Extremists and the Ricin Threat
Posted: February 5, 2004
“I hope it's potent ricin; I hope that a lot of U.S. Senators inhaled it, ‘cause I'll tell you something, ladies and gentlemen, in my opinion, most of the United States Senate are dishonorable scumbags who deserve to be killed for the way they have trampled the U.S. Constitution, ignored illegal immigration and especially for sending countless billions of our hard earned tax money to foreign countries, not the least of which, that murderous terroristic country, Israel…I want to congratulate and thank whoever did this. That person is a hero in my book, and again, I sincerely hope that a lot of U.S. Senators have inhaled the stuff and the filthy sons-of-bitches will drop dead.” --white supremacist radio broadcaster Hal Turner, on The Hal Turner Show, February 3, 2004.
The recent discovery of the poisonous substance ricin in the Dirksen Senate Office Building in Washington, DC, which forced the decontamination of 16 employees and the shutdown of several government buildings, has raised awareness of the possible threat posed by ricin in the hands of extremists or terrorists.
The ricin threat is real. Ricin, a poison derived from the castor bean, is easy for practically anybody to make, and it is so deadly—there is no cure—that even a tiny amount may be sufficient to kill. In fact, ricin is so easily made that ricin-related incidents occur every few years in the United States. These incidents generally have not been terrorist-related; they have involved situations such as frustrated workers, plotters scheming to kill over insurance money, and disgruntled truck drivers. Any poison could have been used; these poisoners chose ricin.
Because it is so readily available and easily prepared, ricin has also been attractive to extremists and terrorists, both domestic and international. However, ricin does pose problems for terrorists wishing to use it as a weapon; although deadly, it is much more difficult to use on a victim than, say, anthrax. It must be ingested, breathed in (if the particles are small enough), or combined with a substance that would allow it to be absorbed through the skin. Ricin cannot easily be used as a weapon of mass destruction.
Still, ricin was definitely of interest to members of an Al Qaeda-linked terrorist cell captured by British authorities in London in early 2003. There, six North African men were arrested during a raid on their apartment (eight more were subsequently arrested), where police found small amounts of ricin and the equipment necessary to manufacture it. Instructions on how to make ricin have also been found in Al Qaeda terrorist training manuals. Other Islamic terrorist groups may also have produced ricin, including the Kurdish group Ansar al-Islam, based in northern Iraq.
Domestic U.S. extremist groups have also been fascinated with ricin, to a much greater degree than any other chemical or biological agent (see Beyond Anthrax for more information on domestic extremists and chemical and biological agents). Domestic extremists have been responsible for several ricin-related incidents in the U.S.; these include:
- In 2000, a South African expatriate, Dr. Larry Ford, killed himself in Orange County, California, apparently because he was suspected in the attempted murder of his business partner two days earlier. A biotechnology entrepreneur, Ford also happened to be a white supremacist with a passion for neo-Nazi William Pierce’s novel “The Turner Diaries.” He also had ties to several anti-government extremist groups. Investigations after his death revealed that Ford possessed an unusual and deadly arsenal that ranged from machine guns and explosives to biological agents and quantities of ricin.
- In 1993, Thomas Lavy was detained along the Alaskan-Canadian border, apparently returning to his Arkansas home. Canadian officials discovered racist literature, weapons, 20,000 rounds of ammunition, cash, and 130 grams of ricin. When, some time later, federal authorities arrested Lavy, they found castor beans along with books that included instructions on making ricin. Lavy killed himself in his jail cell several days after his arrest.
- In 1992, members of the Minnesota Patriots Council, an anti-government extremist group, produced ricin, possibly to use against a U.S. deputy marshal and a deputy sheriff they disliked (they also discussed committing other crimes, such as blowing up a federal building). Three years later, four members--Leroy Wheeler, Douglas Baker, Dennis Henderson, and Richard Oelrich--were arrested and later convicted for possession of ricin (for use as a weapon).
Domestic extremists may be more likely to use ricin because it is so easy to learn how to manufacture the poison. At gun shows, survivalist expos, and through the Internet, extremists can purchase manuals such as The Poor Man’s James Bond, Ragnar's Action Encyclopedia of Practical Knowledge and Proven Techniques, Silent Death, The Catalogue of Silent Tools of Justice, and The Poisoner’s Handbook. Most of these manuals were written by or for right-wing extremists, and all include ricin-making instructions, and sometimes advice on its use. The author of The Poisoner’s Handbook, for example, suggests the poisoning of IRS workers by lacing tax return forms with ricin.
Because of ricin’s relatively high level of exposure among domestic extremist groups, as well as its track record in actually being used by domestic extremists, the threat of future use of ricin by such groups cannot be discounted.
The "Mujahideen Poisons Handbook" is one example of documents found on the Internet that give "how to" instructions for manufacturing poisons. Other examples include handwritten documents (in Arabic, English, and other languages) that have been scanned and posted online. There are also video tapes and online streaming video instructions that detail the steps in the manufacture of various explosives and poisons.