In Issue 12 of our printed magazine, titled “Outbreak”, we discussed the potential danger of biological weapons, as well as emergency response plans, and even a “What If?” scenario that deals with the release of pneumonic plague. However, there’s something more: we want to give the concept of bioterrorism an added dose of reality.

So, we’re expanding on the “Outbreak” theme by delving into the real-world impact of three historical bioterrorist attacks. All of these events actually happened, and actually caused serious illnesses and/or deaths. Studying and understanding the perpetrators, motivations, and effects of these events can help us be more prepared for them in the future. As the saying goes, those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

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The History of Bioterrorism vs Biological Warfare

Before we begin, we’d like to make a distinction: this article will only cover the history of bioterrorism carried out by civilians, cults, and rogue groups. Military actions which involve biological weapons would fall into the separate category of Biological Warfare, and could easily be expanded into another article (or even a book). Although the majority of nations worldwide have agreed to cease production of biological weapons, many nations continue to study biological weapons for defensive purposes.

By focusing exclusively on terrorist groups, we’re proving that a massive team of researchers and a billion-dollar budget are not required for the development of a biological weapon. These horrific events have been carried out by ordinary individuals, yet remain highly effective. The reality of the situation is that bioterrorism is not just a Hollywood scare tactic—it remains a deadly threat, even today.

Rajneeshee Bioterror Attack

The Dalles, Oregon – August-October 1984

The Perpetrators:
Followers of Indian mystic, guru, and cult leader Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. Thousands of cult members had moved to a commune based on a remote ranch in Wasco County, Oregon. The cult then incorporated into a city known as Rajneeshpuram, and began expanding rapidly to take political control of the surrounding towns. Local citizens in Wasco County disagreed with this expansion, so they were targeted by Rajneesh’s followers.

The Weapon:
Salmonella enterica Typhimurium, a strain of Salmonella bacteria that can lead to food poisoning and acute gastroenteritis. Symptoms include diarrhea, fever, chills, nausea, vomiting, headaches, abdominal pain, and bloody stools.

History of Bioterrorism Salmonella

A colorized electron micrograph showing Salmonella invading human cells. Source: National Institutes of Health

You may think Salmonella is too common to be considered a weapon, or not damaging enough. However, the CDC classifies it as a Category B biological agent—moderately easy to disseminate with low mortality rates. Despite the “low mortality” rating, Salmonella can be extremely dangerous due to its tendency to rapidly dehydrate and weaken victims through intense vomiting and diarrhea.

(This author has experienced Salmonella-related food poisoning firsthand, and ended up in the emergency room on an I.V. drip, after days of being unable to retain any form of food or drink. With proper medical treatment, it may not kill you, but it can certainly make you wish you were dead.)

The Attack:
Rajneesh’s followers planned to take legal control of the county during the 1984 election, by voting cult members into office. In order to make this happen, they formed a plan to incapacitate as many voting citizens as possible immediately before the election.

History of Bioterrorism Rajneesh

Rajneesh driving by his followers in a Rolls-Royce, 1982. Source: Samvado Gunnar Kossatz / Wikipedia

The cult purchased Salmonella Typhimurium bacteria from a medical supply company in Washington, and cultured it at a lab in the Rajneeshpuram commune to grow more. The Salmonella was then spread on produce at grocery stores, and on the salad bars at 10 local restaurants. Rajneesh’s followers also hoped to introduce pathogens into the water supply, but were unsuccessful.

751 people were infected by this bioterror attack, and 45 were hospitalized, but all the victims survived. The plan ultimately backfired, as angry local residents turned up in droves on election day, and none of the cult’s candidates were elected.

Rajneesh claimed no knowledge of his followers’ terrorist plot, and fled to India, where he died of heart failure 6 years later.

What Can We Learn?

  • Food and drink is a common delivery method for biological weapons. Be extremely cautious when accepting food from unknown individuals, or when eating at restaurants in areas experiencing political unrest.
  • Do not assume food-borne illness is “just food poisoning”—seek medical attention ASAP if your symptoms worsen.

Aum Shinrikyo Biological & Chemical Attacks

Tokyo, Japan – 1993-1995

The Perpetrators:
Aum Shinrikyo, a Japanese doomsday cult founded by Shoko Asahara in 1984. Asahara declared himself “Christ” and said he could cleanse his followers of their sins. He also claimed that a nuclear Armageddon was coming in 1997, and that all of humanity would be wiped out—except for his followers, of course, who would receive salvation.

An anti-Aum Shinrikyo protest in Japan. Source: Wikipedia

An anti-Aum Shinrikyo protest in Japan. Source: Wikipedia

Aum followers claimed that by bringing about the end of the world, they would restore balance and become enlightened. After extortion and assassinations failed to bring about Armageddon, they turned to large-scale bioterrorism.

