Homegrown Horror:

When the first post- September 11 anthrax cases were
revealed, speculation about who was responsible focused immediately on associates
of Osama bin Laden or the government of Iraq. Now, though, it's widely believed
that the anthrax attacks are homegrown, the result of an individual or a small
domestic terrorist group. It also seems that the source of the anthrax is a U.S.
government lab, since recent reports have said that the powder used in the
attacks is virtually indistinguishable from anthrax produced by the military
before it shut down its biowarfare program. In a strange way, all of this is good
news. "The worst-case scenario is if there's a biological Unabomber out there
who's making anthrax by himself," says Elisa Harris of the Center for
International and Security Studies at Maryland University, who previously has
worked for the National Security Council. "That would suggest that the
possibility of [using biological weapons] is much easier than previously
thought."

Yet whoever turns out to be behind the current attacks, most
experts say the risk of a major bioterrorist incident is clearly growing. Among
domestic groups, right-wing extremists and messianic groups stand out as having
shown the greatest interest in carrying out such an attack. In 1997, FBI Director
Louis Freeh specifically warned during testimony before Congress that
white-supremacist groups and militia organizations have sought to acquire
biological weapons. Jessica Stern, a former National Security Council staffer,
has said that right-wing extremists are "obsessed" with biological agents and
have been trying to perfect their use for years.

Historically, the world has seen a few cases of bioterrorism, but until now
none has achieved much success. The only notable instance in the United States
came in 1984, when members of the Rajneeshee cult in Oregon poisoned salad bars
with salmonella, which sickened 751 people. But W. Seth Carus, a bioweapons
expert at the National Defense University until being hired at the new Office of
Homeland Security (OHS), says that there has been "an explosion of interest" in
bioterrorism in recent years.

American right-wingers have considered and sometimes planned the
use of biological weapons since at least 1972, when a white-supremacist group
called the Order of the Rising Sun apparently created as much as 40 kilograms of
typhoid bacteria cultures in a college laboratory. They planned to contaminate
water supplies in Chicago, St. Louis, and other midwestern cities, thereby
leading to the deaths of "inferior" populations. The plot was uncovered when two
members of the group panicked and informed police. At about the same time, the
Minutemen, a right-wing outfit headed by the owner of a Missouri veterinary drug
firm doing business as Biolab Corporation threatened to disperse a biological
virus at airline terminals. More recently, in October 2001, a violent
anti-abortion group calling itself the Army of God sent threatening letters
containing bogus anthrax to Planned Parenthood headquarters in Washington, D.C.,
and to branches elsewhere in the United States.

Biological agents are effective in small amounts and are
relatively cheap and easy to produce. A 1999 Defense Department study found that
a domestic team with biological training was able to produce two pounds of mock
aerosolized anthrax for about $1.6 million. The team had little trouble in
gathering fermenters, grinders, and other necessary laboratory equipment. Timothy
Tobiason, a right-wing agricultural-chemical entrepreneur from Nebraska,
currently sells copies of a germ-warfare cookbook he authored that experts say is
accurate enough to be dangerous.

Perhaps the easiest biological agent to produce is ricin, which the Bulgarian
secret police used during the Cold War era to assassinate dissident Georgi
Markov. (He was jabbed with an infected umbrella tip while waiting for a bus in
London.) In 1995, Douglas Baker and Leroy Wheeler of the so-called Minnesota
Patriots Council produced ricin toxin from a castor-bean-based recipe and planned
to use it to assassinate government officials. Fortunately, the FBI had
penetrated the group, and Baker and Wheeler became the first people convicted
under the Biological Weapons and Anti-Terrorism Act of 1989.

Terrorists might also try to steal a "seed culture" from a biological-warfare
research lab or university research center. Until recently, supply houses sold a
range of virus and bacteria strains to medical researchers. A 1995 report from
the Canadian Security Intelligence Service noted the case of one supplier that
was promoting the sale of five toxins for the price of four. In 1998, Larry Wayne
Harris, an activist with ties to the Christian Identity movement and Aryan
Nation, bought three vials of the bacterium that causes plague from the American
Type Culture Collection in Rockville, Maryland--the same company that sold
anthrax to Iraq in the 1980s. Harris, who was arrested after he talked openly of
employing biological weapons and made threatening remarks to U.S. officials,
successfully ordered the bacterium on stationery from a fake laboratory.

Rules on the sale of viruses and bacteria were tightened after Harris's arrest
and again following the new anthrax cases, but they are not airtight. The
Rajneeshees obtained their salmonella agent from a medical supply house and could
potentially still do so today since that agent is not on the control list.

Of course, delivering a biological weapon is far more complicated
than producing or obtaining a toxin. The Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo had ample
financial and technical resources, including a Ph.D. microbiologist, but failed
in more than a dozen attempts to spread biological agents such as anthrax and
botulinum toxin. (The Aum had better success with chemical weapons. In 1995, it
released the nerve agent sarin in the Tokyo subway, killing 12 persons and
injuring thousands.)

Still, Carus of the OHS warns that the technological
sophistication of terrorist groups is growing and that there are countless
potential delivery systems. The most likely means would be aerosolization--which
would make a domed stadium a perfect target--but a biological agent could also be
used to contaminate prepackaged food or water supplies. A less discussed though
far simpler means of biological terrorism would be to target livestock (for
example, with African swine fever) or grain (with pathogens such as rice blast or
wheat stem rust). That wouldn't produce human casualties, but it would have an
enormous economic impact and is far easier to do than creating a biological
weapon for use against humans.

As the current anthrax investigation continues, most analysts expect to see a
new upsurge in bioterrorism. In the past, terrorist groups feared that committing
mass murder would delegitimize their cause. That appears to be less the case
today; and American extremist groups, such as neo-Nazi outfits, typically don't
care much about public opinion.

But the main reason for the fear of new attacks is all the attention focused
on biological terrorism in the wake of the anthrax scare. The notoriety gained by
the Aum and the well-publicized arrest of Larry Wayne Harris both prompted a
spike in bioterror incidents, and the copycat effect is likely to be especially
great today given the "success" of the person or group behind the recent anthrax
attacks. "I am absolutely convinced that [this] will spawn more incidents," says
Cheryl Loeb of the Monterey Institute of International Studies. "The longer the
perpetrators go free the more likely it will be to inspire more attacks, as
people see they can get away with it."

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