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National Security Notes
04 March 2004

THE RECIPE FOR RICIN, Part II: From the Dept. of Justice to the Senate Intel Committee

THE RECIPE FOR RICIN, Part II: The legend flourishes from the Dept. of Justice to the Senate Intelligence Committee

The legend that ricin can be made from a recipe on the Internet using only household chemicals will probably never die. A big reason for this is its regular vetting by authority figures and government agencies.

The best example of this can be seen in how the "al Qaeda training manual" is regarded. Discovered in a search of an al Qaeda member's home in England and entered into the public record in the January 2001 trial of the embassy bombings in Africa, the manual includes a page devoted to explaining how to purify ricin from castor beans. With minor changes, it is the discredited formula that was common in "anarchy files" uploaded to private bulletin boards and the web over the past decade. In other words, it's the same useless lye and acetone procedure that has long been in residence on the Temple of the Screaming Electron web site. (See National Security Notes 02/20/2004.)

The al Qaeda training manual was translated in its entirety and made into an Adobe Acrobat file prior to September 11. With some searching copies can still be found on the Internet.

However, on September 11, America was seized by fear. The manual's section on poisoning and ricin concoction was expurgated by government authorities and subsequently republished on the Department of Justice's web site.  The surgical removal of this section granted it gravity, effectively validating what was actually a procedure of no worth. 

The validation was echoed in other places, notably the popular Smoking Gun web site, which displayed a fragment of the item.

"The manual ... instructs [al Qaeda] members on how to produce poisons from readily available materials," read an article in the National Journal on December 3, 2001. "For example, dimethyl sulfoxide, which is used as a topical analgesic by veterinarians, can be mixed with herbal poisons such as ricin, which is obtained from castor beans."

Even simple common sense broke down when considering the al Qaeda training manual and its supposed recipe for ricin. The expurgated portion also contains a passage which suggests that the consumption of three cigarettes could be used in assassinations. While this might be inspirational to those searching for a reason to give up smoking, normally it would raise doubts in even the most disinterested reader on the knowledgeability of the author of the section of the manual in question.

But the war on terror is not a normal time and often clear thinking and sophisticated analysis goes right out the window when evaluating potentials for mayhem.

For example, on February 5, two days after the news of discovery of traces of ricin in Senator Bill Frist's mailroom broke, CNN's Wolf Blitzer interviewed Republican Senator Pat Roberts. Among other things, the subject of al Qaeda manuals and ricin recipes on the Internet came up.

"... on ricin, the investigation that's under way," said Blitzer. "We know al Qaeda has used or tested ricin over the past. Is there any information you can share with us right now on where this investigation stands?" 

"Well, the investigation is ongoing and wide open," replied Roberts, the chairman of the Senate's Intelligence Committee. "And it is true the al Qaeda does have manuals. As a matter of fact, you can go to some kind of web site that would show you how to make ricin. It's very easy to do. And they do have the manuals on it in regards to several of the jihadist organizations."

This belief, in many forms, is routinely spouted by government and military officials on both sides of the political aisle.

For instance, in a PBS special on al Qaeda and cyber terror in April of 2003, John J. Hamre, an Assistant Secretary of Defense in the Clinton administration, opined: "I think we should worry about [cyber terror]. But these are the same people that had drawings of nuclear power plants and treatises about how to make ricin out of castor beans ..."

Another source, which is sometimes conflated with the al Qaeda training manual's recipe for ricin, is "The Mujahideen Poisons Handbook," written by someone calling himself "Abdel-Aziz."

In January 2003, Reuters ran with a story that began, "The Israeli army accused Hamas of using the Internet to plot attacks after pointing out ... a 'Poisons Handbook' posted on the Islamic militant group's web site."

"...The eight-chapter 'Mujahideen Poisons Handbook' gives detailed English instructions and diagrams for mass-producing what are described as deadly chemical gases and liquids," continued the article.  "The Mujahideen Poisons Handbook" was evidence, according to an Israeli army statement passed on by Reuters, that Hamas was using "the Internet as a means of assistance in its efforts to carry out terrorist attacks."

Reuters mentioned that the recipes in the handbook were not checked for "efficacy."

Assembled as another Adobe Acrobat file, the document contains an even more abbreviated form of the infamous net recipe for ricin, this time using only acetone.  Like the formula uploaded to the Temple of the Screaming Electron web site, it will purify ricin only in the sense that one can get the poison by obtaining a packet of castor beans from a garden shop.

Nevertheless, the "poisons handbook" has been chased around the net as a terrorism enabling manual, posted with the formula for ricin in redacted form by agencies or people wishing to show proof of the powers and plots of the enemy.

Careful examination of the electronic document shows that it is crammed with errors, seemingly the work of someone with little discernible sense, profoundly ignorant of the nature of simple compounds and incompetent in even minor procedures that would be conducted in a high school chemistry lab. What precious little information is actually factual can be found in any good general chemistry book.  

The quality of the text is so poor it would be humorous if it were not attached to a preface which puts on the airs of a sinister man confessing a wish to pass on an esoteric and dangerous technical capability to sympathizers. (Indeed, since the material is so shaky it cannot be entirely ruled out that it was fabricated as a hoax or written by a total know-nothing simply wishing to create an impression of menace. If the latter, the person was successful.) 

