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GlobalSecurity.org: National Security Notes

National Security Notes
April 13, 2005

SPECIAL National Security Notes

MORE UK TERROR TRIAL: Evil foiled or more mendacity?

by George Smith, Ph.D., Senior Fellow, GlobalSecurity.Org

The cats were out of their bags April 13 -- today -- in the United Kingdom on the UK ricin cell terror trial. In the last edition of National Security Notes, readers were informed that no ricin had originally been found at the apartment in Wood Green on January 5, 2003. What were found was 22 castor seeds and notes in Arabic addressing ricin and a handful of other poisons, nicotine, solanine, botulinum and cyanide.

In any case, as had been written in National Security Notes on Monday, the jury found Kamel Bourgass guilty of conspiracy to commit a public nuisance with poisons and all co-defendants not guilty last week. They hung on a charge against Bourgass of conspiracy to murder and were given two extensions to reach a decision before being dismissed. The second extension expired today. They remained hung on the conspiracy to murder charge and were subsequently discharged.

Bourgass had been convicted of the dastardly murder of a policeman in a prior unpublicized trial and was committed to a life sentence. An additional 17-year sentence was administered for the conviction on conspiracy to commit a public nuisance.

A second terror trial contingent on the first collapsed with the not guilty verdicts and will not proceed. There was less evidence for it than in the "poison cell" trial. The defendants in it are also off the hook.

Incredible claims delivered to save face and convince public great evil had been foiled

By Wednesday, the British government and prosecution had at least two days to prepare their spin campaign and they went into high gear. Knocked back by the not guilty verdicts and the implosion of the second terror trial, authorities moved forward swiftly to paint a picture of great deeds and sinister machinations, rather than the prosaic reality of bungling and distortion. This campaign was delivered efficiently to the British press. Instead of reporting that two terror trials had essentially gone off without finding the majority of people roped in on charges of being in an al Qaida-linked poison cell, the press started publishing material that had either been excluded from the jury or the speculations and claims from prosecution officials and others that a tragedy had been averted and the London poison cell broken up.

In contrast, the government's official statement on the Bourgass conviction ("Crown Prosecution Statement on convictions of Kamel Bourgass -- April 13, 2005") was a terse statement that makes no mention of al Qaida and any of the subsequent claims about the alleged London ricin cell of its plotters to the press. Instead, the world got "Right from the start, the dedicated professionalism and co-operation of all those involved was an example of how different agencies can work together to bring about justice."

For The Scotsman and others, Kamel Bourgass was linked to al Qaida by statements of one Mohamed Meguerba, a police informer also said to be an al Qaida trainee. "[Meguerba] told interrogators that he and Bourgass had received special training in poisons in al Qaida camps in Afghanistan ... and said two pots of ricin had already been made in London," wrote the newspaper. In other stories the jars were referred to as the "Nivea pots."

Meguerba made these statements while in an Algerian jail cell with all the baggage that entails. He later recanted them.

In a statement by Martin Pearce, Leader of the Biological Weapon Identification Group of the Defense Science Technology Laboratory at Porton Down, the same man who found no ricin in a mortar and pestle at Wood Green: "I carried out a visual safety check for obvious biological or chemical hazards and identified the Nivea pot (exhibit MW/1) on shelf four of the wardrobe as being suspicious ... I then carried out a test for toxin BW agents which was also negative."

Further along, Pearce writes, "During the [Wood Green] search, I carried out presumptive tests for chemical and toxin weapons on the following items:

  • "A plastic bottle containing a clear liquid..."

  • "[Another] plastic bottle containing a clear liquid..."

  • "A plastic bottle containing clear liquid marked isopropanol ..."

  • "A piece of paper containing black powder..."

  • "A shampoo bottle..."

"All tests were negative," wrote Pearce. Further along, he continues, "The black powder in exhibit MW/5 was visually examined and in my opinion was similar in form to black onion seeds," also seized in another jar from the apartment at Wood Green.

Why would a man held in an Algerian jail make possibly false statements and possibly recant them. This is left as an exercise for the reader to develop.

In any case, Meguerba was not brought over as a witness by the prosecution. In fact, when the prosecution realized Meguerba could not be used to link Kamel Bourgass and the others to al Qaeda, Afghanistan and Osama bin Laden in the trial, it switched strategy. At this point it went forward with trying to link Bourgass and the others netted in the UK poison cell raid to al Qaida by arguing that the ricin and other poison recipes found at Wood Green came from al Qaida sources. This stratagem was discussed at length in the National Security Notes of April 11.

In Reuters and other British publications, Meguerba also claimed Bourgass had a plan. "[Meguerba] told Algerian authorities British plotters were keeping deadly ricin poison in a jar of skin cream and planned to smear it on door handles in London," wrote Reuters on Wednesday.

You have just again read that a Porton Down scientist found no biological toxins at Wood Green, or in a Nivea pot.

