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Media General News Service July 24, 2005

The Great Ricin Scare

By John Hall

WASHINGTON -- In 2003, a raid on a so-called poison gas cell in northeast suburb of London called Wood Green led to 90 arrests. It was billed at the time as a major roll-up of an al-Qaida network in Britain. The raid and the volumes of publicity about it in Britain and over here virtually introduced the word ricin, a poison made from castor beans, into the public vocabulary.

There are questions now about how much of a network this really was. Eventually, only five people were charged. Last April, the last of the trials took place in the Old Bailey and there were four acquittals, without much public attention. The lone conviction, affirmed last week, was for the murder of a policeman during the raid on an apartment house.

Some experts who have looked at the evidence say the poison gas case is starting to look fishy. In the first place, ricin is no good as a terrorist weapon. At last report, the British prosecution was trying to make the case that the Wood Green conspirators were trying to put ricin into a jar of skin cream and spread it on door knobs. That is not the efficient killing machine that al-Qaida operatives seem to prefer, and it certain is not a weapon of mass destruction.

After reading one of my columns on biological warfare, a scientist who has been tracking this story sent me what he knows, which you can find in more detail on the web site www.globalsecurity.org.

One of the recipes for homemade poisons found in the London apartment said “Just put ground corn, meat, water and some excrement in a bottle, wait ten days and, voila, botulinum,” said Dr. George Smith, a protein chemist and senior fellow at GlobalSecurity.org. Smith said it was silly and a “canard in the war on terror.”

But British prosecutor Nigel Sweeney, according to the Associated Press, exclaimed “These were no playtime recipes. They are scientifically viable and potentially deadly.”

Obviously, young Muslim men sitting around writing prescriptions for homemade poison products can’t be taken lightly, particularly after what happened in London July 7 and again last Thursday. Although initial reports indicated there were no indications of chemical explosives involved in Thursday’s London attacks, it crossed a lot of minds as London waited for word about what had happened.

The credibility of the war on terror continues to be a huge problem.

Panic is an enemy. Combating it must begin by helping distinguish between myth and reality.

The discovery of “traces” of ricin, although it has faded in memory now, was a big story at the time.

Secretary of State Colin Powell’s Feb. 5, 2003, speech to the U.N. Security Council referred to the “U.K. poison cell” as another reason for the invasion of Iraq. He said it was part of the terrorist web being directed by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi from inside Iraq.

But, according to Smith, not much more was turned up in evidence presented at the Old Bailey except 22 castor seeds, as well as notes in Arabic addressing ricin and a handful of other poisons. The crown prosecution’s statement at the end of the trial, as Kamel Bourgass was found guilty of murder and conspiracy to commit a public nuisance, had dropped all references to al-Qaida.

Clearly, this was not the vast home made poison gas manufacturing conspiracy that the authorities thought it would be, just as the vast Iraqi network of weapons of mass destruction never came to be.

There is also no evidence that ricin was being manufactured in Iraq and being shipped to London, as some leaks from Washington said was the case.

What difference does it make recounting this now? Plenty.

Last Thursday, the world once again held its breath. The attempts to explode devices on London’s underground and bus systems frayed nerves.

London police, by assuring everyone promptly that chemical devices were not involved, had learned a few lessons from the ricin episode.

 


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