The San Francisco man charged last week with possessing bomb-making materials and who reportedly attempted to buy lethal toxins online did not pose an extreme danger to the general public, according to terrorism experts, but may have harmed dozens and spread fear by detonating a dirty bomb.
When the FBI raided the apartment of Ryan Kelly Chamberlain II in search of the toxin abrin and pure nicotine purchased on anonymous websites, agents allegedly found bomb-making materials. It is unclear whether other substances were found. Much like the better-known toxin ricin, abrin poses “a threat to public health and safety,” according to the search warrant, which states that nicotine is equally fatal.
Whether or not they found what they were looking for, the bomb-making materials they reportedly uncovered were an indication that the potential for harm was possibly greater than they had imagined.
“What would be potentially quite scary is using the IED to disperse the abrin in a similar manner to a radioactive dirty bomb,” said Zachary Kallenborn, a graduate student at the Monterey Institute of International Studies who has written about chemical and biological weapons. “While the abrin would not likely cause much additional harm on top of the explosion, the fear and broader impact of such an attack would be extensive.”
While Kallenborn is not intimately familiar with the case, he said websites with instructions on manufacturing a bomb akin to those used in the 2013 Boston Marathon attack abound.
The FBI claims Chamberlain had a bomb nearly ready to go. In Chamberlain’s apartment, the FBI reportedly found a screw-top glass jar that contained batteries and a powdery green substance believed to be explosive. The search also found a model rocket motor lodged in the green substance and an “electric match,” which is a common igniter for improvised bombs.
A wire extending from the glass jar was attached to the metal lid of the jar. A circuit board, configured as a remote-controlled receiver, was also found, along with an assortment of ball bearings and screws believed to be intended projectiles, according to the FBI.
Two researchers at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism at the University of Maryland said abrin, at least, is a poison meant to harm individuals, not create mass casualties.
Like ricin, abrin is a poison that can, with relative ease, be refined from biological material, said Mila Johns, a researcher at the consortium.
“They are really pretty red and black beans that are ideal for making cheep rosaries as long as you are not going to chew on them,” Johns said.
The most effective way to deliver abrin is orally, and ingesting as few as 10 ground beans can be fatal, said Johns, adding that it can take up to three days to kill someone and causes vomiting and diarrhea.
“It’s an ideal poison” since it usually is not tested for because it’s so rare, she said.
Chamberlain allegedly purchased ground, but not refined, rosary beans with enough “chemically pure abrin … to constitute hundreds of lethal doses of toxin,” according to the search warrant.
But the more lethal kind of abrin, which is refined, can kill in doses the size of the head of a pin, said Dr. Emily Iarocci, a senior researcher at the consortium.
Ricin, and now abrin, have been popular among right-wing extremists, Johns said, partially because of the easy at-home refining process, which can be found in manuals such as “Uncle Festers Silent Death” and “Poisoners Cookbook.”
Still, said Iarocci, a senior researcher at the consortium, there are no known cases of abrin being used to poison people.
Pure nicotine, which Chamberlain allegedly purchased as well, is a rare toxin and is very easily detected, Johns said.
In a social-media message penned by Chamberlain on June 2, he ominously wrote: “I explored some ugly websites, a year-ish ago. I was depressed. I let Walter White get to me. I thought I was done. That’s it. No one was ever in danger.”
Walter White is a fictional TV character on the show “Breaking Bad” who becomes a meth manufacturer and notably refines ricin from castor beans to kill a rival.
It is unknown what, if anything, Chamberlain planned to do with these materials. The only clues seem to be vague statements in emails, such as whether or not abrin could be detected in an autopsy. He allegedly told one buyer he needed abrin to “ease the suffering of a cancer patient.”
In one email, Chamberlain allegedly said the crushed rosary beans he received failed to work.
Correction: This story was updated June 13 to reflect the following change: The individual who provided information on lethal doses of the toxin abrin was misidentified. That information came from Dr. Emily Iarocci. The story also attributed a recipe for the toxin’s refinement to the “Anarchist Cookbook,” where it cannot be found.