August 29, 1984: How a cult used salad bars to orchestrate a bioterror attack in Oregon

On this day in 1984, an obscure Indian cult relocated to Oregon carried out a massive salmonella poisoning attack in 1984 in which almost 800 people got sick.

The heyday of ‘cults’ may be long gone but some were capable of some truly noteworthy terrorist attacks.

When you think of the word ‘cult’, what comes to mind first? Bald men in orange robes at airports? Weird ‘new age’ religions led by ‘holy men’ (and less often ‘hold women’)? Sexual frenzy where the ‘leader’ has his (usually his) way with a bevy of female followers?

In any event, the word cult has a hugely negative image with most of us. We tend to disassociate cults from ‘mainstream religions’ even if the latter are just more established cults. Still, when you picture cults I bet the next image pops up. Cults may not be as prevalent as they were a few decades ago but not all were harmless. After all, the bioterror attack executed in the Tokyo subway in 1995 by Aum Shinrikyo was a plot planned and carried out by a cult.

But it was predated by another one – this time in the US.

Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh was a popular spiritual leader in India, attracting thousands of followers who practiced free love and took part an unusual style of meditation that consisted of lots of primal screaming followed by dancing. By the 1980s he was at odds with the government in India and so decided to buy a ranch in Oregon which he called ‘Rajneeshpuram’. The land was largely uninhabitable but he sent his followers ahead to create a ‘utopia’ including a giant dam, an airport, an electricity station and a meditation centre that could hold 10,000 people.

On this day in 1984

On this day in 1984, in an effort to influence county elections (election interference: now WHERE have we heard that lately??) the cult planned to infect residents with Salmonella on election day. To practice for the attack, they contaminated salad bars at 10 restaurants with S. Typhimurium resulting in a community wide outbreak of salmonellosis in which at least 751 cases were documented in a county that typically reports fewer than five cases per year.

A vial of S. Typhimurium identical to the outbreak strain was found in a clinical laboratory on the cult’s compound, and members of the cult subsequently admitted to contaminating the salad bars and putting Salmonella into a city water supply tank.

One of the attack’s alleged chief architects, Ma Anand Sheela, now living in Switzerland, was sentenced to three separate 20-year terms in federal prison for her role in the attacks, though she only served 29 months before being released for good behaviour.  

I’ve had salmonella poisoning and it ain’t fun. Normally it stems from poor food handling. Then again, not always.

More ‘today in terrorism’

    By Phil Gurski

    Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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