LYON, France – The New York City police department is “very concerned” that al-Qaida is pursuing efforts to obtain chemical, biological or nuclear weapons, a senior official said Wednesday.
Michael Sheehan, the NYPD’s counterterrorism commissioner, said officials know that Osama bin Laden’s terror network is searching for biological weaponry and it appears to have sympathizers with medical and scientific backgrounds who could handle them.
“We are very concerned they are still trying to seek chemical, biological or radiological weapons,” he told reporters on the sidelines of an Interpol conference on bioterrorism in Lyon, southeastern France.
“We don’t have any information that at this time they have that capability, but we do know they’re trying to get it,” Sheehan said of al-Qaida, declining to provide specifics.
He said al-Qaida’s operational ability appeared to have declined since the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001 pushed them out of their bases and into hiding.
“However, we still know they are very much out there — and capable,” Sheehan said. “We don’t underestimate their ability to bounce back as a serious threat of terrorism.”
The threat was not just al-Qaida, but could come from any terrorist organization “or some type of deranged person,” Sheehan added.
His comments came a day after Interpol Secretary-General Ronald K. Noble warned the conference of al-Qaida’s stated intent to use biological weaponry, noting the group has posted instructions for making such arms on the Internet.
More than 500 crime fighters, scientists and counterterrorism officials from 155 countries were on hand for the two-day conference, touted as the largest gathering of police in history.
Sheehan said that New York City was on the “cutting edge” of using technology for early detection against a potential biological terror attack.
Air detectors have been installed across the city, indoors and outdoors, to take air samples and they are checked everyday by scientists for pathogens, Sheehan said, noting that the project was still in the testing phase.
Post offices also are using new technology to search the mail for biological pathogens, such as anthrax, in the aftermath of the anthrax-by-mail attacks that terrorized the United States three years ago.
Interpol is based in the southeastern city of Lyon.