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Newsweek April 13, 2005

What Ricin?

Colin Powell and British authorities pointed to a poison plot as justification for the war on Iraq. But a jury says the case didn't add up.

By Michael Isikoff and Mark Hosenball

A much-touted ricin-plot terrorism case in the United Kingdom ended in a muddled verdict today, raising new questions among U.S. officials about the ability of British authorities to secure convictions against major terrorist suspects.

The lead defendant in the case, an Algerian citizen named Kamal Bourgass was found guilty of plotting to use the deadly poison ricin to commit a "public nuisance" and was sentenced to 17 years in prison. (He had already been given a life sentence for the murder of a policeman investigating the ricin plot.) But prosecutors at London's Old Bailey courthouse also announced that Bourgass and four codefendants were acquitted of more serious terrorist-murder conspiracy charges involving ricin. Prosecutors acknowledged that one major reason for the acquittals was that British authorities had relied on an inaccurate laboratory report suggesting the suspects had been trying to manufacture ricin.

The defendants were first arrested in January 2003 and the ricin-plot case was initially touted by both British and U.S. authorities as a major breakthrough in the fight against global terrorism. In his February 2003 Security Council presentation arguing that the threat posed by Saddam Hussein justified military action, Secretary of State Colin Powell cited the British arrests as evidence of the international connections and the reach of terrorist leader Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi. Powell suggested Zarqawi was behind a "network" of operatives who had plotted attacks in numerous European countries, including Britain, France, Spain, Italy, Germany and Russia.

The mixed outcome dismayed U.S. counterterror specialists who were convinced that Bourgass and his four codefendants were in fact acting as part of a broader international terror plot. It also gives new urgency to the U.S. terror indictment brought against three other British suspects this week on charges relating to their surveillance of financial buildings in New York, Washington and Newark.

"This is very disturbing," says Evan Kohlmann, a U.S. government consultant on international terror cases, about the acquittals in the ricin-plot case. "These are dangerous people who are followers of Abu Hamza," the radical imam of London's notorious Finsbury Mosque, which was a favored gathering place for Al Qaeda-linked extremists.

Claiming that publicity about the trial might prejudice potential jurors in future terrorism prosecutions, British prosecutors got a court order prohibiting British media from reporting anything about the trial of the ricin-plot defendants. In a publicity vacuum, the trial began last September and the jury in the case had been in deliberations from March 14 until yesterday, when the judge finally discharged them.

According to a court statement released today by Britain's Crown Prosecution Service, in an earlier secret trial that ended last June, the government succeeded in convicting the most important ricin defendant, Bourgass, on the charges of murdering a British policeman, Detective Constable Stephen Oake. He was stabbed to death as he and other policemen raided an apartment in Manchester trying to arrest Bourgass.

The jury in the ricin-plot case did convict Bourgass on charges of conspiracy to "cause a public nuisance" through the use of ricin. Two of the four codefendants pled guilty to minor charges on minor charges. One of the remaining of two defendants was cleared completely; the legal status of the fourth is murky.

News of the verdicts comes only a day after the U.S. Justice Department announced the indictment of three other men currently held in Britain on charges relating to the alleged casing of the New York, Washington and Newark financial buildings between August 2000 and April 2001.

Those three suspects are part of a group of eight people who were arrested last August by U.K. police on British terrorist-conspiracy charges. British officials insist that the evidence U.K. prosecutors have assembled against the eight suspects, who include Dhiren Barot, an alleged former associate of September 11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, is formidable. Sources close to the case say the evidence includes messages sent between the U.K.-based suspects and an alleged Al Qaeda communications operative in Pakistan. The messages allegedly prove that the suspects were preparing to mount a terrorist attack against targets in London, such as Heathrow Airport, Parliament or Westminster Abbey.

U.S. law-enforcement sources told NEWSWEEK that one reason that the Justice Department decided to indict three of the same defendants of plotting attacks in the United States-including Dhiren Barot-is as a backup, so that British authorities could continue to hold the suspects for potential extradition to the United States. "You never know what's going to happen with the U.K. case," said one U.S. counterterrorism official.

As described in their public statement about the ricin trial, British investigators thought they had a solid and dramatic case against Bourgass and the other alleged ricin plotters. A critical piece of the case was information obtained from a suspect arrested in Algeria in December 2002. While being interrogated, he described an active plot in England that involved poisoning people by using homemade ricin. The poison, he said, was being made at a North London apartment and kept in a jar of skin cream.

According to prosecutors, the informant said the plan was to smear ricin on door handles and hope that victims became poisoned when they touched the substance with their fingers.

Armed with this intelligence, British authorities on Jan. 5, 2003, raided the North London apartment-which, coincidentally or not, was only a few yards from a residence once used by an associate of Ahmed Ressam, the would-be Los Angeles airport Millennium bomber who was arrested by U.S. Customs in December 1999 trying to enter the United States from Canada in a rental car packed with bomb-making materials.

In the apartment investigators found alleged recipes for ricin, an envelope containing 4,000 British pounds and a mortar and pestle which appeared to contain chemical residue. A field test suggested the residue was ricin. But prosecutors admitted in their public statement today that "subsequent exhaustive testing and consideration confirmed ... that this was a false positive."

In an article posted earlier this week on Globalsecurity.org, a public-interest group that monitors U.S. military and intelligence agencies, a senior fellow of the group, George Smith, who said he had acted as a consultant for defense lawyers in the ricin case, claimed that the British government knew "months" before today's announcement that its claims that the suspects were capable of making ricin and had Al Qaeda ricin recipes were shaky.

According to Smith's account, only two days after the Jan. 5, 2003, search of the North London apartment, the chief scientist advising U.K. prosecutors concluded that the test suggesting ricin that had been made at the apartment was probably a false positive. Smith's article cited a report in which the scientist, Martin Pearce, wrote that: "Subsequent confirmatory tests on the material from the pestle and mortar did not detect the presence of ricin. It is my opinion therefore that toxins are not detectable in the pestle and mortar."

Smith argued that as a result of the holes in the British case, "one of the last claims in Colin Powell's presentation to the U.N. Security Council ... blew away like dust in the wind." Powell had told the United Nations that Zarqawi, whom he asserted had spent time in Baghdad in 2002, had allegedly dispatched at least nine North African extremists to Europe in 2001 to conduct poison and explosives attacks. Powell claimed that 116 operatives connected to Zarqawi's "global web" had been arrested by the time of his speech. Powell said that the detainee informant who helped U.S. intelligence piece together the details of Zarqawi's alleged network said Zarqawi's plotting "also targeted Britain" and that evidence was later discovered that proved the informant's information was accurate. "When the British unearthed a cell there just last month, one British police officer was murdered during the disruption of the cell," Powell noted.

Copyright 2005, Newsweek, Inc.