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Extremists and Anthrax
Anthrax Hoaxes
2001 Outbreak and New Hoaxes
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Earlier Incidents: 1970 - 1984

During the 1970s, few Americans were concerned about anthrax. Yet by 2001, American attitudes had changed so much that terrorists realized they could cause maximum fear and panic in the U.S. by sending letters contaminated with anthrax. In the intervening years, several events occurred which successively drove American anxiety over anthrax to ever higher levels.

Actual use of chemical or biological agents by terrorist or extremist groups has been rare. Reported or alleged incidents since 1970 include the following:

  • In the 1970s it was reported that the Weather Underground, a left-wing terrorist group, had attempted to acquire chemical or biological weapons from Fort Detrick, Maryland. Other reports emerged that the Baader-Meinhof Gang, a German left-wing terrorist group, had acquired mustard gas in 1975 and that the Red Army Faction, another left-wing group, had acquired the botulinum toxin in 1980. However, a detailed study of these and other alleged chemical and biological incidents edited by Jonathan Tucker of the Center for Nonproliferation Studies in 2000 revealed that these incidents and several others were apocryphal or largely without evidential foundation.

  • In the early 1970s, Muharem Kurbegovic, a Yugoslavian-born terrorist who styled himself the "alphabet bomber," sent toxic chemicals through the mail to a Supreme Court justice and threatened to use nerve-gas devices against the Capitol and the president of the U.S. He was arrested in August 1974 for a bombing that killed three people at the Los Angeles International Airport; following the arrest, police searching his California home found that he had assembled virtually all the ingredients necessary to construct a nerve-gas bomb.

  • In 1972, police arrested two teenagers, Steven Pera and Allen Schwander, who had started a small group called R.I.S.E. (it is not known what the acronym stood for) that, according to Illinois authorities, had visions of eliminating humanity, allowing R.I.S.E. members to start a new master race. New recruits to the group tipped off police, who discovered that Pera and Schwander actually had biological agents, including the typhus bacillus. The two teenagers skipped bail and fled to Cuba; Pera later returned and voluntarily surrendered, entering into a plea agreement with authorities, while Schwander was arrested by the Cuban government.

  • In 1981 an environmental extremist group deposited packages containing anthrax-contaminated soil outside a chemical weapons research facility and near a political party conference in Great Britain. The group, who called themselves the "Dark Harvest Commandos," claimed to have obtained the material from Gruinard Island, whose contamination they were protesting. The group threatened to deposit more anthrax-contaminated soil at "appropriate points," although there were apparently no subsequent events.

  • In Oregon, in 1984, a religious cult contaminated restaurant salad bars with salmonella in order to sicken people so that they could not participate in local elections. Hundreds of patrons came down with food poisoning, although no one died.

Considerably more common than the use or attempted use of chemical or biological agents by terrorists, extremists, or religious fringe groups was use or attempted use by non-ideological people or groups for conventional criminal purposes, such as extortion or murder.

W. Seth Carus of the National Defense University compiled a list of incidents during the past century involving biological agents; of these, the majority were criminal rather than terroristic in nature and involved attempts to poison or infect relatives, spouses, or associates. Agents involved ranged from ricin to HIV.

One example involving anthrax illustrates the character of such incidents: In 1992 a Fairfax County, Virginia, resident allegedly sprayed partygoers at his home with a substance he claimed was anthrax. In this case, the substance turned out to be harmless, but other incidents sometimes involved actual agents.

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