Who is behind these anthrax letters?

Nobody really knows!

by Chip Berlet
Senior Analyst
Political Research Associates

Well, it's now May 31, 2003 and not much has changed. In late 2001 we argued that "it is likely that at least two groups/individuals are involved in the larger situation, with different suspects sending the real live anthrax letters and the hoax anthrax letters." This has turned out to be the case, with the vast majority of the hoax anthrax letters being generated by an activist in the militant anti-abortion wing of the Christian Right. Most of this page remains unchanged since late 2001.  A search for more recent stories is a good idea, especially coverage of the arrest in the anthrax hoax letters sent to reproductive health clinics. Most of the articles claiming information on who sent the live anthrax letters continue to contain unsupported speculation.

Possible Culprits

1) The Osama bin Laden networks

2) Other Muslim or Arab terrorists

3) Other pro-Muslim or pro-Arab terrorists

4) Agents of an anti-US government being opportunitic

5) Foreign terrorists who hate the US government but are being opportunitic, and are not directly related to pro-Muslim or pro-Arab terrorists

6) The militant anti-abortion wing of the Christian Right (claiming credit for the hoax letters to Planned Parenthood clinics, but very unlikely in other cases involving real anthrax)

7) Patriot & militia movement members or followers

8) The Extreme Right (including neofascists and neonazis, and proponents of Third Position ethnonationalism)

9) One crazy person or several crazy people

10)  A person or persons affiliated with a US weapons laboratory with a political agenda.

11)  A person or persons affiliated with a US weapons laboratory seeking monetary gain.

More than one category can be involved.  For instance a person at a weapons lab could have sold the processed powder to someone else with a political agenda.

11.15.01 NPR senior correspondent Howard Berkes
" Some investigators and researchers believe Osama bin Laden might still be getting help from within the United States. They suggest that help might not be coming solely from people with extreme views about Islam. It could also be coming from white supremacy groups." Hear the story using Real Player -- from Thursday's All Things Considered.


Jump to these sections:

What about the US Political Right?

The Hard Right:

The Extreme Right
The Patriot & armed militia movements
What is the history?
Larry Wayne Harris
Third Position ethnonationalist fascism and foreign/domestic ties
Christian Right and Anthrax Hoax Letters

Caution in Reporting

More Links

What about the US Political Right?

They are certainly in the list of potential suspects, but it is still speculation. Anyone who limits the list of suspects to Arab or Muslim terrorists is perpetuating stereotypes. See the discussion of using caution with terms and concepts.

Given the trend in the extreme right towards a cell structure or "lone wolf" types of violent activity, suggested by Louis Beam in his essay "Leaderless Resistance," it is possible that even if an individual is influenced by a group ideology, he or she may be acting alone or in a tiny cell not directly connected to or controlled by the larger group.

There is a current faction fight inside various US government agencies between the people who stereotype Arabs and Muslims and the people who stereotype US right-wing groups. Government employees have been leaking to reporters misleading claims about evidence to support their faction. This spills over into the analysis of "experts" who have left government agencies but remain loyal to their faction.  It is a civil liberties nightmare.

Generally lost in this war of egos and bad analysis are those serious scholars of right-wing and religious violence who might actually provide the type of complex and nuanced information that could assist investigators. This is what happened during the stand-off between government agents and the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas. See the views of some of these serious scholars such as Alan A. Stone and Nancy T. Ammerman regarding government analytical mistakes concerning right-wing and religious violence involved with the Waco seige. Michael Barkun of Syracuse University is an especially useful source on the apocalyptic nature of religious revolutionary violence. For more on the role of apocalypticism, see Terms & Concepts: Use with Caution.

After the first wave of hyperbolic and misleading news reports, more cautious and accurate articles and newscasts began to emerge, but other sensationalist stories continued, especially in the British press.

The Extreme Right

There is no hard evidence linking domestic U.S. right-wing groups to either the terrorist attacks of 9/11/01 or the mailing of anthrax letters, real or hoax. The list of potential suspects is long, and the evidence is missing.

