After anthrax-tainted letters Began showing up in the wake of 9/11, authorities quickly suggested that this was probably a case of homegrown terrorism rather than Round 2 of al-Qaeda's assault on the U.S. The likely perpetrator, many still believe, was a malevolent nerd with chemistry-lab expertise and a grudge against the government. But when traces of the biological toxin ricin showed up in Senator Bill Frist's mail room last week, the FBI and other agencies declared there was no evidence pointing to either a foreign culprit or a mad scientist. One possibility under examination: a good ole boy who knows his way around 18-wheelers, weigh stations and CB radios.
That would be consistent with two unsolved ricin-in-the-mail incidents that occurred last fall. They didn't create much of a panic, and despite the evacuation of three Senate office buildings last week, neither did the ricin found under a mail-opening machine on Capitol Hill. Ricin is a potent enough poison , and terrorist groups from al-Qaeda to the Iraq-based Ansar al-Islam have reportedly produced it for use as a biological weapon. So, evidently, did Saddam Hussein before the first Gulf War.
But ricin isn't especially good as a weapon of mass destruction. It's easy to make, using a recipe you can get off the Internet. It comes from the castor bean, which is used around the world in products ranging from laxatives to brake fluid to nylon, and also grows wild in the southwestern U.S., so there's no shortage of raw material. But unlike anthrax, ricin is tough to aerosolize and inhale; the easiest way to deliver a fatal dose is injection or ingestion, and you need a lot for the latter. Ricin is powerful, but it's a retail, not a wholesale, poison.
That's why ricin once enjoyed a certain cachet among international men of mystery. Every spywatcher knows about Bulgarian defector Georgi Markov, who was assassinated in London in 1978 in a ploy that James Bond or Austin Powers would appreciate: a shadowy stalker jabbed Markov in the leg with an umbrella rigged to inject a pellet of ricin under his skin (the killer was never found, but the KGB and the Bulgarian secret service were prime suspects).
More recently, the handful of ricin cases pursued by the FBI have involved domestic hotheads, not international spies. In 1995, for example, two Minnesota men associated with a tax-protest group called the Patriots Council were convicted for possessing ricin with the intent of using it as a weapon. And in 1993, Canadian customs agents found ricin along with four guns, 20,000 rounds of ammunition and some neo-Nazi literature in the car of an Arkansas survivalist crossing into Canada.