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U.S. Officials Worried by Release of Al-Qaeda Bioweapons Operative

U.S. counterterrorism officials have expressed worry about Malaysia's decision to free a man once believed to have served as the head of al-Qaeda's biological weapons efforts, Newsweek magazine reported yesterday (see GSN, Dec. 10).

Authorities detained Malaysian national Yazid Sufaat in December 2001, based on suspicions that he was collaborating with a South Asian extremist organization linked to al-Qaeda. However, Sufaat and five other detainees were released earlier this month because "they are no longer a threat and will no longer pose a threat to public order," according to Malaysian Interior Minister Syed Hamid Albar. Sufaat himself "has been rehabilitated and can return to society," Albar said.

U.S. officials disagreed.

"This individual is considered dangerous," one source told Newsweek. Counterterrorism personnel question whether Sufaat has relinquished his hope of using biological weapons against the United States.

Malaysia told Washington that it could no longer legally hold Sufaat but that it would keep him under watch, the official said.

Sufaat was released one day after a congressionally mandated U.S. panel of experts issued a report warning of the looming threat posed by biological weapons and other weapons of mass destruction (see GSN, Dec. 2). "There's a troubling irony that this happened the day after our report," said former Senator Bob Graham (D-Fla.), co-chairman of the commission.

Sufaat received a biological sciences degree from California State University in 1987 before returning to Malaysia and becoming radicalized, Newsweek reported. He reportedly hosted a planning session for the Sept. 11 attacks and later led al-Qaeda's efforts to produce a biological weapon.

Sufaat in 2001 spent "several months attempting to cultivate anthrax for al-Qaeda in a laboratory" in Afghanistan, according to the Sept. 11 commission (Hosenball/Isikoff, Newsweek, Dec. 17).

NTI Analysis