Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Ricin: Almost never deadly

By Peter Bergen, CNN National Security Analyst, and Jennifer Rowland, Special to CNN
updated 8:06 AM EDT, Fri April 19, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Since 9/11 terror attacks, eight have been arrested for attempted ricin attacks
  • Peter Bergen: Only two people succeeded in producing or obtaining ricin
  • Ricin needs to be injected or ingested to be deadly, Bergen says

Editor's note: Peter Bergen is CNN's national security analyst, the author of "Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for bin Laden -- From 9/11 to Abbottabad" and a director at the New America Foundation. Jennifer Rowland is a program associate at the New America Foundation.

(CNN) -- In the years since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, eight people have been arrested in the United States for attempting to make the deadly poison ricin with the intent of using it for an act of politically motivated violence, according to terrorism data collected by the New America Foundation.

But only two of those individuals succeeded in actually producing or otherwise obtaining ricin, and the two ricin-dusted letters sent this week to President Barack Obama and Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Mississippi, bring the total number of attempted ricin attacks in this country since 9/11 to six.

Ricin is an attractive poison for terrorists because it can be made from the seeds of the castor oil plant, a readily available crop that is grown to produce castor oil, which is used to repel moles and voles from gardens.

Peter Bergen
Peter Bergen

Although the castor oil plant is easily accessible, extracting ricin from its seeds is a much more complex process. In 2011, Michael Crooker, a Boston-based right-wing extremist, pleaded guilty to possessing ricin and threatening a government employee. When authorities had searched his apartment seven years earlier, they found ingredients and lab equipment suitable for manufacturing ricin.

Crooker is the only known extremist to have successfully produced the toxin in the United States since the 9/11 attacks. It is not yet known how Kevin Curtis, who was arrested on Wednesday afternoon on suspicion of sending the two ricin-laden letters to Washington officials this week, was able to obtain ricin.

An effective, if rarely used, method of assassination, just a milligram of ricin, if injected or ingested, is enough to kill. In 1978, Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov was walking across London's Waterloo Bridge when he was famously attacked by an assassin wielding a poison-tipped umbrella. The weapon inserted a small pellet containing ricin into Markov's leg. He died four days later.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



Markov appears to be the only person to have been assassinated in a ricin attack in more than three decades. That's because to succeed, such an attack requires ricin to be directly injected, or in some other way be to directly ingested, by the victim. That makes ricin a poor choice for a terrorist trying to inflict mass casualties.

The six attempted ricin attacks since 9/11 resulted in neither death nor sickness. Most also remain unsolved cases. On October 16, 2003, someone dropped a note off at a mail-sorting office at the Greenville-Spartanburg International Airport in South Carolina.

Addressed to the Department of Transportation and attached to a small metal vial, the note read "I'm a fleet owner of a tanker company. I have access to castor pulp. If my demand is dismissed, I am capable of making Ricin." The white powder in the attached vial was soon confirmed to be the deadly substance.

Weeks later, in early November, a similar letter was discovered at a Washington mail facility that services the White House. Initial tests on an identical vial of white powder were negative for ricin, but subsequent tests at the mail facility found trace amounts of the toxin. Both letters had been signed "Fallen Angel" and demanded that the government not raise the minimum number of hours that truckers must spend at sleeper berths. "Fallen Angel" was never identified, and no personnel at either mail facility were sickened by the poison.

Three months after the "Fallen Angel" letters, ricin was also discovered on a mail-opening machine at the office of Sen. Bill Frist. Again, no one at the senator's office showed any symptoms of ricin poisoning, but the third attempted attack in a matter of months dredged up uneasy memories on Capitol Hill of the 2001 anthrax attacks, which killed five people and sickened several others.

Ricin deadly but clumsy weapon
Elvis impersonator arrested in ricin scare

Since the February 2004 incident at Frist's office, only Kevin Curtis is alleged to have used ricin in an attack. But at least six other extremists have assembled the materials necessary to produce the toxin.

Around midnight on July 8, 2005, Denys Ray Hughes was pulled over in Arizona for traffic violations. In his car, a police officer found coolers full of bomb-making materials and instructions, and Hughes identified himself as a "survivalist/militiaman," according to his criminal complaint.

During a search of his home in the ensuing investigation, police found that Hughes had cultivated thousands of castor beans from homegrown castor oil plants. He had piles of instructional material on making ricin and other poisons, but his plans for their use remained unknown.

