Plum Island cited as terrorism target

By Rachael Scarborough King, Register Staff
Sept. 4, 2008

A suspected terrorist arrested in Afghanistan in July was found with notes that referenced a “mass casualty attack” and Plum Island, the site of the nation’s Animal Disease Center, according to an indictment in Manhattan federal court announced this week.

The indictment has led Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal to extend his opposition to the possible expansion of the Plum Island facility, located about 10 miles off Connecticut and at the eastern tip of the north shore of Long Island.

Blumenthal has already filed his formal opposition to replacing the current center with a new National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility, and on Wednesday he entered new comments with the Department of Homeland Security, calling the site a “known terrorist target” that should not be considered for further research.

Plum Island is one of six locations in the running for the new facility, which would allow scientists to study diseases that can be transferred from humans to animals. Officials at the Animal Disease Center currently study pathogens, like foot and mouth disease, that affect only animals.

With the island’s proximity to the densely populated areas of Long Island, New York City and southern Connecticut, Blumenthal said it is an inappropriate location for an expanded research center.

“We believe there is a very direct and imminent danger to a Level 4 (the highest biosafety level) facility on Plum Island,” he said. “The import of the notes is not that the present Plum Island is in danger of immediate attack, but that Plum Island generally is on the radar screen for terrorists.”

On Tuesday, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York announced the indictment of Aafia Siddiqui, 36, on charges of attempting to kill United States nationals outside the United States, attempting to kill United States officers and employees, armed assault of United States officers and employees, using and carrying a firearm during and in relation to a crime of violence and assault of United States officers and employees.

Siddiqui allegedly hid behind a curtain at an Afghan police compound and shot at two U.S. Army officers and other members of a team sent there to interview her. None of the Americans was injured, but one of the officers shot and injured Siddiqui in the torso, according to news reports.

When Afghan authorities detained her, according to the indictment, Siddiqui had with her several handwritten notes that included a reference to a “mass casualty attack” and a list of locations, including Plum Island, the Empire State Building, Wall Street, the Brooklyn Bridge and the Statue of Liberty.

Siddiqui is of Pakistani origin but lived in the United States from 1991 to 2002 and earned degrees from Brandeis University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, according to the indictment. She is scheduled to be arraigned on the charges this morning in U.S. District Court in New York City.

Blumenthal said he became aware of Siddiqui’s arrest Wednesday morning and requested additional information from federal authorities.

“These notes and other evidence certainly are a cause for concern no matter what the facility — any possible attack is a cause for concern — but the higher the public health threat level, the more deeply apprehensive we should be about this site being a terrorist target,” he said. “It’s exposed on all sides and above because it’s an island and virtually indefensible from serious attack.”

According to the Department of Homeland Security, the new $450 million National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility, which is not expected to open until 2015, will include “the latest advances in security and technology.” Any employees would be subject to federal background checks and other testing, and people working with Biosafety Level 4 microorganisms would wear full-body pressurized suits and not be allowed to have solitary access to the areas.

Spokespeople for the department have said that officials are continuing to analyze the responses to draft environmental impact statements released for each of the six sites. Blumenthal’s comments were in response to that statement. He is asking DHS to “completely redo” the impact statement or eliminate Plum Island from the process.

The other sites in consideration are Athens, Ga.; Manhattan, Kan.; Flora, Miss.; Butner, N.C., and San Antonio, Texas. A final decision on the location is expected by the end of this year.

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