Whole there is little point to describing the handbook in fine detail, one recipe for poison gas was nothing more than the procedure -- also with mistakes -- for making a stink bomb, one often included in chemistry sets sold to young boys in the early Sixties.  The experiment, which is characterized by an odor of rotten eggs resulting from the evolution of hydrogen sulfide, is said by "Abdel-Aziz" to be able to "kill a person only [sic] in 30 seconds."

It is good news that these al Qaeda and terrorist training manuals purporting to contain recipes for ricin show no capability. And frankly speaking, if they are to be taken at face value they indicate a shortage in critical thinking and capability on the part of their respective authors. However, it's also unsettling when our leaders demonstrate a similar lack of sophistication, deriving no benefit or comfort from the application of science, buying into whatever received wisdom or stupid rumor is generally accepted.


THE RICIN-O-METER: Technology in the war on terror

National Security Notes has a dark sense of humor. The web 02/20/2004 edition of NSN is currently displayed with the widely used Google ad service.  The web ad service spins out commercials based on keywords slurped up within the content of the document with which they are to be displayed.

Since issue 02/20/2004 included another feature on the legend of the Internet recipe for ricin, an ad for a ricin-o-meter, a ricin sniffing device, was displayed with it.

Be advised, the ricin-o-meter is not cheap -- $10,000 to get you started buys it ready for travel in a portable kit from a company in Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada.

The ricin-o-meter is recommended for use "when answers count" because "[ricin] can be produced relatively easily and inexpensively in large quantities in a fairly low technology setting," according to advertising materials for the item.

Like other field assay mechanisms for detecting the poison, the ricin-o-meter is said to be reliable down to vanishingly small amounts. This means, if the technical specifications for the thing are accurate, that it would return a positive on a single ground up castor seed.      



"That hole he was in, as small as it was, was big enough to hold biological weapons sufficient to kill thousands and thousands and thousands of people.  Here's a country the size of California.  Think of that. It is an enormous country." -- Donald Rumsfeld, Feb. 15, 2004.


"Iraq, a country the size of California" has rapidly evolved into one of the most fatuous cliches of our time. While it may have conveyed a small bit of information when it was initially uttered, now the phrase is simply used as a fob to end discussions on the whereabouts of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq or to signal that thoughtful rumination has been forbidden.

It is also appropriate to think of the meme as part of a modern spell or incantation. Employed by national shamans, it is delivered before crowds of villagers and town criers who can be counted on to be deferential to the fancy that the value of a statement is directly proportional to the number of times it has been heard or read before.

Some of the more recent uses, from a collection of about thirty sightings in the news since February:

"It takes time to search a country the size of California, [Iraq], to find continued evidence, but we've already discovered some..." -- Senior Advisor to the Coalition Provisional Authority, Daniel Senor, February 25, 2004, defenselink.mil.

"The reality is that the hole he was found hiding in was large enough to hold enough biological weapons to kill thousands of human beings. And unlike Saddam Hussein, such objects, once buried, can stay buried. In a country the size of California..." -- Donald Rumsfeld, quoted in Insight on the News, also from February 15.

"The weapons weAEre looking for are no larger than a two-car garage in a country the size of California," said [Beau] Correll, a senior international studies and political science major. -- The Collegiate Times, Virginia Tech University, Feb. 10, 2004.

"[George Tenet's] argument that the CIA needs more time to search for such weapons was vividly made by his point that such a 'large stockpile' of biological weapons could fit in a space no larger than a few college dorm rooms in a country the size of California." -- The Washington Times, Feb. 5

"Rumsfeld told the committee that weapons of mass destruction might yet be found in Iraq, a country the size of California..." -- the New York Times, Feb. 5, 2004

"Mr. Rumsfeld said the inspectors needed more time to track down leads in a country the size of California..." -- The New York Times, Feb. 4, 2004.

"'As the search continues in [Iraq] a country the size of California,' Warner insisted, 'We could find caches and reserves of weapons of mass destruction' ... " -- Hampton Roads Daily Press, January 29, 2004.

A two-car garage, a hole or a few college dorm rooms in Iraq -- there's no point in quibbling over piddling differences of a few cubic feet. Using Google to search deeply, the meme returns a numbing 2,800 hits.

By contrast, it's worth remembering that the Soviet Union's bioweapons program could not be stuffed into a two-car garage, the stockpiles of poison gases from the US chemical arsenal now awaiting destruction in Anniston, Alabama, or at Tooele/Deseret Chemical Depot stockpile in Utah comprise a mountain and that the unconventional arsenal of Hussein's discovered by UNSCOM after Desert Storm would overflow a Saddam-sized spider hole.  


Other sample usages for "Iraq, a country the size of California," a couple to get you started:

1. U.S. soldiers found multiple caches of gold and cash money, many times enough to fill two dorm rooms, in Iraq, a country the size of California.

2. Although it is a country the size of California, in Iraq there is no difficulty finding people who will sell you Cuban cigars. Think of that.

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National Security Notes is edited in Pasadena, CA, by George Smith, Ph.D. Smith is a Senior Fellow at GlobalSecurity.Org.

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copyright 2004