Monday, January 8, 2024

Two Domestic Bioterror Attacks


This paper compares two domestic bioterror attacks, one prior to and the other after 9/11. The attacks, the perpetrators and their motives are described, and the responses by state and federal agencies are compared. Finally, a list of practices and procedures implemented by federal agencies to prevent future attacks is enumerated.

Pre-9/11 Terrorist Event: 1984 Rajneeshee Bioterror Attack

Followers of the Indian mystic Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (1931–1990) formed a commune in Oregon in 1981. In 1984 the Rajneeshees had gained political control of the town of Antelope, Oregon, which was 18 miles from their commune.

Having won in Antelope - and renaming it Rajneeshpuram - the Rajneeshees ran candidates for two seats in the Wasco County, OR, Circuit Court as well as for the sheriff's office in the November 1984 election. They knew that they couldn't win the elections without... shenanigans.

The majority of the Rajneeshees couldn't vote as they were not U.S. citizens. To compensate, they transported thousands of homeless people into Rajneeshpuram and attempted to register them to vote in the upcoming election. The Wasco County clerk denied their registrations (Zaitz, 2011, Part 3).

Fearing that they wouldn't get enough votes, the Rajneeshees decided to poison the voters in The Dalles, which is the largest city in Wasco County. They purchased Salmonella from a medical supply company, then cultivated it in a lab in Rajneeshpuram (Zaitz, 2011, Part 2).

As a trial run, they gave two Wasco County commissioners Salmonella-contaminated water in late August 1984. Both fell ill and one required hospitalization (Zaitz, 2011, Part 3). After other attempts of contamination failed, they then tried to spread Salmonella at a local grocery store. That attempt failed, too (Zaitz, 2011, Part 2). Finally, they delivered Salmonella into the salad bars of ten restaurants, either by spreading it over the food or by mixing it into salad dressings, in September and October 1984. They were able to infect a total of 751 people, including an infant and an 87-year-old. Forty-five required hospitalization, and all survived. (Flaccus, 2001)

Local residents suspected that the Rajneeshees were the poisoners, and turned-out in droves on election day. None of the Rajneeshee candidates won.

The Oregon State Public Health Laboratory investigated the matter and concluded that the salmonellosis was caused by the poor personal hygiene of food handlers (Zaitz, 2011, Part 3). Oregon Congressman James Weaver didn't believe this theory and contacted the CDC but was met with skepticism.

Rajneesh held several press conferences starting in September 1985, where he made public his suspicions that those involved in palace intrigue were responsible for the Salmonella outbreak (Zaitz, 2011, Part 4). The twenty people involved in the intrigue had fled to Europe the weekend before. He invited state and federal law enforcement agencies to investigate.

The investigation by the Oregon State Police, the FBI, and the INS found receipts for the Salmonella from the medical supply company, signs of a wiretapping operation (Zaitz, 2011, Part 1), and plans to murder several people including an Oregon Times reporter who wrote an expose on the Rajneeshees (Grossman, 2001).

They also found vials of Salmonella which the Atlanta CDC confirmed was a match for the salad bar poisonings.

Rajneesh was charged with 35 violations of immigration laws, and given a 10-year suspended sentence, a $400,000 fine, and was deported. He was never prosecuted directly for crimes related to the Salmonella attack (Zaitz, 2011, Part 5).

Two of Rajneesh's lieutenants were arrested in West Germany and extradited to the U.S. in October 1985. They were charged for the poisoning cases, multiple attempted murder charges, wiretapping, and immigration offenses. They were released on parole early for good behavior after serving only 29 months (Zaitz, 2011, Part 5).

Besides the 751 cases of salmonellosis, the Rajneeshees bioterror attack spread fear and drained the economy of Wasco County. As of 2003, all but one of the contaminated restaurants went out of business (Nestle, 2003).

