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COLUMN ONE

A Growing Fear of Toxic Terrorism

The Las Vegas anthrax scare highlights warnings by experts that deadly biological agents are fairly easy to obtain. 'The threat is here. The threat is real,' an FBI official says.

February 24, 1998|STEPHANIE SIMON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

There's a lot of hate talk swaggering through certain corners of society these days. Talk about taking down the government.

So when the FBI seized anthrax from two men in Las Vegas last week, experts who follow American extremist movements blanched.

That anthrax turned out to be a harmless veterinary vaccine. But as scientists point out, the real stuff is frighteningly easy to get. Other toxins are, too.

And while the Las Vegas case was a false alarm, experts say biological weapons may well be attractive to a small cadre of home-grown terrorists who think they can save the nation only by striking out--with horrific drama--against a government they feel is corrupt.

"The threat is here. The threat is real," said Robert Blitzer, chief of the FBI's domestic terrorism unit. "A couple of guys with a lot of hate can get together" on the Internet and make a biological poison. "That's what scares us more than anything else."

Guns and homemade bombs will continue to be the weapons of choice for most terrorists, authorities say.

But most anyone with a bit of ingenuity and some biology know-how can obtain lethal toxins--and grow them in the kitchen. What's more, the microbes can be transported in a test tube, tucked away in a shirt pocket or briefcase. They won't set off metal detectors or raise alarms at airport security controls.

"It becomes very, very difficult to control the movement of these organisms," said David Huxsoll, a former commander of the U.S. Army's effort to develop defenses against biological weapons. "If someone is really bent on getting them, it's fairly easy."

Deadly anthrax microbes, for instance, can be scraped off the flesh or extracted from the blood of animals infected with the disease. The microbes can even be scooped up from the ground--if an infected cow dies, for instance, the spot where it falls may crawl with anthrax for decades. Anthrax, which pops up occasionally in animals in the United States and more frequently in other countries, is a lethal bacteria that can kill humans in even microscopic amounts.

Even more simple to obtain--and even more toxic--is ricin, an extract of the castor bean plant. In 1995, four members of the Minnesota Patriots Council were convicted of conspiring to kill federal agents by smearing the deadly powder on doorknobs. They had accumulated enough ricin to murder 1,400 people.

The threat is real enough that the National Defense Panel urged the Pentagon in November to put more resources into defending against terrorist attacks at home--attacks that could come from international hitmen or homegrown extremists.

Huxsoll knows and fears both brands of terrorists. He has served on three international inspection teams to scour Iraq for weapons of mass destruction. But as the Las Vegas anthrax saga unfolded, he found himself wondering just what domestic terrorists could be cooking up in their kitchens. "It's something we really have to be concerned about," he said.

In fact, law enforcement officials have been concerned for years.

That's why FBI agents moved so quickly against Larry Wayne Harris, the Ohio microbiologist who allegedly boasted to an informant that he had enough anthrax to wipe out the city of Las Vegas.

Harris was convicted in 1995 of fraudulently obtaining bubonic plague bacteria--yet another toxin that authorities believe is easy to get and thus tempting for use in domestic terrorism. Harris also had boasted to a university professor last summer that he could take out 100,000 people by spewing anthrax from a crop-duster plane.

So when the FBI's tipster mentioned Harris in connection with anthrax last week, agents swarmed in to arrest him and seize biological materials. The Las Vegas charges against Harris were dropped Monday, but the FBI's domestic terrorism chief remained wary.

"It just scares the hell out of you," Blitzer said. "You just cannot ignore the fact that we're moving toward the millennium and there's a lot of nut-heads out there."

Just how many, no one knows.

In an interview with an Ohio State University journalism professor last year, Harris boasted that "thousands" of people around the country have their hands on anthrax or bubonic plague. "The biological genie is out of the bottle," he warned. "A biological attack is inevitable."

Law enforcement officials and academic experts are not willing to go quite that far. They won't venture to estimate how many would-be terrorists are trying to concoct biological weapons to use against their own country. All they can say--and say with alarm--is that such activity is going on.

"Without a doubt," said Brian Levin, director of the Center on Hate and Extremism at Stockton College in New Jersey. "I guarantee you."

Many authorities speculate that the biggest terrorist threat comes from right-wing extremists. But that's a frustratingly vague description. It encompasses dozens of different philosophies, from the survivalist theories of militia members to the racist rantings of white supremacists.

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