The Weapons:
An initial attack by Aum Shinrikyo used Anthrax. The cult later moved on to producing weapons with VX, Sarin, and Hydrogen Cyanide.

The Attacks:
In July 1993, Aum Shinrikyo released a liquid suspension of Anthrax from the roof of a building in Tokyo. Fortunately, the members had used a strain of Bacillus anthracis that was designed for animal vaccinations, and no injuries were reported. The CDC states, “low spore concentrations, ineffective dispersal, a clogged spray device, and inactivation of the spores by sunlight are all likely contributing factors to the lack of human cases.”

Starting in 1994, the group began using chemical weapons such as Sarin and VX for assassinations. Sarin gas was also released from a truck driven through Nagano, Japan, killing 8 and injuring 200. However, local police failed to implicate Aum Shinrikyo in the attack.

History of Bioterrorism Aum Shinrikyo subway

The Tokyo subway was used by Aum Shinrikyo as a bioweapon distribution system.

On March 20th, 1995, Sarin gas was released yet again, this time on 5 trains in the Tokyo subway system. The devastating attack killed 12, seriously injured 50, and caused temporary symptoms in over 1,000 others.

On May 5th, 1995, several plastic bags were discovered by cleaning staff in a subway station. The bags contained undetonated Hydrogen Cyanide weapons, and despite one bag catching fire when it was moved, the Cyanide gas was not released. Estimates state that the chemical weapons could have killed 10,000 people, had they not been found and defused.

Asahara and other Aum Shinrikyo members were arrested soon after the subway incidents, and Asahara was eventually sentenced to death in 2004.

What Can We Learn?

  • One attack can quickly turn into several, especially when the perpetrators are motivated to wipe out all of humanity. If one attack occurs, expect more.
  • If bioweapons fail, terrorist groups may turn to chemical weapons such as nerve agents. Development and delivery of these chemical weapons is often similar to bioweapons, so the two often go hand-in-hand.
  • If there is any threat of biological or chemical weapon attack, avoid densely-populated areas. Public transportation may serve as a method of spreading these agents, and amplifying their effects.

Anthrax Mail Attacks

Washington, DC, Florida, and New York – September-October 2001

The Perpetrator:
Bruce Edwards Ivins, age 62, was found to have committed suicide via an acetominophen (paracetamol) overdose on August 1st, 2008. Ivins had worked for the last 18 years as a scientist in the U.S. Government’s bio defense labs at Fort Detrick. Shortly after his death, FBI prosecutors announced Ivins had been under surveillance since 2007, and that he was the sole culprit of the Anthrax attacks in 2001.

A photomicrograph of Bacillus anthracis. Source: CDC / Wikipedia

A photomicrograph of Bacillus anthracis. Source: CDC / Wikipedia

Ivins had previously showed signs of mental illness, mentioned homicidal thoughts, and told a therapist he “planned to go out in a blaze of glory”. However, after a 2011 report from the National Academy of Sciences, there remain some doubts about the FBI’s conclusion that Ivins acted alone.

The Weapon:
Bacillus anthracis (Anthrax spores), both in a brown granular form that caused skin infections, and a fine white powder that caused inhalation-related infections. The Anthrax was delivered via letters mailed through the US Postal Service.

The Attacks:
Only a week after the September 11th terrorist attacks, several letters were mailed to news outlets in New York City and Boca Raton, Florida. These letters contained coarse brown Anthrax material, and infected several individuals who came into contact with the letters, mostly causing skin infections.

History of Bioterrorism anthrax letters

An FBI reward poster asking for leads on the perpetrator of the Anthrax attacks.

Three weeks later, two more letters were delivered to two U.S. Senators, this time containing a highly refined white powder form of Anthrax spores. This material was easily spread, and caused severe inhalational Anthrax infections in several individuals.

All told, the attacks caused 5 deaths and 17 injuries. Several victims may have never even seen the letters, and were infected after touching mailboxes or other surfaces the letters had contacted. The complete motive of the attacks remains unknown, but the letters state “09-11-01” and “DEATH TO AMERICA”, indicating possible ties to the September 11th terrorist attacks (or an attempt to misdirect investigators).

What Can We Learn?

  • Be cautious of suspicious letters and packages, especially if you have received any form of threats in the past, or if other bioterrorist attacks have taken place recently.
  • The CDC calls Anthrax “one of the biological agents most likely to be used” in a bioterrorist attack.
  • Unlike some other bioweapons, Anthrax is not contagious, and will not spread person-to-person like the flu. However, in weaponized spore form, it can be dispersed quickly in the air.
  • Even if you take every precaution against a bioterrorist attack, it’s possible to be infected by chance contact with bioweapon residue. In that case, all you can do is treat the symptoms and hope for the best.

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