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National Security Notes

February 20, 2004

THE RECIPE FOR RICIN: Examining the legend

THE RECIPE FOR RICIN: Examining the legend

One of the great received wisdoms of the war on terror is that deadly recipes are available worldwide courtesy of the Internet. In the context of information on ricin, the meme presents regularly in the big media.

In a news story from CNN, "[Ricin] ... it's easy to make, using a recipe you can get off the Internet."

"Making the poison is simple enough -- instructions are on the Internet -- that an amateur chemist can follow the process," echoed the Los Angeles Times.

The New York Times weighs in with "A five-minute Internet search yesterday produced a kitchen recipe [for ricin] using lye and acetone ..." And, wrote the Atlanta Journal, "Some Internet sites offer a 13-step recipe..."

And in Congressional Research Service Report RS21383, "Ricin: Technical Background and Potential Role in Terrorism:" "Recipes for the extraction of ricin ... are widely available for purchase on the Internet ... "     If you're a terrorist or even just a bemused bystander, the message is clear and authoritative by repetition. Go to the web; seek and ye shall find a home formulation for a poison with no antidote.

But is this really a recipe for ricin?

The electronic missive which is the object of media references is found on a website called The Temple of the Screaming Electron. Clones of the instruction sheet with miscellaneous edits have been pasted to other places on the web, but the Screaming Electron recipe appears to be the original from which the others are drawn.

Entitled "How to Make Ricin," the recipe may appear slightly convincing to journalists and observers with no prior knowledge of the isolation and purification of fine biochemicals. However, there are no steps in the recipe specific to the purification of ricin.

The recipe includes instructions for the use of acetone and lye -- a non-specific term for any strong base, usually sodium or potassium hydroxide. Both are common chemicals. However, neither powerfully address any unique properties of ricin which would be exploited to differentially separate it from every other complex component in the mash of a castor seed.  Indeed, the entire recipe shows no real effort to achieve this end.  Even the step by step instructions, as written, can be picked apart for a variety of reasons. 

The best result that can be claimed for "How To Make Ricin" is that it physically removes the hull of the castor seed and subjects the remains to a drying. One could just as well use the recipe on wheat germ or crushed peanuts. Of course, the latter do not contain ricin but the only reason the Screaming Electron posting could be loosely dubbed a recipe for the poison is that castor seeds come with ricin included.

The recipe for ricin is framed more properly if one examines its provenance.

In the early Nineties, the Temple of the Screaming Electron was a bulletin board system, one of a network of many run by high school and college-age young boys and men. Taken as a whole, they cultivated an image of darkness in the wires, electronic places where the like-minded could hang out and thumb their noses at parents and elders bewildered by computing.

The Screaming Electron, like many similar to it, accumulated a huge pile of what were dubbed "anarchy files" -- allegedly how-to's devoted to explaining how a variety of physical and electronic mayhems could be committed. Of most interest were the electronic missives that dealt with computer hacking and virus-writing.

Because information on the latter activities was hard to come by, the Screaming Electron attracted employees of government agencies like the Department of the Treasury and the Drug Enforcement Administration, as well as others. The Feds, as the small group was sometimes called, used the Screaming Electron ("TOTSE," for short) and other bulletin boards to chat with hackers and virus-writers and learn about their techniques so they could better secure their own systems and also brief colleagues.

Huge stacks of anarchy files served as backdrop, things with titles like "How to Build an A-bomb," and "Gaining the Upper Hand in a Street Brawl." They were not, as a rule, taken very seriously by the professionals who visited the systems. And it is in this time period when "How to Make Ricin" and things of similar nature came into being, long before 9/11, anthrax and daily news of the threat of bioterror.

Part of the allure of such texts to teen denizens of the bulletin board underground was the whiff of danger they furnished. Although largely phony, they helped build an image that home computing had put great amplifying powers of the intellect into the hands of teenagers. They knew things, dangerous things, adults and parents didn't! And this fed a conceit, often abetted by stories on hackers in glossy magazines and movies like "Wargames," that the future was going to be decided on the wires coming out of suburban basements. The physical world no longer mattered, all the action was in cyberspace.

