Bacillus anthracis can be identified on the basis of the detection of virulence factor genes located on two plasmids, pXO1 and pXO2. Thus isolates lacking both pXO1 and pXO2 are indistinguishable from closely related B. cereus group bacteria. We developed a multiplex PCR assay for characterization of B. anthracis isolates, and simultaneous confirmation of the species identity independent of plasmid content. The assay amplifies lef, cya, pag (pXO1) and cap (pXO2) genes, and a B. anthracis specific chromosomal marker, giving an easy-to-read profile. This system unambiguously identified virulent (pXO1+/2+) and avirulent (pXO1+/2-, pXO1-/2+ and pXO1-/2-) strains of B. anthracis and distinguished "anthrax-like' strains from other B. cereus group bacteria.