!! History Commons Alert, Exciting News
Profile: Ayaad Assaad
Ayaad Assaad was a participant or observer in the following events:
In 1991, Ayaad Assaad is a scientist working at USAMRIID, the US Army’s top bioweapons laboratory. He is a Christian and a long-time US citizen, but he was born in Egypt and his Middle Eastern background and appearance apparently bothers some other scientists at USAMRIID. Around Easter 1991, not long after the Persian Gulf War had ended, Assaad discovers an eight-page poem in his mailbox. The poem mocks Assaad, sometimes in crude and lewd terms. It makes reference to a rubber camel made by some other scientists in the lab that has numerous sexually explicit appendages.
"Camel Club" - The group behind the camel and the poem refer to themselves as the “Camel Club.” There are at least six members of this group. Three are known by name—Philip Zack, Marian Rippy, and Charles Brown—but the names of the others have never been made public.
Complaint - Assaad’s supervisor at USAMRIID at the time is Col. David Franz. Assaad will later claim he went to Franz about the poem and the camel, but Franz “kicked me out of his office and slammed the door in my face, because he didn’t want to talk about it.” Two other Arab-Americans, Kulthoum Mereish and Richard Crosland, also work under Franz and also face harassment from the Camel Club. They will join Assaad in later suing USAMRIID and claiming that Franz was a racist who failed to take any action against the Camel Club, and then fired all three of them when he got the chance during layoffs in 1997 (see May 9, 1997). By the time of the anthrax attacks in 2001, Franz will be a private consultant on countermeasures to biological and chemical attacks. [Hartford Courant, 12/9/2001; Hartford Courant, 1/20/2002] Zack leaves USAMRIID in December 1991 after facing allegations of unprofessional behavior. Rippy leaves in February 1992.
Investigation - After being ignored by Franz, Assaad files a formal complaint with the Army. Col. Ronald Williams, commander of USAMRIID at the time, heads the investigation. In August 1992, he concludes that Zack and Rippy had been at the center of the Camel Club and also were having an affair with each other even though both were married. Williams formally concludes to Assaad, “On behalf of the United States of America, the Army, and this Institute, I wish to genuinely and humbly apologize for this behavior.” [Salon, 1/26/2002] However, most of the other members of the Camel Club will still be working at USAMRIID when Assaad is laid off in 1997 (see May 9, 1997).
Alleged Patsy - An anonymous letter sent just before the real anthrax attacks are made public in 2001 will say that Assaad is ready to launch a biological attack on the US (see September 26, 2001 and October 3, 2001). Some will later suspect that this letter was an attempt to use Assaad as a scapegoat for the attacks, and his targeting may have been related to the Camel Club dispute. [Hartford Courant, 1/20/2002]
Marian Rippy. [Source: Cornell University]Salon will later call USAMRIID, the US Army’s top bioweapons laboratory at Fort Detrick, Maryland, a “disaster area” in the early 1990s. Government documents “paint a chaotic picture of a poorly managed lab.” One problem is that after the Persian Gulf War ended in early 1991, USAMRIID phases out some projects that are no longer deemed important, but certain scientists refuse to quit doing their research. As a result, some scientists would sneak in after hours and/or on weekends to secretly continue their work.
Racial Harassment - In addition, there is considerable racial harassment between some scientists. A group of about six scientists form a group called the Camel Club and focus their anger on three Arab-American scientists, especially one named Ayaad Assaad. In December 2001, one member of the Camel Club, Philip Zack, is forced to leave USAMRIID after complaints about his behavior. Zack had been researching the simian immunodeficiency virus (SIV), and he continues to sneak back into USAMRIID to secretly continue his research. Other scientists let him in, while documents go missing and specimens are deliberately mislabeled in an attempt to hide unsanctioned work.