Post-9/11 Terrorist Event: 2001 Anthrax Attacks

In September and October 2001, following the 9/11 Terrorist Attacks, letters containing Anthrax were sent to news media offices in New York City and Boca Raton, Florida, as well as to the offices of Senators Tom Daschle and Patrick Leahy. Twenty-two people were infected, 11 of whom developed severe infections, and five died.

During the investigation, these attacks were called “Amerithrax,” and this name has become part of the final DOJ documents describing the history and outcomes of these attacks.

The Task Force investigating these attacks included at least 27 agents and inspectors from the FBI and the US Postal Inspection Service (USPIS) (DOJ, 2011), and they used a two-prong approach to identify the perpetrator.

The first approach was a traditional investigation, including examination of the envelopes looking for microscopic print defects, paper fiber composition, as well as the shipping records of the envelope manufacturers. They further investigated companies and whole industries that could be connected in any way (DOJ, 2010, p. 21). This included inspecting:

  • any company that could have profited by mailing Anthrax
  • Michigan Biologics Products Institute, the sole provider of the Anthrax vaccine to the DOD (U.S. Congress, 2000)
  • laboratory equipment manufacturers
  • the agriculture veterinary industry
  • the bio-pharmaceutical industry to see if their production processes could be used to manufacture the spore powder
  • and the bio-pesticide industry

The return address on the envelopes was an elementary school in New Jersey. The investigators “reviewed student records dating back several decades” but they found no match to people already in the Amerithrax databases.

They reviewed the correspondence to the senators to look for any similarities with the notes included in the Anthrax letters.

They also collected Internet traffic logs and searches for contacts and mailing addresses for the recipients but were unable to locate any commonalities.

Finally, the Task Force looked for suspicious deaths following the mailings, the idea being that the person who sent the anthrax-containing letters had himself died from the anthrax.

All these traditional investigative methods lead nowhere.

The second investigative approach used by the Task Force involved genetic analysis of the Anthrax spores. Using “microbial forensics” (DOJ, 2011) scientists were able to determine the specific strain of Anthrax used in the attacks. This allowed the FBI to trace the source of the Anthrax to Fort Detrick in Frederick, Maryland. One scientist in particular, Bruce Ivins, was strongly suspected. He committed suicide on July 29, 2008.

Dr. Ivins’ motive for the attacks was determined to be career advancement (DOJ, 2010, p.8):

According to his e-mails and statements to friends, in the months leading up to the anthrax attacks in the fall of 2001, Dr. Ivins was under intense personal and professional pressure. The anthrax vaccine program to which he had devoted his entire career of more than 20 years was failing. The anthrax vaccines were receiving criticism in several scientific circles, because of both potency problems and allegations that the anthrax vaccine contributed to Gulf War Syndrome. Short of some major breakthrough or intervention, he feared that the vaccine research program was going to be discontinued. Following the anthrax attacks, however, his program was suddenly rejuvenated.

By infecting people with Anthrax, “he creates a situation, a scenario, where people all of a sudden realize the need to have this vaccine.” (DOJ, 2008)

Not only was Ivins’ program rejuvenated, but the bio-pharmaceutical company manufacturing the vaccine for the DOD received FDA approval following the Anthrax mailings.

Comparison of the Attacks

Dr. Ivins and the Rajneeshees both used bioweapons to achieve their goals. The similarities end there:

  • The Rajneeshee attacks were intended to sway an election, Amerithrax was intended to continue and increase funding for Anthrax vaccine research
  • The Rajneeshees’ targets were (for the most part) indiscriminate, besides being in a specific geographic area
  • Amerithrax targeted politicians and news media outlets, which would presumably gather increased attention for the attacks
  • Neither attack sought to bring attention to the attackers

Changes in Federal Agencies to Prevent Future Mail-Borne Attacks

To kill any Anthrax spores still in the mail system at the time of the attack, the USPS worked with companies to irradiate all mail sent to congressional and governmental offices in the Washington, D.C., ZIP codes 20200 to 20599. (Marsh, 2021).