And in 2012, four other right-wing extremists were arrested in Georgia for plotting attacks on the government and attempting to manufacture ricin. An FBI informant recorded the men discussing plans to spread the toxin across Atlanta, Washington and several other major American cities. "When it comes time to saving the Constitution, that means some people gotta die," an arrest affidavit quoted one suspect as saying.

Also last year, Theodore Shulman, a self-described "pro-choice-terrorist" was arrested and was found to have cyanide and castor beans in his possession. Shulman had threatened to injure or kidnap anti-abortion advocates, authorities said.

Documents recovered by U.S. troops from al Qaeda safe houses in Afghanistan showed that Osama bin Laden's terrorist group expressed interest in obtaining ricin. But no al Qaeda-affiliated or inspired extremist has been arrested in the United States for attempting to produce it.

Indeed, since 9/11, of the 207 indictments of al Qaeda-affiliated or inspired extremists for some kind of terrorist plot in the United States, not one of the cases involved individuals attempting to manufacture or deploy biological, chemical or radiological weapons.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 9:27 PM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, writes William Piekos.
updated 6:09 PM EDT, Sat September 27, 2014
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits America, Madeleine Albright says a world roiled by conflict needs these two great democracies to commit to moving their partnership forward
updated 2:02 PM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
John Sutter: Lake Providence, Louisiana, is the parish seat of the "most unequal place in America." And until somewhat recently, the poor side of town was invisible on Google Street View.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Julian Zelizer says in the run up to the 2016 election the party faces divisions on its approach to the U.S.'s place in the world
updated 10:19 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Common Core supporters can't devise a new set of standards and then fail to effectively sell it.
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Earlier this month, Kenyans commemorated the heinous attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
updated 4:57 PM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
David Wheeler says Colorado students are right to protest curriculum changes that downplays civil disobedience.
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Sally Kohn says when people click on hacked celebrity photos or ISIS videos, they are encouraging the bad guys.
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Loren Bunche says she walked by a homeless man every day and felt bad about it -- until one day she paused to get to know him
updated 1:41 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
ISIS grabs headlines on social media, but hateful speech is no match for moderate voices, says Nadia Oweidat.
updated 8:33 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
A new report counts jihadists fighting globally. The verdict? The threat isn't that big, says Peter Bergen.
updated 5:37 PM EDT, Tue September 23, 2014
Ebola could become the biggest humanitarian disaster in a generation, writes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
updated 12:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
ISIS has shocked the world. But will releasing videos of executions backfire? Four experts give their take.
updated 10:39 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Eric Holder kicked off his stormy tenure as attorney general with a challenge to the public that set tone for six turbulent years as top law-enforcement officer.
updated 9:09 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
LZ Granderson says Obama was elected as a war-ending change agent, not a leader who would leave behind for his successor new engagement in Iraq and Syria. Is he as disappointed as the rest of us?
updated 5:10 AM EDT, Wed September 24, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says the question now is how to translate all the high-profile feminizing into real gains for women
updated 3:00 PM EDT, Thu September 25, 2014
John Sutter says the right is often stereotyped on climate change. But with 97% of climate scientists say humans are causing global warming, we all have to get together on this.
updated 8:57 AM EDT, Thu September 25, 2014
Andrew Liepman and Philip Mudd: When we declare that we will defeat ISIS, what do we exactly mean?
updated 4:40 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Thailand sex trafficking
Human trafficking is a multibillion dollar global industry. To beat it, we need to change mindsets, Cindy McCain says.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
The leaders of the GOP conferences say a Republican-led Senate could help solve America's problems.
updated 10:01 AM EDT, Thu September 25, 2014
Nicholas Syrett says Wesleyan University's decision to make fraternities admit women will help curb rape culture.
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Thu September 25, 2014
Mike Downey says New Yorkers may be overdoing it, but baseball will really miss Derek Jeter
updated 8:32 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Quick: Which U.S. president has authorized wars of various kinds in seven Muslim countries?
updated 2:17 PM EDT, Wed September 24, 2014
Women's issues should be considered front and center when assessing a society's path, says Zainab Salbi
updated 2:05 PM EDT, Tue September 23, 2014
A catastrophe not making headlines like Ebola and ISIS: the astounding rate of child poverty in the world's richest country.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT