruce Ivins, though, was the work sample that he had initially sent to the FBI many years back. When the authorities had asked every scientist at the USAMRIID to send their anthrax samples for the first time, Bruce had initially sent his in a different kind of test tube than was required. This sample had, therefore, not been tested then, and a second batch that he had sent in later had been tested. However, that first sample had also not been destroyed, and now when it was put to the test, Bruce’s work sample matched exactly with the Anthrax found in the letters. The FBI claims that after Ivins had sent in the first sample, he had learned about the exact reason why they were made to send samples and had therefore intentionally sent in different samples the second time in order to save himself from being found out. With all this evidence now neatly stacked against the man, the FBI was ready to pin down Bruce Ivins and arrest him for the crime.

‘The Anthrax Attacks’ Ending: What Was The Aftermath Of The FBI Investigation?

Before bringing Bruce Ivins under custody, the FBI wanted to make sure that they had got the right man, and now they took advantage of the female friend who Bruce used to email a lot. This woman, who Ivins possibly loved, wore audio recording equipment provided by the FBI to a friendly meeting with Ivins at a café. Here, she asked her friend whether he had done any of the things he was being accused of, and Bruce Ivins stated that he did not know. When she suggested that Bruce took the help of therapy or psychiatric help, the man claimed that he really did not even want to know whether he had done any of it. While it is evident that Bruce suffered from mental illnesses, these final few words of his do make it seem like the man had something to hide. Before any more of the case could be investigated or found out, though, Bruce Ivins committed suicide by overdose in his own house in 2008. A few days later, on August 6th, 2008, the US Department of Justice publicly announced that their investigation had found Dr. Bruce Ivins to have been the sole person responsible for carrying out the infamous 2001 Anthrax attacks that killed five innocent victims. As a possible motive, the FBI stated that Ivins was probably scared that his Anthrax research would stop in a few years, had developed the bacteria and used it as a bio-weapon, and had immediately seen the FDA approve the medicines against Anthrax that he and his team had been developing. This also led to Bruce Ivins receiving a number of public awards and honors.

However, as much as Bruce Ivins mostly fit the bill as the most possible perpetrator, no hard evidence against him has yet been found. Many of his colleagues and other reputed scientists and experts, including Dr. Paul Kleim, refused to believe that Ivins was the perpetrator behind the attacks. Such a view obviously points to the fact that the FBI was too desperate to find a criminal in order to justify its biggest and most expensive investigation to date, instead of looking into the matter with effectiveness. Dr. Kleim also makes it clear that the FBI destroying all the Anthrax evidence after the case was closed made it all the more impossible to research more into the bacteria strain, which could have revealed more information about it and its source. The National Academy of Science determined that it was simply not possible to find the origin of the anthrax sample collected from the letters, therefore suggesting that Ivins could not definitely be blamed for it. No evidence of Bruce Ivins posting the letters or preparing them has been found either, and whether he truly was the real perpetrator or not depends on the perspective one chooses on the matter.

With regards to the others linked to the case, “The Anthrax Attacks” ends with the information that the workers of the Brentwood mail office in Washington had filed a lawsuit against the Postal Service. In it, they claimed that the higher officials knew of the presence of Anthrax inside their workspace but continued to make them work in such a risky environment, but this case was ultimately dismissed. Dr. Steven Hartfill also sued the US government for infringement of his privacy, and he received a $5.8 million settlement in the case.

“The Anthrax Attacks” is a 2022 Documentary Film directed by Dan Krauss.

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Sourya Sur Roy
Sourya Sur Roy
Sourya keeps an avid interest in all sorts of films, history, sports, videogames and everything related to New Media. Holding a Master of Arts degree in Film Studies, he is currently working as a teacher of Film Studies at a private school and also remotely as a Research Assistant and Translator on a postdoctoral project at UdK Berlin.

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