The USPS then developed a Biohazard Detection system in response to the Anthrax letters. This eventually led to the USPS scanning and photographing every piece of mail being processed using the Mail Isolation Control and Tracking (MICT) system. These scans allow retroactive tracking of mail at the request of law enforcement agencies. The existence of the MICT was kept secret until it was revealed in 2013 by the FBI in the investigation of the Ricin attacks of that year. (Magalski, 2013).

Summary and Conclusions

The 1984 Rajneeshee bioterror attacks and the 2001 Amerithrax attacks were both examples of domestic terrorist attacks that employed bioweapons as the vectors of attack. The Anthrax attacks were more sophisticated than the Rajneeshee attacks in that Anthrax is more difficult to cultivate than is Salmonella, presumably, but this can’t be taken as proof that the bioterrorists themselves have become more sophisticated in their craft.

The investigative techniques used show clear signs of improvement in the 17 years between these two terrorist events, however. In the case of the Rajneeshee attacks investigators were only able to verify that the Salmonella in the restaurants was the same as in the commune. In the Amerithrax case, they were able to pinpoint Dr. Ivins as the suspect without him coming forward and admitting guilt.

One comparison that must be made is the extent to which the relevant government agencies investigated these two attacks:

  • With the Rajneeshee attacks, the CDC dismissed the Salmonella attacks as paranoid and “Rajneeshee bashing.”
  • With Amerithrax, multiple agencies were involved and there was no dismissing the attacks.

One must wonder why there was this difference. Some theories include:

  1. Amerithrax shortly followed the 9/11 attacks, when all investigative agencies were on heightened alert
  2. Microbial forensics as a field of research had started to blossom between the two events
  3. The Rajneeshee bioterror attack was confined to one state whereas Amerithrax attacks involved five states and Washington D.C.
  4. The Salmonella was delivered in person whereas the Anthrax was delivered using the USPS, a federal agency
  5. There is also a difference in the targets: Ivins’ targets were media outlets and politicians, whereas Rajneeshees’ targets were “average Joes”


DOJ. 6 August 2008. Transcript of Amerithrax Investigation Press Conference.

DOJ. 19 February 2010. Amerithrax investigative summary.

DOJ. February 15, 2011. FBI and Justice Department Response to NAS Review of Scientific Approaches Used During the Investigation of the 2001 Anthrax Letters.

Flaccus, Gillian. October 19, 2001. Ore. town never recovered from scare. Associated Press.

Grossman, Lawrence. January/February 2001. The story of a truly contaminated election. Columbia Journalism Review.

Magalski, Michael. December 3, 2013. Management Alert – Mail Isolation, Control, and Tracking (Report Number HR-MA-14-002).

Marsh, Allison. 29 Sep 2021. Irradiating the mail: The anthrax attacks of 2001. IEEE Spectrum.

Nestle, Marion. 2003. Safe food: bacteria, biotechnology, and bioterrorism. University of California Press.

U.S. Congress. April 3, 2000. House Report 106-556 The Department of Defense Anthrax Vaccine Immunization Program: Unproven Force Protection.

Zaitz, Les. April 14, 2011. 25 years after Rajneeshee commune collapsed, truth spills out -- Part 1 of 5. The Oregonain/OregonLive.

Zaitz, Les. April 14, 2011. Thwarted Rajneeshee leaders attack enemies, neighbors with poison -- Part 2 of 5. The Oregonain/OregonLive.

Zaitz, Les. April 14, 2011. Rajneeshee leaders take revenge on The Dalles' with poison, homeless -- Part 3 of 5. The Oregonain/OregonLive.

Zaitz, Les. April 14, 2011. Rajneeshee leaders see enemies everywhere as questions compound -- Part 4 of 5. The Oregonain/OregonLive.

Zaitz, Les. April 14, 2011. Rajneeshees’ Utopian dreams collapse as talks turn to murder -- Part 5 of 5. The Oregonain/OregonLive.

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