Like many received wisdoms peddled concerning the power of technology, while entertaining and captivating to the imagination, it was a crock. But it has stayed in circulation, so strong that it is almost constantly seen somewhere -- on television, in magazines, on the radio or in newspapers.

Sometime long before 9/11, the anarchy files from teenage bulletin board systems migrated to the world wide web. Here they gained a much larger audience. With search engines indexing the content of the internet, it was no longer necessary to actually know the telephone number of a system like The Temple of the Screaming Electron.

But "How to Make Ricin" still carries the marks of the teen computer underground, although this is never mentioned in stories on the alleged ease of obtaining the recipe.  

"Here's the formula for Ricin," the anonymous teen contributor of the recipe writes in remarks glued on to the beginning and end of the procedure. "I wanted the fomula just so I could know it. This stuff is extrodinarily poisonous -- arsenic takes 100 granuals to kill someone, ricin takes 1-2 granuals," complete with lamentable spelling, he writes at another point.

At the end of the recipe, "Don't ask me where to get the [castor] beans I don't know but its a semi-common plant (as in a large greenhouse will have it) Now you see why kids back in the day didn't wanna drink that castor bean cough syrup."

Created by a boy, "How to Make Ricin" makes the mistakes of thinking ricin might be in castor oil and that it was a cough syrup. Anyone, now older, who has taken castor oil well knows its reputation as a cathartic. The substance is, however, ricin free.

Today, the drumbeat of the menace of bioterror and the complimentary idea that the technology of weapons of mass destruction is simple and in the hands of anyone who wants it have combined to give "how to make ricin" way more currency than it ever deserved.

However, to continue to believe in it requires that everyone swallow that some anonymous American teen, pecking away in his bedroom, cribbing from yet another source of suspect rigor, has some professional expertise in the isolation, purification and toxicology of plant proteins.

This is not the case. But because the legend of ricin on the internet is so often repeated by news sources viewed as authoritative -- politicians believe it, a large assortment of experts view it as true, terrorist-hunters go by it and, presumably, terrorists and criminals themselves accept it.

Finally, the mythology of the recipe for ricin exposes one of the most nettlesome ironies of instantaneous world wide communication. Although it has always been promised that the ubiquity of networked computing would enable a host of alternative information sources, what is found is that -- in practice and when push comes to shove -- the allegedly vast ocean of alternatives all say the same thing, with only minor variations, all drawing from the same text, the same myth. 



To paraphrase William T. Sherman, biowar is Hell, but apparently never so hellish that it cannot be accompanied by an advertisement.

"Novel Already Out on Ricin Poison Found in Senate Office Building" trumpeted a press release announcing the relatively recent publication of a thriller.

"Straight from today's headlines, Coby Derek James' provocative and ambitious whodunit -- 'Wine, Dine and Death Down Under' opens with a present-day threat: ricin, a deadly and widely available poison with no known antidote," informs a memo from the PR Newswire.

"With a sense of quickly mounting danger and international intrigue, and with the skill and insight of one who knows firsthand the world of bioterrorism and espionage, the author has created a timely and gripping spy novel."

It is said the author, going under a pseudonym, "has more than 30 years of combined diplomatic and intelligence experience."

"Wine, Dine and Death Down Under"
Publication: July 2003  Llumina Press
Author: Coby Derek James ISBN: 1-932303-09X


THE RICIN INDEX -- with apologies to Harper's

Number of deaths due to ricin bioterror: 1, Georgi Markov in 1978

Number of times Georgi Markov's ricin death cited in news since February: about 139, according to the Google News tab.

National Security Notes is edited in Pasadena, CA, by George Smith, Ph.D. Smith is a Senior Fellow at GlobalSecurity.Org.

National Security Notes, on the web: http://www.globalsecurity.org/org/nsn/index.html 

copyright 2004