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Ricin Found in London

Ricin Found in London

"Terror Police Find Deadly Poison"

News article

By: BBC News

Date: January 7, 2003

Source: "Terror Police Find Deadly Poison" as published by BBC News.

About the Author: BBC News is a world-wide news gathering network headquartered in London and is sponsored by the government of the United Kingdom.

INTRODUCTION

The discovery by police of a substance believed to be ricin (a deadly poison) in a London flat in January 2003 came at a time when fears of a terrorism attack by al-Qaeda were particularly high in the United Kingdom. Since the major strike on the World Trade Center in the United States on September 11, 2001, there had been further terrorist attacks against western targets in Bali and in Kenya. In early 2003, Britain (alongside the U.S.) was preparing to go to war with Iraq and was therefore, thought to be a particularly vulnerable target for Islamic attacks in protest of the planned invasion of Iraq. War was being declared on Iraq due to its alleged possession of stockpiles of chemical or biological weapons and its failure to cooperate with United Nations (UN) weapons inspectors. In this context, the ricin discovery in north London gave rise to fears about possible links between the Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, and the terrorist network of al-Qaeda, particularly as UN inspections in the 1990s had revealed the existence of an Iraqi program for growing and processing castor beans for the production of ricin.

The fear of biological and chemical terrorism had been in the public eye since the mailing of anthrax spores to U.S. media and government offices in 2001, although no firm evidence has ever come to light that al-Qaeda had been involved in these mailings. There had also been a scare in the UK in November 2002, when the The Sunday Times claimed that a planned poison-gas attack by al-Qaeda on the London Underground (subway) had been thwarted by the security services.

The anti-terrorism police who raided the flat in January 2003 were acting on information from the Algerian authorities about a chemical terrorism plot in London, in which Kamel Bourgass was named as ringleader. The flat raided by the police was allegedly occupied by Bourgass. Although he was not found there, the police discovered equipment and instructions for making various poisons and a substance suspected of being ricin. The following week, the police and immigration officers raided another flat in Manchester, and found Bourgass there along with several other suspected terrorists. In a violent struggle, Bourgass stabbed to death a policemen. He was later sentenced to life in prison for the murder.

In September 2004, the trial began of Bourgass and four co-conspirators for the plot to launch a chemical terrorist attack on the UK. After a long court case, in April 2005, all four co-conspirators were acquitted. Bourgass was also acquitted of the most serious charge of conspiracy to carry out a chemical attack, but was found guilty of conspiracy to commit a public nuisance by the use of poisons or explosives to cause disruption, fear, or injury. Bourgass was sentenced to serve seventeen years in prison.

In the course of the trial it was revealed that examinations had shown that the substance found at the flat was not actually ricin. Only castor beans, apple pips, cherry pits, and a botched nicotine poison had been found. It was not clear when this information had been made available to the government.

PRIMARY SOURCE

Doctors have been warned to look out for signs of exposure to the potentially lethal poison ricin, after it was found by anti-terrorist police at an address in north London.

Six Algerian men are being questioned in connection with the discovery, made following an intelligence tip-off.

The men were arrested on Sunday morning and are in their late teens, 20s and 30s.

Tony Blair said the arrests showed the continued threat of international terrorism was "present and real and with us now and its potential is huge".

The intelligence services are said to be "shocked and worried" by the discovery and are looking at possible links with suspected Islamic extremists.

FORENSIC ANALYSIS

The arrests involved officers from the Anti-Terrorist Branch, Special Branch and the Security Service.

Castor oil beans, from which ricin is made, and equipment and containers for crushing the beans were found at a flat in Wood Green, north London, where one of the men was arrested.

Police said forensic analysis of the address, where a small quantity of material tested positive as ricin, was continuing, although they do believe the poison was made there.

It was identified by scientists at the Defence Science and Technology Laboratories at Porton Down in Wiltshire.

Police have not ruled out the possibility that some ricin may already have been distributed, although they believe it is highly unlikely.

They will also be looking at whether the group was part of a wider operation, possibly involving the manufacture of other chemicals.

'REAL EVIDENCE'

BBC home affairs correspondent Margaret Gilmore said: "For six months now MI5 and the anti-terrorist branch have been getting intelligence reports indicating that extreme groups want to launch a chemical, biological, or radiological attack. "Now we're being told this is probably the first real evidence they were trying to do this here in the UK."

It is thought that whoever made the poison did not have the capability to make a bomb, but they could have aimed to create panic by trying to kill small numbers of people.

Defence minister Geoff Hoon described the discovery of ricin as a "disturbing development".

Ricin is considered a potential biowarfare or bioterrorist agent and is on the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention's "B" list of agents considered a moderate threat.

It is relatively easy to manufacture in small amounts but would be considered an unusual agent to use for a mass attack as it must be ingested or injected to take effect.

It was also the toxin thought to have been used to murder dissident Bulgarian Georgi Markov, who was stabbed on Waterloo Bridge in London with a poisoned umbrella in 1978.

Mr Blair's official spokesman stressed there had been no specific intelligence about how the ricin was to have been used.

Deputy Chief Medical Officer Dr Pat Troop said, "While our message is still 'alert not alarm', we would re-iterate our earlier appeals for the public to remain vigilant and aware and report anything suspicious to police."

A Department of Health spokeswoman said all GPs and doctors had been told to look out for possible cases of ricin exposure. Sir Timothy Garden, former assistant chief of defence staff, told BBC News 24: "If it's a significant quantity then it's a worry because this is a poisonous agent which would require a lot of work to produce in a major quantity for use by terrorists."

SIGNIFICANCE

Biological and chemical warfare have been used in various forms since ancient times, but what is new is the growing fear that terrorists will employ biological or chemical agents in large-scale attacks against civilians.

At the time of the apparent ricin discovery, there was certainly mounting evidence that North African al-Qaeda cells in Europe were involved in the manufacture of chemical weapons for terrorist attacks. Shortly before Britain and the U.S. began their airstrikes on Iraq, ricin was discovered by French police in a luggage compartment at a rail station in Paris. Following so soon after the ricin discovery in London, this gave rise to new concerns of attack in both France and the UK.

However, none of the suspects brought to trial in the UK for the alleged plotting of a London Under-ground attack or for the manufacture of chemical weapons in the north London flat were convicted of terrorist charges. Overall, experts considered the attempts to produce poisons in the London flat as amateurish and unlikely to succeed.

FURTHER RESOURCES

Journal and Newspaper articles

Bird, Maryann. "A Poisonous Plot: Cops find a suspected al-Qaeda lab in London-but only traces of its lethal ricin. Inside the terror web." Time. January 20, 2003.

Carrell, Severin. "Special Report: Terror in the UK-Ricin: The plot that never was." The Independent Sunday. March 17, 2005.

Gibson, Helen. "The Algerian Factor: A murdered policeman. A series of arrests linked to the deadly ricin plot. And a race to uncover a web of North African terror cells in Britain." Time. January 27, 2003.

"Special report: Terror in the UK; Anatomy of a Conspiracy." The Independent Sunday. March 17, 2005.

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