A few days before the 21st anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks, Netflix released a new documentary feature about the aftermath, namely the terrifying 2001 anthrax attacks that occurred just one week after 9/11. The Anthrax Attacks is part of a Netflix collaboration with the BBC and is now streaming on the service.
The 2001 anthrax attacks, sometimes dubbed “Amerithrax,” was an incident where several news media outlets and Democratic senators received letters containing deadly anthrax spores. Five people died in total, and at least 17 were infected, potentially more.
Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of the case is that no one was ever brought to justice, although the FBI did name one man as the sole culprit. He died before he could go to trial, and the case has since been closed.
The Anthrax Attacks: Who was the culprit behind the 2001 anthrax attacks?
There were three primary culprits for the 2001 anthrax attacks: Al-Qaeda, Steven Hatfill, and Bruce Edwards Ivins. Because the attacks happened so soon after 9/11 and the letters said things like “death to America” and “death to Islam,” the American government believed the usage of anthrax spores in the post was another terrorist attack, this time biological, potentially linked to the 9/11 plane hijackings.
However, the FBI quickly deduced that the spores used were from the Ames strain, an anthrax strain created on American soil and present in at least 15 different labs. Bruce Ivins was the leading anthrax investigator at the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) and became an early suspect.
The FBI initially cleared Ivins of suspicion and even considered him an asset in their investigation as he assisted them by providing information on other researchers who had access to the strain. The FBI set their sights on former army researcher Steven Hatfill, who had previously been fired for violating regulations and later lost a second job in addition to his security clearance.
Despite not having concrete evidence, the FBI agents on the case focused all their efforts on Hatfill, to the point Hatfill filed a lawsuit accusing the Justice Department of leaking information to the press in violation of the Privacy Act. He received $5.8 million as part of a settlement.
Ultimately, the search circled back to Ivins. In late 2006, science progressed enough that the FBI could use a combination of genome and DNA sequencing to create a DNA fingerprint that matched one found on a specific flask of anthrax spores labeled RMR-1029, a flask Ivins made as part of his experiments.
Further digging also showed that Ivins had been increasing his time in the “hot suites” (labs designed to be cut off from the outside world so germs cannot escape) in the days before the letters arrived. These findings, on top of allegations that Ivins had various mental illnesses, led to him becoming the primary suspect.
Since Ivins was a co-inventor on two patents for anthrax vaccine technology, his motivations were believed to be linked to wanting to get his vaccine approved. The resulting attacks did indeed help his achievements garner recognition since the media frenzy and public paranoia led to an increase in vaccine interest. He and two colleagues were awarded the Decoration for Exceptional Civilian Service by the USAMRIID thanks to their assistance in solving technical problems related to the manufacturing of the anthrax vaccine.
The Anthrax Attacks: Where is Bruce Ivins now?
Bruce Ivins died on July 29, 2008. He appeared to commit suicide by overdosing on acetaminophen (Tylenol) after learning that the FBI was going to file criminal charges against him for his alleged connection to the anthrax attacks.
But the FBI believed he was their man. In The Anthrax Attacks documentary, you’ll hear conflicting opinions on whether Ivins was the guilty party or not. The FBI closed the case and destroyed all the evidence, so it cannot be reopened and re-investigated. In short, Bruce Ivins is believed to be the main culprit behind the attacks, but it was never proven in a court of law.
The Anthrax Attacks is now streaming on Netflix.