Anthrax, Ebola Go Missing - Worst of all, it appears some dangerous chemicals are taken out of USAMRIID, including anthrax. Lt. Col. Michael Langford takes over as head of USAMRIID’s experimental pathology division in February 1992, and an investigation into the problems there quickly begins. Langford notices that some scientists are using old specimens of anthrax to cover up unauthorized experiments with newer anthrax specimens. Some of the work being done after hours involves anthrax. Langford has particular troubles with Marian Rippy, another member of the Camel Club who is married but having an affair with Zack. In January 1992, a surveillance camera records Zack being let after hours by Rippy. She leaves shortly after Langford takes over. Around this time, the lab loses track of a total of 27 specimens, including anthrax and Ebola. Some scientists believe that some of the specimens could have still been viable after disappearing. The Ames strain of anthrax later used in the 2001 anthrax attacks (see October 5-November 21, 2001) is heavily used at USAMRIID, but it is unknown if any of the anthrax that is lost is of the Ames strain. After the 1992 investigation, some problems will continue. Two scientists who leave USAMRIID in 1997 will say that controls were still so lax when they left that it would not have been difficult for an employee to smuggle out biological specimens. [Hartford Courant, 1/20/2002; Salon, 1/26/2002]
Connection to Patsy Mooted - Shortly before the 2001 anthrax attacks become publicly known, the FBI will receive an anonymous letter saying that Assaad could launch a biological attack on the US (see September 26, 2001 and October 3, 2001). This will motivate some to speculate Assaad was set up as a patsy, possibly by his old enemies linked to the Camel Club. Speculation will particularly focus on Zack due to his unauthorized lab work after he stopped working there. Some will suspect a religious angle, guessing from his name that Zack was Jewish and hated Assaad, a Muslim. However, Zack’s wedding announcement says he was Catholic, and Assaad is Coptic Christian (see October 3, 2001). [Associated Press, 8/13/2008]
Ayaad Asaad. [Source: Public Domain]Dr. Ayaad Assaad, a scientist who has worked at USAMRIID, the US Army’s top biological laboratory, since 1989, is unexpectedly laid off in March 1997, and serves his last day at USAMRIID on May 9, 1997. Assaad is a naturalized American citizen and was born in Egypt. He helped develop a ricin vaccine while working there, but had been harassed by a group of Caucasian colleagues at USAMRIID known as the “Camel Club” who make fun of his Middle Eastern ethnicity. Assaad soon gets a job at the Environmental Protection Agency. He also soon sues the US Army for discrimination and wrongful dismissal. Shortly before the 2001 anthrax attacks become publicly known, he will be the target of a letter that seems to set him up as the one responsible for the attacks (see October 2, 2001). Future anthrax suspect Steven Hatfill gets a job at USAMRIID this year, but not until after Assaad is gone. [Vanity Fair, 9/15/2003] A couple members of the Camel Club lost their jobs in the early 1990s. However, it will later be reported that while Assaad loses his job at this time due to general industry-wide cutbacks, “many of those he accused [keep] theirs.” [Hartford Courant, 7/18/2003]
Ayaad Assaad. [Source: Salon]Three days before the anthrax attacks are first made public, a letter is received by the FBI in Quantico, Virginia, warning that Dr. Ayaad Assaad, employed until 1997 (see May 9, 1997) as an anthrax researcher at USAMRIID, the US Army’s top bioweapons laboratory at Fort Detrick, Maryland, is a “‘a potential terrorist,’ with a grudge against the United States and the knowledge to wage biological warfare against his adopted country.” This is the latest in a series of verbal attacks against Assaad since the early 1990s, which includes anonymous, long hateful and derogatory poems about him (see 1991-1992). The author of the letter says he is a former colleague of Assaad. The letter seems like a not-very-subtle attempt to frame Assaad for the anthrax attacks about to come. The letter strongly suggests the attacks could have been by someone at USAMRIID with a long time grudge against Assaad. [Hartford Courant, 12/9/2001; Salon, 1/26/2002] The FBI questions Assaad about the letter one day later (see October 3, 2001).
Scientist Ayaad Assaad is interviewed by the FBI. Just one day before, the FBI received a letter that was mailed to an FBI office on September 26 (see September 26, 2001) and seems to point the blame for the upcoming anthrax attacks at Assaad. He is living in Washington, DC, at the time, and is interviewed by FBI agents Mark Buie and Gregory Leylegian at the FBI’s Washington field office. His lawyer, Rosemary McDermott, is also present. The agents read him the entire letter aloud and briefly show it to him, but will not allow him to make a copy of it.
The one page, single-spaced letter says “Dr. Assaad is a potential biological terrorist,” and he is planning to mount a biological attack against the US. It adds he has the “means and will” to succeed.