In connection with the Bourgass terror trial, Porton Down performed a facsimile of the Bourgass ricin recipe. Porton Down ground castor beans and rinsed them with acetone. It took ten grams of castor beans, five more than called for in the Bourgass recipe, and determined that they contained 290 milligrams of soluble protein, of which ricin was a minority component, 63 milligrams. By gross weight, a castor bean contains approximately 0.6 percent ricin, a very small amount, a quantity confirmed by Porton Down. Naturally castor beans do contain ricin and one expects to find ricin in a powder or mash of them.

In addition, to get an idea on the toxicity of ricin, Porton Down undertook another test of the dried ground castor bean mixture it had produced in a cell culture assay. The scientist performing the test found the ricin in the mixture to be an order of magnitude less toxic than Porton Down's laboratory ricin standard. That is, of the 63 milligrams of ricin, a small quantity, thought to be present, only ten percent was still intact and biologically active.

Put another way, duplicating the Bourgass ricin recipe revealed that in the process of reducing castor beans to a dry mash, a great part of the small amount of active ricin in an intact castor bean is actually destroyed.

Also in the documents pertaining to this matter, a Porton Down scientist wrote that if one assumed a starting mass of five grams of castor seeds, and took the protein mash of it, if consumed that material would constitute ONE lethal dose if injected but would not be sufficient to kill if eaten. If consumed, it would likely cause symptoms such as nausea, vomiting and abdominal pain. The recipe seized at Wood Green called for five grams.

Are five grams of castor beans a WMD?

Another Porton Down scientist, Paul Rice, Group Leader for Medicine and Toxicology at the Defense Science Technology Laboratory, Porton Down, wrote in a document furnished to the trial, "There is no reliable scientific evidence available, however, that suggests that ricin toxin can be absorbed across intact skin."

In the statement on "Castor Oil Seed Poison," the title used in the Bourgass trial recipe, Rice writes, "There is no evidence, however, that by dissolving the ricin toxin in the solvent DMSO (dimethyl sulphoxide) or lemon juice, this would produce a contact hazard." DMSO and lemon juice were both suggested as solvents in the Bourgass method.

In different words, this means alleged plots to smear powdered castor bean on door handles are most probably rubbish, something copied from tales of American ricin trouble-makers, like the Minnesota Militia.

Easy botulinum from corn flour, meat and crap

In the Associated Press, lead prosecutor Nigel Sweeney was said to have claimed during the trial that "These were no playtime recipes ... These are recipes that experts give credence to and experiments show work. They are scientifically viable and potentially deadly."

This is far from the case but since most are unfamiliar with the poison recipes in question, it is a claim that often goes unchallenged. This became glaringly apparent in British breaking news on the Bourgass trial. In an attempt to reverse spin what was exoneration and not guilty declarations for quite a few people in two terror trial, the British government and prosecutors were rather obviously feeding the press twisted material embellished with claims that were not supportable by evidence.

Bourgass botulinum method is exactly a "playtime recipe." Bourgass did not even apparently know what botulinum was. His notes called it "Rotten Meat Poison." To make botulinum, or more precisely "Rotten Meat Poison," according to the Bourgass trial recipe: "Fill 2/3 of an empty flask with ground corn and water dough. Add a layer of meat cut into small pieces until it covers the dough, then a layer of dung, horse, cow, human or dust. Cover with water...seal tightly and keep in a place at 40 degrees C. for ten days."

Just put ground corn, meat, water and some excrement in a bottle, wait ten days and, voila, botulinum! Who knew?

Similarly foolish were notes for the making of solanine, another plant poison. The Bourgass method again did not evince any knowledge of solanine, the trial recipe referring to it as "potato poison." To make "potato poison," simply grind "2 kilograms of potatoes," with their roots removed. Take the flour and cover it with propyl alcohol ... which is used for massaging." Heat in a water bath for an hour, filter it and dry what comes through the filter "in the sun for an hour or two." Voila! Another weapon of mass destruction, from store bought potatoes.

Frankly stated, the poison notes implicated and discussed with horror in the case of the UK terror trial are silly. However, combined with fear in the war on terror and removed from their original American sources, they are frequently portrayed as many things which they are not. Prosecuting authorities simply and frequently exaggerate when speaking of them. And if one were to believe the claims of many officials concerning ricin, the Bourgass ricin recipe makes the poison look as easy to produce as popping corn. It is a canard in the war on terror.

Larger and nastier questions, however, remain. What did Colin Powell know of this? Who evaluated and analyzed the "intel" from the UK ricin plot in US agencies and passed it on to the administration? Who knew there was no ricin and why did they not say it? Why do police forces, intelligence agencies, and anti-terror operations persist in telling people that al Qaida men can make poison from potatoes and botulinum by throwing two foods and some crap in can?

National Security Notes from April 11: http://www.globalsecurity.org/org/nsn/nsn-050411.htm

-The collegial and gracious assistance of Duncan Campbell, expert witness and scientist for the defense in the trial, was indispensable in the putting together of this report.-

Also see "The ricin ring that never was" (Duncan Campbell, the Guardian): http://www.guardian.co.uk/comment/story/0,3604,1459096,00.html


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National Security Notes is edited in Pasadena, California, by George Smith, Ph.D. who is many things, including a protein chemist and a Senior Fellow at GlobalSecurity.Org.

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