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Meet the Cult that pulled of the worst Bio-Terror Attack in American History


The Rajneeshpuram is an interesting group and a case study that demonstrates how simply a biological agent can be employed by a terrorist organization. Interestingly in this particular case is that the organization as a whole was not typical of a terrorist organization, but better classified as a (religious) cult at odds with the state and the federal government. More precisely relevant to this discussion was the fact that the group was not openly engaged in terrorism, but rather a small element that operated within the cult. This latter point even further highlights the ease with which a simple biological agent (and attack) can be conducted with discretion, being that it is reasonably assumed the majority of the cult was unaware of the bio-terrorist plot in real-time (Hilow, 1995).

   In 1984 members of the cult poisoned surrounding area locals with Salmonella Typhimurium. They did so by contaminating local eating establishment common areas (salad bars). This relatively simple tactic by a relatively unsophisticated group resulted in over 700 people falling ill (Kimery, 2010). One interesting and concerning note about this bioterrorist attack in the United States is that it was cultivated by a nurse in an improvised laboratory inside a small cabin (Zaitz, 2011). This small but important detail should be of great concern to those in charge of National Security.


Photo Credit: CDC

So what exactly is Salmonella Typhimurium and should that particular pathogen be of concern in our modern medicine age? According to the World Health Organization Salmonella is one of the leading causes of diarrhoeal disease. Though not typically fatal it does cause gastrointestinal issues with its host and especially poses a significant risk to the elderly, and children population. It is a hardy bacterium and can survive for weeks in a dry environment and even longer in a wet one. Most concerning to public health is that serotypes have emerged that are microbial resistant (read- harder to medically treat). The Typhimurium refers to the serotype and is one of the two most common Salmonellas transmitted from animals to humans in many areas of the world (World Health Organization, 2016). Salmonellosis is the disease caused by the Salmonella bacteria. Symptoms of the disease are typically abdominal pain, fever, diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting. These symptoms typically occur within 36 hours and last up to 7 days (World Health Organization, 2016).

This writer considers Salmonella a viable threat even in our modern medicine and post 9/11 environment. The simplicity of cultivating this particular bacteria and its hardiness are likely very appealing to many terrorists. The relative lack of mortality associated with it may be a detractor to some but may be offset by the terror potential. Though a large-scale successful attack with the bacteria would not likely cause massive death it could have a devastating effect. It could reasonably be assumed that a high number of the deaths that would occur would be among the children, causing an even more devastating psychological effect on the populace. Beyond the massive loss of man hours and disruption to the way of life across the attacked region, it would likely incite panic and concern among the citizens. Being that it would likely be delivered via food products, shortages could be created along with financial stress to related restaurant and supply industries.

*Side Personal Note: A couple of months ago my five-year-old son suffered a Strep infection and Salmonella at the same time. It made for a psychologically trying week for us (parents) and very rough week for him. Due to a quick diagnosis and treating of the Strep, the Salmonella was not diagnosed positively until about 5 days into the ordeal. Worse even, the treatment for strep exacerbated the Salmonella. All in all, I spent three consecutive nights in emergency rooms with him and then he spent an additional four days admitted into the hospital. I can speak firsthand how nasty these bacteria can be for a small child.


Hilow, M. R. (Director). (1995). Rajneeshpuram: An Experiment to Provoke God [Motion Picture].

Kimery, A. (2010, December 29). The Threat of Bioterrorism and the Ability to Detect It. Retrieved from Homeland Security Today.us: http://www.hstoday.us/columns/the-kimery-report/blog/the-threat-of-bioterrorism-and-the-ability-to-detect-it/bea57df4219d59980fcbd46429f7a918.html

World Health Organization. (2016, December). Salmonella (non-typhoidal). Retrieved from World Health Organization: http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs139/en/

Zaitz, L. (2011, April 14). Thwarted Rajneeshee leaders attack enemies, neighbors with poison — Part 2 of 5. Retrieved from The Oregonia: http://www.oregonlive.com/rajneesh/index.ssf/2011/04/part_two_thwarted_commune_goes.html