By Markus K. Binder
Drawing upon the START CBRN Data Suite and other research, Markus Binder considers the five ricin bio-attacks directed at the U.S. President and other officials that have taken place since 2013 to assess what, if anything, they can tell us about bioterrorism.
Bioterrorist attacks directed at the U.S. President are high-profile, but rare events. The most recent incident, the fifth since 2010, occurred on September 17, 2020, when an envelope addressed to U.S. President Trump arrived at the White House’s offsite mail processing center. The following day it was examined and found to contain a small quantity of powder and a threatening letter demanding that Trump withdraw his candidacy from the upcoming 2020 U.S. Presidential election. Analysis showed the powder was ricin toxin.
U.S. authorities swiftly identified the letter’s origin as Montreal, Canada, and enlisted the support of Canadian authorities. The perpetrator, Ms. Pascale Cecile Veronique Ferrier, a Canadian citizen, was arrested on September 20, 2020, at the Buffalo, New York border crossing after announcing to authorities that she was “wanted by the FBI for the ricin envelope”. At the time of her arrest Ferrier was in possession of a loaded handgun and various other weapons, potentially reflecting her threat to find other means to strike at the President if the ricin did not work. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) searched her home the following day, revealing incriminating evidence including castor beans, evidence of ricin preparation, and various documents pointing to her as the source of the letters. The letter to President Trump shared many features with eight others targeting law enforcement officers in Brooks and Hidalgo Counties, Texas, received several days earlier.
Ferrier did not appear to have made any significant effort to conceal her identity or complicate any investigation, using the correct street number and postcode for her residence as a return address, and mailing the envelopes from her local post office. Whether this was due to a lack of any conception of operational security or simply indifference is unknown. On August 17, 2023, she was sentenced by the District of Columbia District Court to 262 months of imprisonment.
A History of Presidential Bio-Attacks
Bioterrorist attacks directed at the U.S. President, at least publicly acknowledged examples, have been relatively rare, especially in comparison to the constant stream of more conventional threats.
In April 2013, James Dutschke mailed ricin in envelopes to President Obama and U.S. Senator for the state of Mississippi, Roger Wicker. Both letters contained identical threatening messages that linked to a conspiracy theory involving the secret disposal of body parts.
Dutschke’s primary motive was to incriminate Kevin Curtis, a personal rival initially arrested by Federal authorities but eventually released.
In May 2013, Matthew Buquet mailed ricin in envelopes to President Obama and a Spokane, Washington Federal District Court judge, with letters claiming, in the name of Hezbollah, to have placed a bomb at an unspecified location. Interestingly, no reference was made to the letters containing ricin.
In July 2013, Shannon Richardson mailed several envelopes containing ricin to prominent national figures including President Obama and New York City Mayor, Michael Bloomberg. In addition to containing ricin, the envelopes included threatening letters criticizing the recipient’s association with efforts to institute more restrictive controls on firearms ownership in the United States.
Similarly, Richardson’s objective was to incriminate her estranged husband with the clear intent that he be arrested and incarcerated. The targets selected and the espoused concerns over gun control were simply intended to reinforce the evidence that her husband was the perpetrator.
In September 2018, William Allen III sent out a swathe of letters containing chopped up castor beans addressed to President Trump, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, and four other U.S. government officials. The letters also contained a note with the obscure statement “Jack and the Missile Bean Stock Powder”.
For Buquet and Allen III mental illness appears to have fueled personal resentments or obsessions that they subsequently acted upon. Ultimately, both men were found mentally incompetent to stand trial and involuntarily committed to mental hospitals.
The primary focus of Ferrier’s attack appears to have been Texas law enforcement officials she associated with her arrest and incarceration in March 2019. All eight letters were mailed to Texas on the same day whereas the letter to Trump was mailed separately the following day. Notably, both Ferrier’s lawyer and the prosecutor acknowledge that Ferrier’s intent was to coerce President Trump into withdrawing from the election rather than seeking to influence U.S. government policy or engage in symbolic violence to influence a broader audience. Although Ferrier’s targets were government officials, they were targeted personally rather than indiscriminately as representatives of the state.
Close examination of these incidents suggests that none can realistically be classified as bioterrorism. The Ferrier case comes closest to being terrorism, at least in the sense of involving a genuine political goal, but even here the argument is weak. Reflecting a range of personal-idiosyncratic motives, all incidents can be understood as biocrimes. Indeed, in several of these the officials were not the real target of the attack but were simply targeted to leverage the state as a weapon to strike at others.
What Can We Learn?
Drawing upon the START VNSA CBRN Event Database, the companion START VNSA Actor Database, the currently in-development START Criminal CBRN Event Database, and other research, it is possible to identify commonalities between these otherwise unconnected events. Far from being anomalous, the events described above are typical. Simply put, ideological actors do not represent the only or most likely bio-threat to officials. In fact, they represent a relatively small subset of bio-attacks generally and are significantly less likely to successfully mount bio-attacks.
Of nineteen bio-attacks identified in the United States since 2000 only three can be cautiously identified as ideological in nature. One of these was Ferrier’s 2020 attack on President Trump, another was a 2003 ricin letter to a Senator protesting a change in trucking regulations, while the third was a 2010 incident in which the Animal Liberation Front mailed HIV-contaminated razor blades to researchers. All other events were various types of criminal efforts reflecting the personal-idiosyncratic motivations of the perpetrator, to include murder, or, in two cases, suicide attempts.
Finally, none of these bio-attacks involved large quantities of agent, while only one, the 2001 Amerithrax attacks, involved an agent capable of causing large-scale harm.
Several implications arise from the above discussion. Firstly, local law enforcement agencies or first responders are significantly more likely to encounter bio-attacks than Federal officials.
Secondly, the typically unsophisticated nature of most agents employed lowers the bar to entry for attackers, significantly increasing the potential pool of attackers.
Thirdly, the frequently idiosyncratic nature of their targeting, driven as it is by personal obsessions, makes identification of potential targets prior to an attack much more difficult, greatly complicating protection.
Finally, identifying bio-attackers prior to their attacks is much more difficult than implied by the numbers of interdicted terrorist bio-plots. Criminally motivated attackers are much more likely to be true lone actors and therefore less likely to communicate with others for the purposes of identifying targets or planning their attacks. Furthermore, the highly specific nature of their targeting means that they are unlikely to require large quantities of agent, reducing the likelihood of identification through monitoring of unusual purchases.
Mr. Markus Binder is a Senior Researcher with the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism’s (START) Unconventional Weapons and Technologies (UWT) division. His primary area of research is Violent Non-State Actor (VNSA) pursuit and use of CB agents. In this capacity he conducts research into the acquisition and use of CBRN agents or materials by VNSAs including their motivations. Mr. Binder also manages two START databases recording ideologically motivated VNSA CBRN events and perpetrators. He is taking an increasing interest in the use of CBRN agents or materials by criminal actors.