Renewing the mythology of the London ricin cell
Not worth a tin full of beans
Analysis A significant and noticeable part of the US and European academy of terrorism studies is like a shark. If it stops swimming forward, it dies. This has two consequences: a drive to publish or perish which, in turn, motivates it to creep onto past battlefields, assessing which bodies can be ignored for the sake of renewing mythologies; or new terror analyses that purport to show Byzantine networks and capabilities.
As an example from the dog days of summer, we consider an article entitled "The London Ricin Cell," written by Glen Segell of London for the August edition of Strategic Insights, succinctly self-described as "a bi-monthly electronic journal produced by the Center for Contemporary Conflict at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California."
"The London Ricin Cell" rewrites most of what is now commonly accepted about the case of Kamel Bourgass in favour of a more soberly stated (by dint of its academic structure) reiteration of the sensational al Qaeda poison team legend as writ large in pieces such as the Daily Mirror's "It's Here" skull-and-crossbones cover story in January of 2003.
Lost from this analysis, too, are a pair of important hard facts: that only a trivial number of castor beans - 22, virtually all of them in a jewellery tin - were discovered; and that an initial positive reading for ricin in the flat was a false one. Because of a combination of bureaucratic bumbling, obfuscation and UK gag orders, these findings were not revealed until 2005.
While claims about a ricin network that stretched from London to Iraq and al Qaeda hideouts in Afghanistan were washed away by the jury trial, UK government sources simply repeated them for news coverage at the conclusion of the case.
As a senior fellow for GlobalSecurity.Org, I had contributed some relevant materials and information on ricin recipes to Duncan Campbell, a forensic scientist who was providing expert work for the defense. This gave me access to court evidence - the poison formulas of Bourgass, among other information - and as a consequence I was able to publish on the trial in the US before the British press were permitted to go forward with the story.
The result was that many American and British journalists consulted what was published at GlobalSecurity and either phoned or e-mailed with questions. While this was happening it became apparent the UK government was spinning the result of the ricin trial. It was a determined and seemingly very well-orchestrated campaign and it met with some success.
Nick Fielding, a Times of London security correspondent had been in e-mail contact with me and explained that a bigwig from the Met's counter-terror team had been around to see the newspaper's higher-ups with its version of events. As a consequence there was little appetite for a story which ran counter to prosecution tellings.
The results were atrocious. In the United States, those few news organizations which devoted time to the ricin trial simply cast the impression that a jury had gone renegade, setting free terrorists who were a threat. A favorite quote, one emitted during the trial by prosecutor Nigel Sweeney, was often repeated. The notes of Kamel Bourgass, said Sweeney, "[Were] no playtime recipes ... These are recipes that experts give credence to and experiments show work."
In fact, they were quite the opposite and to prove it, we subsequently published the court's translated copies on the web with explanations of their provenance and meaning.
For "The London Ricin Cell" article, all the hysterical and subsequently unfounded speculation delivered by Colin Powell at the UN Security Council and later in statements from Bush administration mouthpiece Ari Fleischer and Joint Chief General Richard B. Myers on ricin floating between Iraq, London and Europe is republished, fundamentally without noting there was no substance to attach to it.
This is done as part of a larger argument that makes the case for the alleged ricin ring as an example of a "WMD proliferation network" connected with organized crime and "warlordism".
The Strategic Insights article writes that: "To sustain that the London Ricin Cell was a WMD proliferation network" it was allegedly determined that the ricin recipe was the same as a recipe of found in Afghanistan, among many other places.
In fact, the recipe was not the same. To understand this one must know that ricin recipes found in jihadi literature descend from two American sources - Kurt Saxon in a pamphlet called "The Weaponeer" in 1984, later in his "The Poor Man's James Bond, Vol. 3," in 1988, and Maxwell Hutchkinson's "The Poisoner's Handbook," also published in 1988. I furnished copies of these materials to Campbell and, by definition, the British court.
For the Strategic Insights piece, the ricin recipe is said to be from Hutchkinson. However, it isn't. Hutchkinson's, as well as other recipes for ricin, contains a step that calls for the addition of lye to castor seeds. Bourgass's recipe does not include it.
While it may seem like a fine point, since the publication of the two ricin recipes in the United States in the Eighties, they have been copied to many places, scattered across hard-copy documents and the internet, by many different people. Along the way, the recipe - and other poison purification methods associated with it - have picked up trivial modifications added by their different anonymous copyists. These changes do not separate the recipe from its common origins in hardcopy by Saxon and Hutchkinson. But they do distinguish the subsequent recreations of it from each other. I furnished copies from the two originals to Campbell and, by definition, the British court.
Experts from Porton Down were unaware of this. As a result, the prosecution was unable to link the Bourgass recipe to al Qaeda in Afghanistan. Campbell found Bourgass's poison formulas on Yahoo! servers.
The other important feature of Bourgass's poison recipes were that they were basically nonsense, contrary to the assertion of Nigel Sweeney. "The London Ricin Cell" article makes no mention of this, probably because it would spoil the reasoning that the case showed the existence of a "WMD proliferation cell".
Porton Down scientists stepped through the Bourgass recipe, which was simply to grind a weight of castor beans and degrease the subsequent mash. This process destroyed roughly ninety percent of the active toxic protein in the mixture, making it rather obvious that it is more hazardous to simply do nothing to castor beans.
Bourgass's recipes also included one for "rotten meat poison". Paradoxically, this recipe was descended from Maxwell Hutchkinson's book and it supposes one can create botulinum toxin, the most deadly of poisons, by simply throwing corn flour, water and meat in a can. There is absolutely nothing "shown to work by experts" about it, although it has proven fascinating enough to the simple-minded to have ensured multiple unique translations of it in jihadi electronic documents.
"It was therefore concluded that a WMD proliferation network existed in the case of the London Ricin Cell to acquire toxic substances by individuals with similar ideological and/or theological purposes," writes Segell. To buy this is to believe that the trivial recipes of Kamel Bourgass constituted a step toward a valid WMD program and some manner of training. Little could be farther from the truth.
As part of this "WMD proliferation network," Segell also restates a claim that anthrax was discovered in Afghanistan by US forces. While this idea continues to circulate due to the inevitable persistence of very bad news reports in Lexis, bioweapons expert and historian Milton Leitenberg has exposed it as a canard. Having done research including interviewing of the military and declassification of documents on the subject, Leitenberg has stated and written unequivocally that no anthrax was found.
In late July, Mouloud Sihali, one of the alleged members of the "ricin cell" related in interview to The Guardian how he came to be part of the Kamel Bourgass trial, even though he did not know that man until he saw him "in the dock". Sihali had been dragged into it by bad luck and coincidence, by the fact that a man with which he had shared a room for a brief period, Mohammed Meguerba, had his address in a pocket when authorities arrested the latter in an immigration raid. The police subsequently arrested Sihali. In the meantime, Meguerba had been released and fled to Algeria where he was recaptured and tortured into a confession that yielded Bourgass's name.
Sihali would probably be dismayed but unsurprised to find that he was still unfairly painted, although not by name, as a member of a "WMD proliferation network" in an American scholarly journal devoted to the study of war and terrorism. The demands of the war on terror often require a supply of bad guys, new and old, even when they're not. ®
George Smith is a senior fellow at GlobalSecurity.org, a defense affairs think tank and public information group. At Dick Destiny, he blogs his way through chemical, biological and nuclear terror hysteria, often by way of the contents of neighborhood hardware stores.