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
April 19, 2013 -- Updated 1206 GMT (2006 HKT)
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
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1626 GMT (0026 HKT)
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2335 GMT (0735 HKT)
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1126 GMT (1926 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2053 GMT (0453 HKT)
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1919 GMT (0319 HKT)
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1558 GMT (2358 HKT)
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1950 GMT (0350 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2052 GMT (0452 HKT)
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1629 GMT (0029 HKT)
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2104 GMT (0504 HKT)
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2145 GMT (0545 HKT)
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1231 GMT (2031 HKT)
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
August 24, 2014 -- Updated 0105 GMT (0905 HKT)
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2247 GMT (0647 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1450 GMT (2250 HKT)
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1103 GMT (1903 HKT)
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1200 GMT (2000 HKT)
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT