Ricin: The plot that never was

A deadly poison said to be at the heart of a terrorist conspiracy against Britain led to a dire warning of another al-Qa'ida attack in the West. The Government was swift to act on the fear that such a find generated. But, as Severin Carrell and Raymond Whitaker report, far from being a major threat, the real danger existed only in the mind of a misguided individual living in a dingy north London bedsit

Sunday 17 April 2005 00:00 BST

It was a weapon of mass destruction, a warning that we all needed to be "vigilant and alert". Weeks before the invasion of Iraq, it was presented as the final proof that Saddam Hussein was in league with al-Qa'ida. Anyone wanting to exploit the politics of fear could scarcely conjure up anything more potent than the news that a suspected terrorist cell had been making ricin, one of the deadliest poisons known to man, in a north London flat.

But there was no ricin - a fact suppressed for more than two years. There was no terrorist cell, just one deluded and dangerous man who killed a police officer during a bungled immigration raid. Kamel Bourgass (probably not his real name; he used several aliases) is serving life for the murder of Special Branch detective Stephen Oake, but despite more than 100 arrests and months of investigation which took detectives to 16 countries, no al-Qa'ida plot ever materialised.

Last week at the Old Bailey, the Algerian was convicted and sentenced to 17 years for "conspiracy to cause a public nuisance by the use of poisons and/or explosives to cause disruption, fear or injury". Four other alleged co-conspirators were acquitted, and charges against four lesser figures, whose trial was due to start tomorrow, were dropped.

Yet the authorities remained undaunted. Peter Clarke, the Metropolitan police deputy assistant commissioner in charge of anti-terrorism, said a "real and deadly threat" had been averted, adding that it would be hard to overestimate "the fear and disruption this plot could have caused across the country". His chief, Sir Ian Blair, said it supported the argument for compulsory identity cards, echoing the Home Secretary, Charles Clarke. Mr Clarke's immediate predecessor, David Blunkett, claimed that the case showed the need for more anti-terrorism laws, while Conservative leader Michael Howard took it up as an election issue, arguing that it demonstrated immigration was out of control.

A terrorism trial which was spun from start to finish, abetted by many senior elements of the security establishment and much hysterical coverage in the media, is still being manipulated, regardless of the evidence in court. The "ricin plot" was used before the Iraq war by Tony Blair as evidence of the danger from weapons of mass destruction, and by Colin Powell, then US Secretary of State, before the UN Security Council as proof that Iraq was aiding al-Qa'ida terrorism. Linked to an equally illusory "poison gas" threat to the London Underground, it was kept alive throughout a series of genuine attacks in places such as Istanbul and Madrid as a reminder that Britain too was a target.

The gulf between rhetoric and reality, between what was alleged and what was established as fact, was only slightly greater than the distance between the twisted ambitions of Kamel Bourgass, who undoubtedly wanted to cause "disruption, fear or injury", and what he actually achieved, which was to cause loss and distress to the family of one wholly innocent police officer.

Far from being an al-Qa'ida mastermind dispatched by Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants to destroy the British way of life, Bourgass emerges as an embittered loner who alarmed even other members of the marginal world he inhabited, one of illegal immigrants whose petty criminality was constrained by their poverty and poor English. Many of Bourgass's co-accused knew him, but not intimately. Only one actually claimed to be a close friend. One expert on the case said: "The Algerian community in London are pretty much all young men and away from home. They all cling to each other, and overlook all sorts of political differences, just for the company. But he wouldn't. He was a bit of a loner and considered by them to be a loner. He would say inappropriate things, and was generally just a bit odd."

In the dingy bedsits they occupied, using poison manuals downloaded from American survivalist websites, Bourgass used a pestle and mortar to try to obtain poison from castor beans, cherry stones and apple pips. But the only evidence that he produced any was a botched "nicotine poison" in a Nivea jar.

All the other claims against Bourgass - that he had military training in Afghanistan and was linked to al-Qa'ida, that he planned to smear poisons on car door handles in London's Holloway Road - came from a fellow illegal immigrant and alleged co-conspirator, Mohammed Meguerba, arrested when he went back to Algeria. Although Britain refuses to return detainees, including Bourgass, to Algeria because of its use of torture and the death penalty, British politicians and prosecutors were happy to use evidence from there. And when British investigators went to Algeria and asked Meguerba to repeat his claims, defence lawyers point out, he withdrew most of them.

