By Stevie Kiesel
Stevie is a part-time PhD student in the GMU Biodefense program, and a full-time transportation security analyst. Her area of study is extreme right wing terrorism and WMD.
In June 2019, FBI leadership testified to the House Oversight and Reform Committee that “individuals adhering to racially motivated violent extremism ideology have been responsible for the most lethal incidents among domestic terrorists in recent years, and the FBI assesses the threat of violence and lethality posed by racially motivated violent extremists will continue.” In September 2019, the Department of Homeland Security published a Strategic Framework for Combating Terrorism and Targeted Violence, which acknowledges that “white supremacist violent extremism…is one of the most potent forces driving domestic terrorism” and “another significant motivating force behind domestic terrorism has been anti-government/anti-authority violent extremism.” A few weeks later, William Braniff, director of START at the University of Maryland, testified to the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee that “among domestic terrorists, violent far-right terrorists…are responsible for more…pursuits of chemical or biological weapons…than international terrorists.” Just as policymakers have been slow to acknowledge and act upon the threat of domestic CBRN terrorism, timely extant research on the issue is scarce as well. In this article, I focus on ricin as an agent of domestic terror. As government agencies acknowledge the threat domestic terrorism poses, policymakers and law enforcement should take ricin seriously as a potential weapon.
To understand the plausibility of ricin’s use as a weapon, I reviewed a number of journal articles, news articles, and court records from 1978 through 2019 and compiled data on 46 incidents of ricin acquisition and/or use. Of these 46 incidents, 19 could be credibly tied to terrorism, 19 were not related to terrorism, and 8 were unclear. The most common motivation after terrorism was murder (10 instances). Of the 19 terrorist incidents, 58% were committed by extreme right-wing terrorists, a term that here encompasses the following ideologies: neo-Nazi/neo-fascist, white nationalist/supremacist/separatist, religious nationalist, anti-abortion, anti-taxation, anti-government, and sovereign citizen. The remaining incidents were committed by Islamist terrorists (16%), Chechen nationalists (10%), or their exact ideology was unclear (16%).
Compared to many other biological agents, ricin is easy to weaponize—no laboratory required. Ricin is a toxin that occurs naturally in castor beans, which are used worldwide to make castor oil. If someone chewed and swallowed these beans, the toxin would be released into their system. While their bitter taste and tough texture make this an unlikely scenario for terrorism, one woman did attempt suicide this way. She experienced digestive symptoms but recovered.
Ricin can be isolated by adding a solvent to cooked then mashed castor beans, using common household materials. While some technical skill is required to create highly purified ricin, even an amateur’s home-cultivated ricin can be deadly. Potential exposure routes include skin/eye, ingestion, injection, and inhalation. While absorption through the skin is unlikely, contact with the mucous membranes would cause severe irritation. In 1995, a neurologist with a grudge planned to soak pages of a book with a ricin-solvent mixture, under the assumption that the solvent would promote the absorption of ricin through the skin. However, he was apprehended before the efficacy of this theory could be tested.
A much simpler plot would be to dissolve ricin in liquid, as it is odorless and tasteless when properly cultivated. Such an attack was thwarted in 1983: a 19-year-old planned to murder his father by dissolving ricin into his water, but a friend who was helping him acquire to ricin backed out and informed the police.
A majority of successfully executed ricin plots involve injection. While there is a great deal of secrecy and a fair amount of quibbling over the exact number surrounding these plots, we know that on at least three occasions, intelligence agents were injected with a ricin-filled pellet, presumably by a foreign intelligence service. Finally, as with any good bioterrorism agent, inhaling the toxin will provoke a severe and often fatal reaction. There is no ricin antidote, so supportive treatment is the only option.
Many have argued that while ricin is not an effective weapon of mass destruction, it can be a highly effective weapon of terror. Based on my analysis, I agree with this assessment—ricin has a history of being sought after not only by terrorists but also by those looking to inflict a psychologically damaging harm on their victims and/or witnesses. Ricin is attractive because (1) of its poisonous profile as a “dreaded risk,” (2) it is relatively easy to acquire, (3) it can be delivered in an aerosolized form or dissolved into liquid to avoid detection, and (4) there is no antidote. Therefore, it should not be discounted as a domestic terrorism threat. But what should be done to mitigate this risk?
Although the Department of Health and Human Services classifies ricin as a select agent/toxin, ricin can be easily cultivated from castor beans without detection. A possible avenue for interdiction is perpetrators who try to buy ricin—in 2 instances I examined, plots were thwarted because the perpetrators used the dark web to buy ricin from an undercover FBI agent. Monitoring illicit markets for suspicious purchases and sustaining robust countering violent extremism programs are essential parts of prevention. But this will not be enough—in 11% of instances in my dataset, the attack was only discovered when the ricin was delivered to the target (this includes cases where ricin was delivered through the mail, but excludes the 5 cases where it was intercepted by a facility that handles mail for federal agencies). Preparedness and resilience therefore must be improved. First responders and healthcare professionals must be trained and equipped to respond to and protect themselves from a ricin attack. And as the body count from domestic terrorism continues to climb, researchers should consider under what circumstances they may find value in deploying a weapon of mass destruction.