February 3, 2004 | Op-ed

Ricin and Terrorism

Jonathan L. Snow                                                                                                                                                                                February 3, 2004


Current Situation


  •   On Feb. 2, 2004, a substance believed to be ricin was found in a US Senate building. Tests have since confirmed that the substance found in the Senate mail room was indeed ricin, a deadly toxin for which there is no known cure.

  •   There also has been a report that a suspicious white powder has been found in a postal sorting center in Connecticut. This is the same facility where anthrax spores were found in 2001. Tests later determined that the powder in Connecticut was not ricin.

  •    It was reported on February 3, 2004 that a ricin laced letter destined for the White House was intercepted in November 2003.

  •    Ricin, along with anthrax, is considered a biological weapon with potential for use as a weapon of mass destruction. It is cheap and easy to produce while being extremely lethal.  For this reason, terrorists have experimented with it.  The main challenge for terrorists when using ricin is how to deliver the toxin in such a manner as to expose as many people as possible to the agent.


    Ricin – A Certain Killer

    • Ricin is a product of the bean of the castor plant.  Ricin could be manufactured by terrorist groups with very little expertise required.
    • Ricin is one of the most lethal and easy to produce plant toxins.  Symptoms of ricin poisoning include gastroenteritis, vomiting and seizures. Symptoms usually appear within a few hours of exposure, but can be delayed for up to twelve hours.  Death will likely occur within 36-72 hours if a lethal dose has been administered.
    • There is currently no approved vaccine or antidote, though the US military has had some initial success in animal testing of a vaccine against the toxin. 

    Terrorists And Ricin

    • Ricin was the subject of multiple news stories in 2003 because of the fear that it might be used by terrorists.
    • David Kay’s interim report of October, 2003 mentions the continued prohibited research on ricin by the Saddam Hussein regime. Dr. Kay recently noted that ricin was a weapon that Saddam’s scientists continued to work on right up until the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
    • Ansar al-Islam, a terrorist group associated with al-Qaeda, was found to have experimented with ricin in Iraqi Kurdistan.
    • Al-Qaeda made tapes documenting their experiments with poisons.  These tapes include footage of poison gas being used to torture and kill dogs. Traces of ricin also were found in al-Qaeda caves in Afghanistan.
    • Police in London arrested 6 Algerian men with suspected links to al-Qaeda on January 5, 2003.   In the apartment of one of the men, police found traces of ricin, as well as equipment believed to have been used in the manufacturing of the poison. 
    • Bottles containing ricin were found in a Paris railway station in March 2003. France’s interior minister suggested at the time that the poison might have been destined for use by Chechen rebels, some of whom have al-Qaeda links.
    • Time magazine reported that the FBI sent a classified intelligence bulletin to state and local law enforcement agencies in early April 2003 advising them to be on the lookout for terrorists making toxins such as ricin and botulin (which causes botulism).
    • Ricin was also found in a mail processing facility in South Carolina in October 2003. In this instance, the ricin was found by a post office employee inside a metal container inside of an envelope.  The envelope also contained a threatening, unsigned note.
    •  London police confirmed in November, 2003 that London based terrorists had attempted to buy half a ton of saponin, a biological agent that can be used to enable poisonous chemicals, such as ricin, to penetrate human skin.
    •  French police announced in January, 2004 that an Islamic cell had planned attacks in France and possibly Britain using ricin and botulism during 2003.
    • A number of far-right groups in the US have shown interest in ricin production.
      SPAN style=”mso-spacerun: yes”> 
      Books such as Silent Death, popular amongst these groups, contain recipes for ricin and other similar chemical agents.  This book, along with other materials that could easily be used by terrorists, is publicly available. 

    Recent history: Chemical And Biological Weapons Use By Terrorists

    • Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov died in London in 1978, four days after being struck by a poison dart filled with ricin and fired from an umbrella.  It is widely believed that the KGB and Bulgarian intelligence were responsible for his assassination.
    • Terrorist regimes have used other poisons to assassinate opponents.  The regime of Saddam Hussein used thallium to murder its enemies.
    • Aum Shinrikyo, a Japanese cult, carried out deadly attacks in Tokyo in 1994 and 1995.  In their best known operation, cult members released sarin, a deadly nerve agent, in the Tokyo subway, killing twelve and injuring thousands.
    • In the fall of 2001 in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, anthrax laced envelopes were mailed to various government and news media offices.   Five people died, and seventeen others were sickened.  These attacks disrupted mail to the nation’s capital and required the closing of a Senate office building for months. 
    • Italian authorities disrupted a terrorist plot to poison Rome’s water supply with cyanide-based chemicals in February, 2002.  The terrorists were found in possession of 8.8 pounds of a cyanide compound and with maps marking the city’s water pipelines, a reservoir, and the entrances to the US embassy.
    • Spanish police detained 16 North Africans with alleged ties to al-Qaeda in January, 2003.  The Spanish prime minister stated that the group was planning to commit attacks with both explosives and with chemical materials.