Nobody disputes that Britain had to act on the information it received from Algeria late in 2002. Sophisticated attacks on Western targets in Bali and Kenya a few weeks earlier had shown that al-Qa'ida and its affiliates remained lethal, more than a year after the 11 September 2001 atrocities. British security services were also known to be concerned that they did not have a handle on North African émigrés in this country, among whom there were thought to be hardline al-Qa'ida sympathisers. At least some of the criminal activity in the circles in which Bourgass and the others moved was believed to be aimed at raising money for possible terrorist activity.

On the face of it, official fears appeared justified. After the series of raids and arrests, four sets of recipes, two lists of ingredients, the equipment for a homemade chemistry lab and basic bomb-making instructions on a CD were seized. And on each item were several different fingerprints, tying in most of the nine accused men, and directly implicating Meguerba.

The key problem for the prosecution was making these inferred but inconclusive links into proof of membership of an al-Qa'ida cell. In the event, after one of the longest trials in recent legal history, and 74 hours of deliberation, the jury decided they had wholly failed.

Four of the five main alleged conspirators were cleared last week, and the jury refused to convict Bourgass, the acknowledged owner of the incriminating bedsit lab, of the most serious charge of all: conspiracy to commit acts of Islamist terrorism by killing innocent civilians.

But in January 2003 Britain and the US were also on the verge of war on Iraq, and the facts of the case were soon subordinated to political necessity. Even if ricin had been produced - and expert evidence at the Old Bailey was that the "recipes" Bourgass had were all but useless - it is not by any description a weapon of mass destruction. Quite the opposite: it is effective only as a means of individual assassination, as demonstrated by the Bulgarian secret service, which used ricin to kill the dissident Georgi Markov on the streets of London in 1978. One or two newspapers realised this in the immediate aftermath of the arrests in January 2003, and speculated that Tony Blair was the target of an al-Qa'ida assassination mission.

But as we now know, there was no ricin in any case. Professor Alistair Hay, one of Britain's foremost authorities on toxins, said Bourgass's attempts to construct toxic weapons from his small supplies of ingredients and ramshackle "laboratory" were "incredibly amateurish and unlikely to succeed".

He was scathing about Meguerba's allegations that ricin would be smeared on door handles. Ricin, he said, had to be injected straight into a victim to be a reliable weapon. Swallowing ricin could kill, but was a thousand times less effective. Simply touching crudely made ricin was even less likely to kill.

His expert report was so damning that the prosecution dropped Meguerba's claims. Instead, they focused on three identical toothbrushes found in Bourgass's flat and suggested he planned to smear ricin on the brushes, and put them back on a shop's shelves - an attempt to kill someone at random. Again, Professor Hay told The Independent on Sunday this was a highly ineffective method. "The claims made before the trial about this major ricin plot were very, very questionable," he said.

More sinister, however, was the expert's discovery when he looked through the analysis of the seized material by the Porton Down chemical weapons laboratories in Wiltshire. On 7 January 2003 - the same day that two cabinet ministers claimed ricin had been found in north London - Porton scientists had realised there was no ricin there at all. Their first results at the flat had been a "false positive".

What happened to that profoundly important discovery is still the subject of intense controversy. Porton officials were unable to tell Professor Hay when they told the police or Home Office. The Old Bailey heard claims that an overly cautious Porton Down official had delayed passing the information on. Defence lawyers, however, believe ministers knew at an early stage that the claimed ricin find was wrong.

Gareth Peirce, the human rights lawyer who acted for three of the acquitted men, claims that as ministers built up the fear of terrorist attack on Britain and prepared the public for the invasion of Iraq, the Government twice allowed largely unfounded scare stories to dominate the headlines - the ricin conspiracy and the alleged "poison gas" attack on the London Underground.

The alleged plot to target the Tube first broke with a sensational story in The Sunday Times, which claimed in November 2002 that the intelligence services and police had thwarted a major al-Qa'ida plot to gas the Underground. The paper claimed the alleged plotters would appear in court the next day, leading to a frenzy of press reports citing MI5 and police sources claiming a "terrorist attack had been nipped in the bud".

In fact, no such plot had been discovered. Three men were actually charged with using false passports. Two have since pleaded guilty, under ordinary criminal laws, to passport offences. One was an alleged al-Qa'ida ringleader, Rabah Kadre, the then librarian at Finsbury Park Mosque, where many of the alleged ricin conspirators worshipped.