In considering potential suspects, the Extreme Right in the U.S. is certainly on the list. The Extreme Right in the U.S. includes White Supremacists, militant antisemites, neofascists, neonazis and an assortment of hate groups. Activists in the Extreme Right have been involved in numerous violent incidents over the last 30 years; however, most have involved guns or bombs.
The U.S. Extreme Right shares three ideological affinities with some Islamic clerical fascist movements such as the Taliban and the al Qaeda networks:

  • A hatred of Jews who are seen in the traditional antisemitic caricature of running the world through secret conspiracies.
  • A hatred of the U.S. government, seen as not just a global bully but also controlled by Jews. U.S. neonazis sometimes refer the administration in Washington, D.C. as the Zionist Occupational Government--ZOG.
  • A desire to overthrow existing governments and replace then with monocultural nation states built around the idea of supremacist racial nationalism or supremacist religious nationalism or both mixed together. This ethnonationalist philosophy is sometimes called the "Third Position."

See this discussion continued at Third Position fascism...
While the Third Position is an obscure ideology, there have been published reports that have reported on it. An excellent discussion of the emergence of the Third Position and the revivial of a national socialist/Strasserite version of intrernational fascism can be found in Kevin Coogan's 1999 book, Dreamer of the Day: Francis Parker Yockey and the Postwar Fascist International and in Martin A. Lee's  1997 book, The Beast Reawakens. The convergence among racial nationalists in North America and Western and Eastern Europe is discussed at length in Jeffrey Kaplan and Tore Bjørgo, eds., Nation and Race, and Jeffrey Kaplan and Leonard Weinberg, The Emergence of a Euro-American Radical Right.9 There is a theoretical discussion of the European Third Position and racially separate nation-states by Robert Antonio in "After Postmodernism: Reactionary Tribalism.10 The anti-U.S. aspect of the Third Position is examined in "´Neither Left Nor Right´" in the Southern Poverty Law Center magazine, Intelligence Report.11

The Patriot & armed militia movements

Members of the the Patriot & armed militia movements range from libertarian constitutionalists to White supremacists. Many are not engaged in any illegal activity, though some have been arrested for planning attacks on government facilities. See:

Battling the New World Order: Patriots and Armed Militias
Right-Wing Populism in America: Too Close for Comfort by Chip Berlet and Matthew N. Lyons. New York: Guilford Publications, 2000.

One Patriot group, albeit one on the right-wing fringe of the movement closer to the Extreme Right, was found to have brewed the toxic agent ricin.

What is the History?

According to an article by Jerry Mitchell in the Clarion-Ledger:
...there's a danger in reading too much into targets, said Daniel Levitas of the Kansas City-based Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights and a researcher on hate groups. "The reason the media were chosen is what seems most simple — they're a great megaphone for the transmission of the message."

He said those on the radical right have dabbled in biological warfare for years.

In 1995, members of the Minnesota Patriots' Council were arrested and charged with possession of ricin, a deadly biochemical substance.

In the years that followed, a white supremacist from Ohio was accused of possessing a weakened form of anthrax, and members of an anti-government group in Texas were arrested for plotting to use a cactus thorn dipped in anthrax or HIV as a weapon.

The possibility that the Extreme Right might use biological weapons has been discussed for several years. See: "Anthrax find raises issue," by Stephanie Simon in the Los Angeles Times 2/26/98.

See also the ADL report from 1998: Biological Terrorism Threat. The following is from that report:

Use of Biological Agents in the U.S

Unauthorized use of biological agents in the U.S. has thus far been limited to a few isolated cases. The only known case of an actual germ attack in the United States was in 1984 when an American religious cult sprayed salmonella on 10 salad bars in Oregon in an effort to make voters sick and influence a county election. Within two weeks, 751 people became violently ill.

In May 1995, white supremacist and microbiologist Larry Harris ordered samples of the organism that causes bubonic plague from the American Type Culture Collection (ATCC), a clearinghouse for microbiological samples. (There are 453 such repositories worldwide.) Mr. Harris was prosecuted for mail fraud because it is not illegal to possess biological agents in the U.S. Since the Harris case, shippers and receivers of certain biological agents have been required to register with the Centers for Disease Control.

Also in 1995, members of the far-right Minnesota Patriots Council were found guilty of producing the toxic agent ricin in a 1992 plot to assassinate Federal officials. Militia members reportedly manufactured enough ricin from a book recipe to kill 125 people. Detailed techniques for extracting ricin from castor beans are widely available.


