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
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
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
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
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.