According to Ms Peirce, the ricin plot was similarly exploited for political ends.

As for Meguerba, the trial threw up equally disturbing questions. There was no signed or recorded confession, just a memo or briefing drafted by Algerian security police which was given to the British. The prosecution would give defence lawyers only extracts from that memo.

Eventually, 10 months after the raids revealed Bourgass's apparent poisons experiments, anti-terrorism branch officers interviewed Meguerba in Algeria in the presence of a local investigating magistrate and Algerian intelligence officers. At that point his story changed significantly - producing so many contradictions that Nigel Sweeney QC, the chief prosecution barrister in the Old Bailey trial, refused repeated requests by defence lawyers to allow him to give evidence.

Mr Sweeney, a veteran of terrorism trials, told the Old Bailey when the jury was absent that Meguerba was a liar and was unreliable. Defence attempts to visit him in his Algerian prison cell were also rejected.

Ms Peirce believes that Meguerba's highly contentious evidence was extracted under torture. "This is the most disturbing aspect of it all," she said. "This man had clearly been tortured and was actually trying to save his own neck by passing on whatever he thought might be of interest, clearly making a great deal up."

Even if every word of Meguerba's confession had been believed, it was clear that the plot he was describing was ludicrous compared to the all too serious carnage of Madrid, Istanbul and Bali. All these were carried out with conventional explosives, yet the British Government has consistently dwelt on more exotic threats, such as "dirty bombs", a possible poison gas attack in the Tube, which was the subject of a civil defence exercise - and ricin.

One reason for the use of such lurid scenarios, in the view of Christopher Boucek, editor of Homeland Security and Resilience Monitor, a journal produced jointly by the Royal United Services Institute and Jane's, is to justify higher public spending. But he added: "It could also distract attention from the fact that the authorities have no real answers to more conventional threats. There is not much you can do about a Madrid-style bombing."

Ms Peirce is scathing about the political use made of the ricin "plot", saying: "We had a find in a London flat of something that could be poison, with a number of lists or recipes. A very early announcement was made that ricin had been found. From then on, people became aware of a poison they'd never heard of before, and that then created a major alarm - something on which the Prime Minister felt impelled to speak that very evening.

"Yet within 48 hours, Porton Down knew that ricin had not been found. If enormous public concern and fear has been generated, then the responsibility clearly of the Government is to reassure people that it was in fact a false alarm, that no poisons were found. But at no stage has any public correction been made."

But if the Government was seeking to use the politics of fear, the strategy went badly wrong in one crucial respect. The truth of the affair came out in the midst of an election race in which the Opposition is waging a fear campaign of its own, over immigration and asylum, and Mr Howard was quick to exploit the news of DC Oake's murder by a man who should not have been in the country. All the politically motivated claims over the dangers uncovered in January 2003 simply helped to reinforce the Conservative leader's case.

Recognising that in electoral terms this was an unquestionable own goal, two senior Labour figures, Alan Milburn and Charles Clarke, were deployed within hours to apologise for the failures in the system which had led to the policeman's death. "Of course the Government has to take responsibility," said the Home Secretary. But there was no sign that the Government would take any responsibility, far less apologise, on the wider issue - misleading the public about the undoubted threats that exist to the country's security.

Key Figures

Kamel Bourgass

An illegal immigrant, the Algerian arrived in Britain, hidden in a truck, in 2000. Using several false names, he remained in the country after failing to get asylum, despite being fined for shoplifting in 2002. Accused of masterminding a ricin terror attack, he was found by chance in hiding in Manchester, where he killed DC Oake.

DC Stephen Oake

A popular, experienced policeman, DC Oake had no inkling of the risks he faced on his first Special Branch raid, on a Manchester bedsit on 14 January 2003. During the botched operation, he was stabbed to death by Kamel Bourgass, an Algerian illegal immigrant convicted last week of conspiring to use poisons.

Dr Pat Troop

The Government's deputy chief medical officer issued a statement with the police on 7 January 2003 revealing that material seized in north London "tested positive for the presence of ricin poison". The same day, Porton Down scientists discovered that claim was wrong, a finding not released for two years.

Mohammed Meguerba

An alleged al-Qa'ida sympathiser, the Algerian named Kamel Bourgass as the head of an al-Qa'ida plot to use ricin against Londoners. Meguerba had entered the UK as an illegal immigrant. After being bailed for alleged identity fraud, he fled Britain in October 2002.

