Tuesday, February 03, 2004

Ricin and terrorism

It's hard to tell at this point about the nature of the recent appearance of a suspicious white powder, which tested positive for ricin, in the U.S. Senate Building's mailroom.

Like anthrax, mailing a powder is only a partially effective way to attack anyone with ricin. It is most effective when either injected or ingested, though it is certainly feasible to make it in a powder form that, like the anthrax attacks of 2001, can be relatively deadly, depending on the nature of the powder and how readily it becomes airborne. (The 2001 anthrax powder was quite sophisticated and was clearly produced by someone with advanced skills and specialized knowledge and equipment.) Its effects are almost immediate. It is a real poison, not a disease-inducing pathogen like anthrax.

Whoever did this was clearly trying to scare the Senate, and probably by "piggybacking" off the anthrax attack fears -- which themselves clearly "piggybacked" off the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. As with the anthrax attacks, if they really hoped to kill someone with ricin, they were not terribly competent about it.

Notably, of course, the early media reports -- like the MSNBC version -- have so far mostly focused on the possibility that this was the act of Al Qaeda or some other international terrorist. The possibility of domestic terrorism has not been discussed:
Police found traces of ricin in a north London apartment last January and arrested seven men of North African origin in connection with the virulent toxin that has been linked to al-Qaida terrorists and Iraq.

A package containing ricin was also found at a post facility serving Greenville-Spartanburg International Airport in South Carolina in October.

However, the CNN version at least notes that the latter incident involved a "typewritten letter [that] was addressed to the Department of Transportation and demanded that changes in truckers' sleep/work schedules not be implemented." Not exactly a concern for Al Qaeda.

Actually, ricin has a long and colorful history among members of the American far right, and suspicions of domestic terrorism certainly should be raised here.

Here is a fact sheet on ricin from the Center for Defense Information. It notes, particularly, the following incident:
In 1995, members of the Minnesota Patriots Council, an extremist American anti-government organization, were arrested for plotting the murder of a U.S. marshal using ricin. They had planned on sprinkling the substance on the door handles of the marshal's vehicle as well as the car heater fan. The incident illustrates the potential common danger even a small and relatively unsophisticated organization can wreak. Indeed, had those who carried out the 1995 sarin attack on the Tokyo subways used ricin -- which is far deadlier and easier to produce -- the results could have been catastrophic.

The Minnesota case was not the only one. Numerous figures associated with America's extremist right have over the years dabbled with ricin.

For instance, there was the bizarre case of Larry C. Brown, the Irvine, Calif., gynecologist whose strange double life came to light in early 2000 after he tried to have his business partner killed, unsuccessfully. Two days later, Brown himself committed suicide. Investigators found a large cache of weapons and vials of pathogens, including a large cache of ricin that was stored with a blowgun and darts in the family room. They also found, as the story described, that Brown was "a man with ties to racist, antigovernment groups in the United States who also developed a relationship with apartheid South Africa's secret biological and chemical weapons program, Project Coast."
After his death, Detective Ray said, the authorities learned that Dr. Ford had been a consultant to Project Coast, which has been accused of creating weapons for use against enemies of apartheid. They also discovered that he had held extreme racist views and had once told a girlfriend that to understand him, she should read "The Turner Diaries," the anti-Semitic and white supremacist novel, popular among far-right groups, that was prosecutors say inspired the Oklahoma City bombing.

There have been other cases involving right-wingers caught with ricin, and instructions for making the stuff are often described in far-right survivalist manuals. One white supremacist arrested in Chicago in 2002 fantasized about killing the 850 African American residents of a housing project with ricin as part of a plan to start a race war.

A recent case in Spokane also involved ricin. A Boy Scout leader named Kenneth Olsen bought a CD-ROM from an Arkansas right-wing survivalist named Kurt Saxon that contained details on how to make ricin; Olsen made the stuff, which he purportedly planned to use to kill his wife. He was convicted and given a 13-year sentence.

There have been other cases over the years as well, including the 1999 case of James Kenneth Gluck, an antigovernment extremist who threatened Colorado officials with ricin.

The point, of course, is not to conclude that this ricin attack is necessarily the work of domestic terrorists -- rather, it is to point out that they should be considered co-equal suspects in this case.

That was, after all, the ultimate conclusion in the anthrax case. But it took far too long for everyone to realize that -- and perhaps as a result, that killer is still roaming free. Indeed, there is at least some likelihood that today's news may be a direct reflection of that fact.

No comments: