The threat of a "backdoor" terrorist attack by President Saddam in retaliation for any strikes the US or Britain might yet mount against the Iraqi regime has been discussed by intelligence and defence services since the time of the 1991 Gulf war - and before. Last night the Prime Minister's office said all ports and airports had been formally warned the Iraqis might try to smuggle chemical or biological warfare material - disguised as harmless liquid - into the country, perhaps as duty-free.
After details of the warning were carried in a newspaper, No 10 said: "We can confirm that an all-ports warning has been circulated and the document on which The Sun report is based is authentic. However, there is no evidence that this plot has been implemented; simply that a threat may have been made. Obviously, that has to be taken seriously. But we do not believe there is cause for alarm."
Last week the Home Office warned all police and customs authorities: "Iraq may launch chemical or biological attack using material disguised as harmless fluids. Could officers therefore be alert for any items which might contain harmful substances. Particular attention should be given to containers of any size holding liquids with specific characteristics."
The Iraqis are believed to be holding - and hiding - a number of deadly chemical and biological materials, including VX nerve agents, anthrax, plague, botulinum toxin and aflatoxin, all of which are highly lethal in the most minute doses.
The US Office of Technology Assessment has estimated that a small plane flying over Washington with 22lb of anthrax spores could release an invisible mist that could kill as many as 3 million people.
Mike O'Brien, a Home Office Minister, told ITN's News at Ten last night that there had been previous warnings of a threat. "We step up intelligence when they occur. I don't want to get people particularly scared on this occasion. There are steps we have taken. We are very good at dealing with these things."
Mr O'Brien later added that Britain was not the only target. It is understood that the initial warning was given, possibly to US intelligence sources, by an Iraqi contact, but there was no indication that an attack would be made solely against Britain, and there was no specific detail about the means of delivery, though there was a suggestion that traces of the biological or chemical attack material might be passed off as duty-free.
In such circumstances, it is difficult, if not impossible, to be able to track down - and prevent - importation. The threat could have stimulated work reportedly done at Porton Down germ-warfare defence laboratories, where vaccines are being developed, some of which could be administered orally.
Paul Taylor, Director of Biological and Chemical Defence, said last month: "You might be right to say that they could be used by civilians but we cannot decide that ... it is up to ministers to decide whether to use them for civilians."Reuse content