Larry Wayne Harris

  Larry Wayne Harris is not appropriate as either an "expert" on terrorism and chemical/biological warfare, nor as a poster boy for claims that the U.S. political right is behind the current wave of anthrax attacks and hoaxes.

Former Aryan Nations member Larry Wayne Harris is a notorious braggart. According to an article by Jeff Stein, "Harris claimed he had worked for the CIA and several U.S. Army germ warfare laboratories. The CIA and Army both denied it."

The James Ridgeway Village Voice article on Harris was misleading because it reported his arrest charges that included allegations of threats to wipe out a city with a toxin, but failed to report that those charges were almost immediately disnmissed. See the Ridgeway article at: The Ridgeway article on Harris failed to mention that in the original case involving the bubonic plague, Harris was convicted only on the charge of using phony credentials to obtain test samples. In his second arrest, he had harmless veterinary grade anthrax in the form of vaccine.

See a longer discussion of  Larry Wayne Harris.

Third Position fascism and foreign/domestic ties

Hannah Arendt discussed fascism as a form of racial nationalism. Today there is a new form of fascism, a neofascism, called the Third Position, which seeks to overthrow existing governments and replace them with monocultural nation states built around the idea of supremacist racial nationalism and/or supremacist religious nationalism. Third position neofascists have organized in the U.S., Europe, and the Middle East, and they maintain some kind of loose network, at least for the purposes of discussing their shared ideas and agenda. This has been discussed by scholars such as Jeffrey Kaplan, Tore Bjørgo, and Leonard Weinberg.  Continue Here...

See also:

Goldenthal, Howard. (1991). “Khadafy Connections,” Now (Toronto alternative weekly), July 4.

Kaplan, Jeffrey, and Tore Bjørgo (Eds.). (1998). Nation and Race: The Developing Euro-American Racist Subculture. Boston: Northeastern University Press.

Kaplan, Jeffrey, and Leonard Weinberg. (1998). The Emergence of a Euro-American Radical Right. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press

Christian Right and Anthrax Hoax Letters

The "Army of God" claimed credit for the 250+ hoax anthrax letters sent to Planned Parenthood & reproductive health clinics in October, and an additional 120+ Fedex packages sent in early November. This turned out to be Clayton Waagener.

The Army of God

The Army of God does not exist as a single entity, but is primarily a common name used by a loose network of Christian Right anti-abortion militants. This represents a very tiny wing of the Christian Right. There is some overlap between the Army of God (and other militant Christian Right activists) and the militia movement, and some in the militia movement are anti-abortion activists. There are suspected links to the Extreme Right. In one case police have charged that Eric Rudolph, probably influenced by the Extreme Right Christian Identity, seems to have claimed credit for alleged bombings using the name "Army of God." View the letters released by the FBI

Right-wing terrorism against clinics is not new. NARAL has produced a large report on Clinic Violence, Intimidation, and Terrorism in the PDF format. There is an article on health implications at the California HealthCare Foundation website. There is also a report on Violence and Harassment at U.S. Clinics with a more comprehensive picture, as well as a useful Christian Science Monitor article.

A snapshot of the role of Christian Right militants in attacking clinics can be found in the report "Crimes Against Reproductive Rights in California," California Senate Office of Research, May 2001, (Updated 2nd Edition - August 2001), prepared by Gregory deGiere. (Note that this page sometimes shows as not online due to high demand. Keep trying.)

Geographic Map of Clinics Receiving Threats

11/09/01 article by Frederick Clarkson: "FBI: High Priority To Anti-Abortion Anthrax Mail"

2001 article by Fred Clarkson on federal fugitive Clayton Waagner and AOG

2001 article by Fred Clarkson from Salon on Nuremberg Files in AOG context.

1998 articles by Fred Clarkson from Intelligence Report, mostly about Rudolph
and far-right interconections.

Anti-abortion extremism: Extremists, 'Patriots' and racists converge. by Frederick Clarkson

Anti-abortion extremism: Anti-Abortion Violence. by Frederick Clarkson

AOG itself:

See also:



Army of God & background cites:

Baird-Windle, Patricia and Eleanor J. Bader. (2001). Targets of Hatred: Anti-Abortion Terrorism. New York: Palgrave/St. Martins. (Long discussion of Army of God Manual with extensive quotes from manual, plus other cites.)