Gareth Peirce

The lawyer for three men cleared of the ricin plot, Ms Peirce was voted human rights lawyer of the year for fighting the detention of Britons at Guantanamo Bay. She was played by Emma Thompson in the film In the Name of the Father, which was loosely based on the Guildford Four whom Ms Peirce helped to free.

Charles Clarke

The Home Secretary had to apologise for the Government's failure to deport Kamel Bourgass, who was wanted for immigration offences. Mr Clarke claims it proves the need for ID cards, but faces demands to explain why ministers failed to withdraw false claims that ricin was found in Bourgass's flat.


18 September 2002 An alleged mastermind of "ricin plot", Algerian Mohammed Meguerba, arrested in north London and fake IDs found. Bailed after suffering an epileptic fit, he absconds.

16 December 2002 Mohammed Meguerba is arrested in Algeria by security police after allegedly being smuggled in by Islamist militants.

28 December 2002 Algerian security police begin interrogating Meguerba. Within two days, he allegedly reveals poisoning plot in north London, names Kamel Bourgass as ringleader and other Algerians as co-conspirators.

5 January 2003 Police raid flat in Wood Green, north London, and arrest several men. They discover Bourgass's alleged "poisons laboratory" including recipes for ricin and toxic nicotine and cyanide gas weapons, but Bourgass is not found. Other flats raided over following days. Seven North Africans arrested, including a 17-year-old. Incriminating "poison recipes", false papers and CDs with bomb-making instructions found.

7 January 2003 David Blunkett, then Home Secretary, and John Reid, Health Secretary, issue joint statement claiming "traces of ricin" and castor beans capable of making "one lethal dose" were found in Wood Green flat. "Ricin is a toxic material which if ingested or inhaled can be fatal," they add. "Our primary concern is the safety of the public." Tony Blair (pictured below) says the discovery highlights the perils of weapons of mass destruction, adding: "The arrests which were made show this danger is present and real and with us now. Its potential is huge."

7 January 2003 Chemical weapons experts at Porton Down discover in more accurate tests that the initial positive result for ricin was false: there was no ricin in the flat. Porton Down is unable to say when it alerted the police or ministers to the error.

14 January 2003 Police raid flat in Crumpsall Lane, Manchester, seeking another terror suspect. They instead find Bourgass and alleged conspirator Khalid Alwerfeli. After a violent struggle, Bourgass murders DC Stephen Oake and wounds several other police officers.

6 February 2003 Colin Powell (pictured far right), US Secretary of State, tells UN Security Council of direct link between British "ricin plot" and alleged al-Qa'ida "poisons camp" in Iraq. He says al-Qa'ida commander Abu Musab al-Zarqawi "has sent at least nine North African extremists ... to Europe to conduct poison and explosives attacks ... The plot also targeted Britain ... When the British unearthed a cell there just last month, one British police officer was killed."

31 March 2003 US commanders in Iraq claim to have destroyed "poison factory", but no chemicals or laboratories found. General Richard Myers, US commander-in-chief, claims: "It is from this site that people were trained and poisons were developed which migrated to Europe. We think that's probably where the ricin found in London came from."

29 June 2004 Bourgass sentenced to life for murdering DC Oake after 11-week trial at the Old Bailey. Sentence kept secret because of impending trial for "ricin plot".

13 September 2004 After two months of legal argument in court, Old Bailey case begins against Bourgass, Mouloud Sihali, David Khalef, Sidali Feddag and Mustapha Taleb.

8 April 2005 After one of Britain's longest criminal trials and four weeks of deliberation, jury acquits Sihali, Khalef, Feddag and Taleb.

12 April 2005 Jury acquits Bourgass of the most serious charge - conspiracy to carry out a chemical attack - but finds him guilty of "conspiracy to commit a public nuisance by the use of poisons or explosives to cause disruption, fear or injury". Judge sentences him to 17 years. Government admits no ricin was found, only 20 castor beans, some cherry stones, apple pips and botched "nicotine poison" in a Nivea jar. Director of Public Prosecutions Ken Macdonald abandons trial - due to start tomorrow - of another four men accused of the conspiracy. Khalid Alwerfeli, Samir Asli, Mouloud Bouhrama and Kamel Merzoug formally declared innocent. Meguerba has yet to stand trial in Algeria and remains in custody.

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