It continues, “I have worked with Dr. Assaad, and I heard him say that he has a vendetta against the US government and that if anything happens to him, he told his sons to carry on.”
Assaad worked at USAMRIID, the US Army’s top bioweapon laboratory, until he was laid off in 1997, and the letter gives accurate details about Assaad’s security clearances when he worked there.
Since 1997, Assaad has worked at the Environmental Protection Agency, and the letter gives accurate details about his job there as well.
The letter mentions slightly inaccurate details about Assaad’s commute from his home in Frederick, Maryland, to his EPA job in Virginia.
It states that Assaad is a “religious fanatic.” (Assaad is a Christian but many assume he is Muslim due to his Egyptian ancestry.) [Washington Times, 2/26/2002; Philadelphia Inquirer, 2/28/2002; Hartford Courant, 2/17/2004]
It makes reference to “further terrorist activity” by Assaad without mentioning what his supposed previous terrorist activity was. [Vanity Fair, 9/15/2003]
The letter is not signed.
Several days later, after the anthrax attacks are made public, Assaad contacts the FBI and gives a list of the former co-workers he suspects could have been behind the letter. It is not clear if the FBI does anything with this however, as they rebuff his repeated attempts to be interviewed. Despite the obvious potential connection to the anthrax attacks, which first become known two days after this interview, the FBI will not interview Assaad again on the matter until May 2004 (see May 11, 2004). [Washington Times, 2/26/2002; Philadelphia Inquirer, 2/28/2002]
On October 3, 2001, Ayaad Assaad was questioned by the FBI because a letter written by an unnamed former colleague of his said he was a potential biological terrorist who could attack the US (see October 3, 2001). Just days later, the anthrax attacks became publicly known, and there is speculation that the letter may have been an attempt to frame Assaad for the attacks. Assaad worked at USAMRIID, the US Army’s top bioweapons laboratory where many believe the anthrax used in the attacks originated. Before Assaad left USAMRIID in 1997, some of his colleagues in an informal group called the Camel Club harassed him due to his Middle Eastern background (even though he is Christian and a US citizen—see 1991-1992). In the early 1990s, some members of the Camel Club were found to be working on unauthorized projects at USAMRIID even after no longer being employed there, at a time when anthrax and other deadly germs went missing from the lab (see Early 1992). On December 4, 2001, a military spokesman says that FBI investigators are seeking to question current and former USAMRIID employees. However, on December 9, the Hartford Courant reports that most of the members of the (apparently defunct) Camel Club say they have yet to be questioned by the FBI. An FBI spokesman also says that the FBI is not tracking the source of the anonymous letter blaming Assaad. [Hartford Courant, 12/9/2001] Don Foster is a professor and linguistic analyst helping with the FBI’s anthrax investigation. Foster will only find out about the letter after the Courant publishes their December 9 article. He will also discover that many others in the FBI’s investigation know nothing of it, either. For instance, top FBI profiler and threat-assessment expert James Fitzgerald, who hired Foster to work on the investigation, has never heard of it. Foster will later comment, “What, I wondered, has the anthrax task force been doing?” [Vanity Fair, 9/15/2003] The FBI will not question some of Assaad’s co-workers until 2004 (see February 11-March 17, 2004), and will not question him again until 2004 as well, even though officials say off the record that the Assaad letter remains intriguing (see May 11, 2004).
Ayaad Assaad. [Source: Public domain]In mid-October 2001, the FBI hires professor Don Foster to help with the anthrax attacks investigation because he is an expert at discovering the authors of unknown texts by an analysis of word usage. He has already helped the FBI with many cases. In early December 2001, he reads a newspaper article about a letter mailed shortly before the anthrax attacks became publicly known that accuses former USAMRIID scientist Ayaad Assaad of planning to launch a biological attack on the US (see October 3, 2001). FBI investigators are largely ignorant of this letter, even though the FBI already strongly suspects that the anthrax used in the attacks came from USAMRIID, the US Army’s top bioweapons laboratory (see December 9, 2001). Foster asks for and receives a copy of the letter, known as the Quantico letter because it was mailed to a government office in Quantico, Virginia. He looks through documents written by about 40 USAMRIID employees and finds “writings by a female officer that looked like a perfect match.” He writes a report to the FBI about this, but the FBI fails to follow through, as the Quantico letter has already been declared irrelevant even though few FBI investigators are even aware of it yet. Foster will write of his experience with the letter in a September 2003 article in Vanity Fair. [Vanity Fair, 9/15/2003] Apparently, this will lead to a renewed interest in the letter. The FBI will finally question Assaad about the letter in 2004, and will express their knowledge of Foster’s Vanity Fair article when they talk to him. [Associated Press, 5/16/2004] However, it is unknown if the woman Foster identified is ever questioned. The FBI does show particular interest in questioning one person about the letter in early 2004, but that person is a man (see February 11-March 17, 2004).