Clarkson, Frederick. (1997). Eternal Hostility: The Struggle Between Theocracy and Democracy. Monroe, ME: Common Courage. (Several pages of discussion.)

Mason, Carol. (1999). “Minority Unborn.” In Lynn M. Morgan and Merideth W. Michaels (Eds.), Fetal Subjects, Feminist Positions. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. (Includes discussion of Army of God).

Juergensmeyer, Mark. (2000). Terror in the Mind of God. Berkeley: University of California Press. Passing reference in chapter on "Soldiers for Christ."

Blanchard, Dallas A. (1994). The Anti-Abortion Movement and the Rise of the Religious Right: From Polite to Fiery Protest. New York: Twayne Publishers. Not mentioned, but excellent history.

Risen, James and Judy Thomas. Wrath of Angels: The American Abortion War. New York: Basic Books, 1998.
This highly readable account, written by two investigative journalists, chronicles twenty years in the lives of several key personalities in the abortion debate.

Detailed coverage by Anne Bower in The Body Politic, December 1995. Adapted at:

Anne Bower, "Soldier in the Army of God."

Anne Bower, "Clinic violence: the python of choice."

Also, for general background on "Killing for Life," see work of Carol Mason:
Mason, Carol. (2000). “Cracked Babies and the Partial Birth of a Nation: Millennialism and Fetal Citizenship.” Cultural Studies, vol. 14, no. 1, pp. 35–60.

Mason, Carol. (2000). “From Protest to Retribution: The Guerilla Politics of Pro-Life Violence. New Political Science, vol. 22, no. 1, pp. 11–29.

See longer set of resources on Reproductive Rights. (In PDF Format)

What about Eric Robert Rudolph using the term Army of God in his letters?

According to the FBI:

"On October 14, 1998, Eric Robert Rudolph, age 32, was charged with the fatal bombing at Atlanta's Centennial Olympic Park, as well as the double bombings at the Sandy Springs Professional Building in north Atlanta on January 16, 1997, and the double bombings at The Otherside Lounge in Atlanta on February 21, 1997. An arrest warrant has been issued on these charges. Rudolph was charged in February of 1998, with the bombing at the New Woman All Women Health Care Clinic in Birmingham, Alabama, on January 29, 1998. That bomb killed Birmingham police officer Robert Sanderson, and severely injured the clinic's head nurse, Emily Lyons."
Rudolph may have been using a generic claim of being part of the "Army of God," since his ideology was closer to the Extreme Right Christian Identity movement rather than the Christian Right anti-abortion movement.

Caution in Reporting

As David Neiwert observed in an article on Salon, in the past much domestic terrorism, especially against abortion providers, has been ignored by the major press, and that some incidents that actually involved harmless substances were hyped in a sensational manner, and the "witless reportage of them actually inspired a wave of very real terrorism" in copycat incidents. Some caution is a good idea.

There have been several articles that discussed a number of suspect groups including those on the political right in a cautious and responsible manner. An example of a cautious article is by Kevin Cullen in the Boston Globe. Another example is the article cited above by Jerry Mitchell in the Clarion-Ledger. There are many other examples of responsible reporting. These generally cautious articles report on what is clearly identified as speculation.

Some of the earliest articles were the most sensational and credulous. One "expert" in Australia announced the prime suspects were the militias. This was pure speculation and reporting it uncritically was hardly professional.

Articles linking convicted Oklahoma City bombing conspirator Terry Nichols to Islamic terrorists are outlandish speculation derived solely from the fact that he visited the Phillipines at a time when Islamic militiants were also present. The Phillipines are a large collection of dispersed islands. Islamic militants have been organizing there for years. There is no evidence he ever met with any Islamic militiants.

It is a bad idea to lump together the Christian Right, Patriot/militias, and Extreme Right, because these are three distinct movements (with some overlap). One article in the British press not only mixed up all three movements, but also tossed off the line "illegal militias." The militias are a right-wing vigilante movement with a subtext of White supremacy and antisemitism. They should be opposed, but are not "illegal."

Civil liberties and accuracy are important and related. Carelessness can fuel the idea that the government should just arrest all political dissidents in a time of crisis. I am opposed to government repression against folks across the political spectrum; but if that doesn't work for you if you are a progressive, consider that any power we give the federal government right now to go after the political right, will be used against the political left really soon.

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