The Ricin Letters: Is it Terrorism?

(image via NCTC)

UPDATE: All charges have been dropped against Curtis, and he has subsequently been released.

The Background

The mailing of three letters containing ricin to Senator Roger Wicker, President Obama, and a Mississippi judge rocked the nation last week.  As developments in the case continue,  Paul Kevin Curtis, a Mississippi Elvis impersonator, has emerged as the leading suspect. Curtis was arrested last Wednesday, and appeared in a court hearing Friday.  Due to the ongoing security concerns involved with the case, Curtis was charged before forensic analysis of his car and home was finished.  However, the use of certain language in the letters was identical to language used by Curtis in a Facebook posting, and indentations on the envelopes used matched Curtis’ address.

Why Ricin?

Ricin, as all of you by now probably know, is derived from the castor bean (pictured at left), and indeed is a natural waste-product in castor oil production. When weaponized, just 1.7 mg of the substance can kill an adult male. Ricin is a tempting, if often inefficient, bioterror agent – castor beans can be purchased online, as can relatively simple production instructions. However, the toxicity of this cruder form of ricin is often much lower than weapons-grade ricin.  The FBI has yet to release information regarding the toxicity of the ricin included in last week’s attack.

Is it Terrorism?

Tentatively, yes. Let’s look at how the FBI defines domestic terrorism:

“Domestic terrorism is the unlawful use, or threatened use, of force or violence by a group or individual based and operating entirely within the United States or Puerto Rico without foreign direction committed against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof in furtherance of political or social objectives” (source here)

While this definition is not complete or final (we could spend this entire post debating the meaning of terrorism), it hits the main points.  The letters meet all of the above criteria. Use of the letters falls under domestic terrorism because Curtis is believed to have acted alone, independently of any foreign group. Mailing letters containing ricin, a deadly toxin, is an unlawful attempt to cause morbidity (illness) or mortality. The political nature of the ricin letters is illustrated both by the targets – the President, a Senator – and the reason behind the attacks – Curtis’ desire to draw attention to a believed conspiracy involving the illicit sale of harvested organs. As things stand now, it looks like terrorism.

What now?

Now, we wait as more evidence is collected. Unsatisfying, we know. While we wait, let’s all take a minute to be grateful that no one was hurt,  to appreciate the sensitivity of the mail sensors at the two sorting facilities, and to hope this is the last time Mason Biodefense has to blog about ricin for a good, long, time.

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