The FBI refuses a third request to release a letter possibly connected to the anthrax attacks, suggesting they will never release it. The letter was sent to the FBI in late September 2001 and said a scientist named Ayaad Assaad was likely to launch a biological attack on the US. The letter was anonymous and there has been speculation that the author was connected to the anthrax attacks and was attempting to set up Assaad as a patsy. The government denies Assaad’s request to release the letter on the ground that it has a regular policy not to “disclose the identities of confidential sources and information furnished by such sources.” The government asserts that the letter is just a strange coincidence and has no link to the anthrax attacks. However, former FBI Assistant Director Oliver Revell says the discussion of possible confidential sources indicates the FBI has not ruled out a link between the letter and the attacks. “There has to be some rationale for wanting to keep it secret,” he says. “If there is any possible nexis between the two, then the general rule is to keep it silent.” [Hartford Courant, 7/18/2003] The letter has yet to be made public.
On February 11, 2004, the FBI interviews at least one scientist from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in connection with the 2001 anthrax attacks (see October 5-November 21, 2001). The name of the person interviewed is not known, but he is asked whether he wrote an anonymous letter to the FBI that possibly set up scientist Ayaad Assaad as a patsy for the attacks just before they occurred (see October 3, 2001). Assaad worked at USAMRIID, the US Army’s top bioweapons laboratory, until 1997, and has worked at the EPA since then. The unnamed scientist says that he had nothing to do with the letter. It appears this person is possibly subjected to a polygraph test after this, but if so the results are not known. [Hartford Courant, 2/17/2004] On March 17, 14 additional EPA employees are interviewed about the letter. The interviews are said to focus on trying to find out who wrote it. [Washington Times, 3/30/2004]
The FBI re-interviews Ayaad Assaad, who was the target of a letter sent just before the 2001 anthrax attacks that seemed to point to him as being responsible for those attacks (see October 2, 2001). Assaad was interviewed about this shortly after the letter was sent (see October 3, 2001), and this is the second time the FBI has questioned him. The FBI tells him that he is not a suspect but they are interested in where he was when the anthrax letters were mailed. He gives documentation showing that he was in the Washington, DC, area at the time. He is also asked about his knowledge of producing anthrax. Assaad, who has been working at the Environmental Protection Agency since 1997 (see May 9, 1997), is an expert on the toxin ricin, and says he has never handled anthrax. He also says he has never been vaccinated against anthrax. He believes the FBI indeed is not interested in him as a suspect but as someone the anthrax attacker or attackers may have tried to frame. [Associated Press, 5/16/2004] Officially, the government has consistently claimed that the letter had nothing to do with the anthrax attacks and was just a strange coincidence. But CNN reports, “government sources said the interest in Assaad centers on the [anonymous] letter and the theory that whoever mailed it could have also been involved in sending the anthrax letters. ‘It is one of several out there,’ one source said when asked how accepted that theory is. ‘No one has been ruled out.’” [CNN, 5/17/2004] Assaad claims that prior to this interview, he had contacted the FBI four times over the past two and a half years, offering to tell what he knows about his former colleagues who might have sent the letter. But he says he was rebuffed all four times. [Hartford Courant, 5/16/2004]
Receive weekly email updates summarizing what contributors have added to the History Commons database
Developing and maintaining this site is very labor intensive. If you find it useful, please give us a hand and donate what you can.
If you would like to help us with this effort, please contact us. We need help with programming (Java, JDO, mysql, and xml), design, networking, and publicity. If you want to contribute information to this site, click the register link at the top of the page, and start contributing.