IT is deeply alarming how easily threatening letters containing unidentified substances seem to have reached the offices of various justices of the Islamabad and Lahore High Courts, as well as the Supreme Court of Pakistan. They represent an outrageous attempt at terrorising the judiciary through a medium that Pakistan’s counterterrorism authorities have clearly not been monitoring well enough. At least 17 such letters have been received so far; four by the offices of Supreme Court justices, five by LHC justices’ staff, and eight by the staff of IHC justices. More may be on the way. It is as yet not known what the white powder in the envelopes addressed to the judges actually is, but investigators have expressed suspicions it could be a toxic substance meant to poison whoever opened the letters. Specifically, they are investigating whether it could be anthrax, a biological agent that is easily found in nature or can be produced in a lab, and which has earlier been used as a weapon, most prominently in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks in the US, when it was used to terrorise the American public in a very similar manner.

Details surrounding these incidents have been scarce, and it is not clear whether any of the people who came in contact with these letters have experienced any serious illness. However, some of the policemen who came in contact with the letters reported experiencing minor symptoms, including irritation. It is hoped, however, that there is no cause for major alarm. The letters may simply be an elaborate hoax designed to create an environment of fear or ‘send a message’, but, given how close they came to their intended recipients, they represent a major failure on the part of those tasked with keeping the country and its people safe. While the Counter-Terrorism Department investigates the matter and works on apprehending the perpetrators before they cause further harm, a detailed advisory should be issued to anyone who could be at risk to help them exercise enhanced precaution. Counter-terrorism authorities must, meanwhile, improve their monitoring of the entire spectrum of possible threats, including chemical and biological terrorism. The country’s postal system right now appears vulnerable to exploitation, and measures to secure it need to be taken immediately. This incident should not be taken lightly.

Published in Dawn, April 5th, 2024

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