Hex in the City: Cyanide Threat Redux


News over the weekend that Al Qaeda plotted three years ago to attack the subways with hydrogen cyanide gas seems yet another reminder of how much the world has changed since 9-11. But terrorism trivia fans will be interested to know that the alleged aborted 2003 plot is not the city’s first potential brush with this particular poison.

Leaving aside the cyanide found at brownfield sites on Staten Island, in trace amounts in the city’s water in recent years, and in a bunch of New York City suicides that scientists studied, the possibility of cyanide terrorism in the metropolis first dawned two decades ago. In 1985, federal agents raided a compound on the Missouri-Arkansas border used by a group called The Covenant, The Sword and The Arm of The Lord, a group that FBI documents say hated Jews, blacks, communists, the Federal Reserve, and a bunch of other folks. At the compound, the feds found 30 gallons of potassium cyanide. The group’s apparent plan was to poison the water supply of a major city. According to the Organization to Prevent Chemical Warfare, the likely targets were Washington, D.C., or New York. Several group members went to jail.

It wasn’t the only unfulfilled threat against the city in that era: The next year, a threatening letter to Ed Koch demanded that the city release Bernie Goetz or face the poisoning of the city’s water supply with plutonium trichloride. According to testimony before the International Atomic Energy Agency in late 2001, “When the U.S. Department of Energy tested the city’s drinking water, they found elevated levels of plutonium . . . . However, no proof of contamination, or a definitive link between the threat and the test results, was found. Moreover, the danger posed by this type of attack was small.” (As you’re probably hearing, people are saying the same thing about the alleged 2003 cyanide plot. Hydrogen cyanide is highly volatile, so to kill people it has to be kept in a confined area. Even the 1995 Tokyo subway incident involving the even-more-frightening sarin gas killed 12 and seriously injured 54.)

Of course, the carnage in 2001 makes threats from Al Qaeda a little more frightening today than plots by religious whack-jobs in the 1980s. Still, with Assemblyman Dov Hikind looking to give New York cops the right to use “the apparent race or ethnicity of a suspect as one of the many factors in a potential terrorist suspect profile which he or she could use to identify persons who could be stopped, questioned, frisked,” it’s helpful to remember that Muslim terrorism on 9-11 wasn’t the first warning sign. There was that Oklahoma City thing in 1995—to which, incidentally, the Covenant, the Sword and the Arm of the Lord has sometimes been connected.