As sea shrinks, danger grows
MUYNOQ, Uzbekistan – Once it was anthrax island.
But now the shrinking Aral Sea is leaving a land bridge to a
windswept site north of here where Soviet scientists tested deadly
bio-weapons and dumped enough of a supervirulent brown powder to
For years, Pentagon insiders and locals, including Uzbek
cargo ship captain Aygali Tankimanov, who steered past the island
regularly, have known that anthrax alive in the soil could spread.
Via burrowing gophers or antelope.
Or unemployed fishermen who cross to the island seeking scrap
metal to sell.
Or government crews interested in drilling for oil.
“Even though Americans are far away,” 62-year-old Tankimanov
warned, “it could still reach them.”
Only now – after the Sept. 11 attacks, the surfacing of
anthrax in the U.S. mail, and the possibility a terrorist could
reach the once-remote island on foot – are U.S. officials
beginning to act on such warnings.
The island named Vozrozhdeniye (“Rebirth”) served as the main
open-air testing site for the vast Soviet germ-warfare machine
that, during the Cold War, perfected methods of killing Americans
Scientists tied hundreds of monkeys to poles on
Vozrozhdeniye, set off bombs that puffed yellowish brown clouds of
anthrax and other biological agents, then monitored how long it
took for the monkeys, bleeding from their mouths, to collapse and
In the late 1980s, Soviets buried more than 100 tons of
Anthrax 836 – enough to extinguish Earth’s population several
times over if delivered efficiently – just a few feet underground,
said Ken Alibek, a Soviet bioweapons program leader who defected
to the United States.
U.S. soil tests a decade later revealed that the anthrax was
By then, multiple U.S. government programs had emerged to
deal with the Soviet bioweapons complex that mobilized an
estimated 65,000 scientists at 40 or more factories and labs.
Yet for years, Uzbek authorities refused to let Americans
work on Vozrozhdeniye. Uzbekistan controls airpsace and two-thirds
of the island. Kazakstan claims the northern tip.
Last April, White House officials launched a review of all
spending on programs to help Russia and former Soviet states
dismantle Cold War weapons facilities. Some U.S. analysts and
lawmakers long have challenged such spending, warning that Russia
might take the money and still secretly develop bioweapons in four
military labs off-limits to U.S. officials.
Then hijackers killed nearly 4,000 people on Sept. 11. And
policy makers now view containing weapons of mass destruction as
more of a priority for U.S. international policy.
“I won’t say people have been doing any cartwheels. But you
can see, in bits of pieces, that there is not only heightened
awareness on our part but also on the part of our allies,” said
Brian Hayes, the Pentagon project director entrusted with
Vozrozhdeniye. He and other U.S. experts, wearing protective
suits, have visited the island. They are developing a plan to
clean up the anthrax and raze testing facilities “within six months.”
Rather than cut spending, Congress now is considering adding
$40 million or more to the $17 million allotted for Vozrozhdeniye
and other bioweapons threats, said Jim Reid, chief of the
Pentagon’s Cooperative Threat Reduction program.
A bioweapons attack on America now is seen as “more possible
sooner, and therefore warrants a more intense, earlier
(prevention) effort,” Reid said.
On Oct. 22, Uzbekistan, too, got moving, granting U.S.
officials permission to begin work.
Meanwhile, al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden’s forces already
may have developed bioweapons. A U.S. commander announced last
week that American soldiers in Afghanistan found widespread
evidence of tinkering with bio-agents.
Soviet weapons sold
Leaders of anti-American groups stated as far back as 1999
that they’d bought biological and chemical ingredients in former
Soviet states for possible attacks on Israel and the United States.
Yet still, there’s no visible security out here on the sandy
scrub land between Muynoq and Vozrozhdeniye’s deadly spores.
“To grow even a ton of this agent (Anthrax 836), it would be
enough if you get just a small vial of it,” Alibek, 51, said in an
interview from his home outside Washington D.C. Obtaining such a
vial from Vozrozhdeniye would require “three or four days” and no
particular scientific expertise.
“A technician” could collect it, said Alibek, who rose to
second-in-command of the Soviet “Biopreparat” weapons-developing
system before defecting in 1992.
