Four gray-haired Georgia men arrested in a scheme to conduct an attack with explosives and a deadly toxin were partly inspired by an online novel, according to court documents.
But their plans, experts said, may never have escaped the realm of fantasy.
From al-Qaida to neo-Nazis, numerous groups have imagined carrying out a deadly terrorist attack using the highly lethal extract of the castor bean known as ricin. None has succeeded.
Small batches of the virtually odorless toxin, however, have been used effectively as an assassination weapon, and in recent years there have been a handful of U.S. cases in which individuals trying to manufacture it have been arrested.
Even though the alleged Georgia plot appears to have had a fly-by-night character to it, officials indicated that the suspects' intentions — targeting U.S. government buildings and officials with firearms, explosives and ricin — were deadly serious.
The men contemplated targeting Atlanta and other U.S. cities, perhaps by dispersing ricin from interstate highways, the court documents said.
The four men, who range in age from 65 to 73, appeared Wednesday in a Gainesville, Ga., courtroom and were jailed for a bail hearing next week. Relatives of two of the men said the charges were baseless.
Ricin is regarded as one of the world's most toxic natural substances, so poisonous that a dose the size of a few grains of salt can kill and for which there is no antidote.
Experts said that the chances of four men in Georgia successfully pulling off such an attack were not good. "Absolutely zero," said Raymond Zilinskas, a microbiologist and expert on chemical and biological weapons.
There's little description of the Georgia suspects' motives in the court documents, other than a general contempt for the U.S. government.
One suspect allegedly compiled a "bucket list" of victims to target. The suspect, Frederick Thomas, told other members of the group, including an undercover FBI informant, that the politicians and others named needed to be "taken out" to "make the country right again," according to a criminal complaint.
Thomas also allegedly raised the possibility of modeling the group's attack on Absolved, an online novel written by former Alabama militiaman Mike Vanderboegh in which militia members build rifle grenades and drop explosives from crop dusters.
Vanderboegh wrote on his blog Wednesday that his book was fiction and that he was skeptical a "pretty geriatric" militia could carry out the attacks the men are accused of planning.
But Kent Alexander, a former U.S. attorney in Atlanta, said he wouldn't write them off as harmless just because of their age. "Crime doesn't have a retirement age," he said. "These guys are older than one usually sees, but criminals come in all ages."
Information from Associated Press was used in this report.