“Something needs to be done. If we don’t do anything, there
is some probability that this thing could come to the United
States in the form of actual weapons.”
In meetings with members of Congress, Alibek has advocated
aggressive action to neutralize bioweapons facilities and help
employ Soviet scientists who receive only $50 to $100 a month if
“We’ve already seen what could be caused by a very small
amount of anthrax” delivered inefficiently in letters, Alibek
“Such biological agents are becoming attractive to terrorists
from two standpoints: First, as weapons which could kill people.
Second, as weapons that can keep the entire country hostage for
weeks, even months. We saw a very severe psychological effect.”
During the Cold War, Soviet and U.S. military scientists
began developing bioweapons along with nuclear weapons.
But Soviet biowarfare efforts surpassed anything U.S.
military scientists even tried. Soviet scientists developed
hundreds of tons of weaponized anthrax, plague and possibly
smallpox. They had isolated incurable viruses including Ebola and
Marburg by the early 1980s, Alibek said, and then melded them into
Americans had an inkling early on. U-2 spy planes flying over
Vozrozhdeniye in the late 1950s photographed the evenly spaced
posts where Soviets tied up animals and building configurations
resembling America’s own bioweapons testing facilities in Utah.
Soviet programs progressed steadily at least through 1992,
Alibek said, with Mikhail Gorbachev and other leaders viewing
bioweapons as insurance “in case of war” even after the 1972
Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, which banned bioweapons.
Alibek said he personally developed a weapon using an anthrax
strain three times more lethal than the Anthrax 836.
On Vozrozhdeniye, Soviets disposed of massive quantities of
Anthrax 836 from other bioweapons facilities because of the
island’s seemingly remote Central Asian location, in the windswept
Aral Sea, surrounded by sparsely populated desert.
Soviet soldiers poured hydrogen peroxide onto the anthrax in
stainless steel drums, let the mix sit, then repeated the process
three times, according to Alibek, who added that spores certainly
survived. A Western analyst in the Uzbek capital Tashkent, who
spoke on condition of anonymity, confirmed the account.
Then the Soviets dug shallow pits and emptied the stainless steel drums,
containers they may have considered valuable, and buried the
anthrax a few feet underground, Alibek said. U.S. officials
sampled soil here in 1997 and found live, lethal spores.
Hayes, the Pentagon project chief, confirmed U.S. officials
have “firsthand knowledge” of the threat.
All this time, the Aral Sea has been shrinking.
Large-scale irrigation projects to produce cotton across arid
Central Asia drained the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers that once
fed the sea.
Now Vozrozhdeniye Island is practically connected to the
mainland. Already, people in Muynoq say, they can walk across
marshes to the island during dry months. An international team of
scientists reported in August that the sea, with average depth
down to about 50 feet, soon will be just a cluster of
On Vozrozhdeniye, dilapidated dorms and a playground stand
near an airfield. Soviet researchers and their families lived on
the island during tests.
An emerging Pentagon plan likely would require use of
respirators. Hayes described the plan as “manpower intensive”
involving “a lot of dirt moving,” but he declined to give details
for security reasons.
Alibek says drilling thousands of holes no deeper than 5 feet
and pumping in disinfectant hydrogen peroxide and formaldehyde
chemicals also might work. Capping the contaminated areas would
not be sufficient, he said.
Cancers, birth defects
For years, residents of Muynoq and other former seaside towns
have been leaving. Partly that’s because of the demise of Aral Sea
fishing, and partly because millions of people in this region
suffer health problems. Over the years, unexplained mass deaths of
animals and a high incidence of rare cancers and birth defects
raised public concerns about pesticide dust storms and the impact
of bioweapons testing.
But retired captain Tankimanov says he can’t afford to leave.
He tries to stay healthy, taking walks by the ramshackle gray
wood warehouses of what once was his port, looking nostalgically
at boats beached in sand where bony cows nibble weeds. Beyond
terrorists, he said he worries about viruses spreading through
“People here could die. There are many rats on that island.
If the land connects more with the island, all those rats could
come out here,” he said. “America should try to kill the rats. And
then you must clean that whole island completely.”