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16 April 2003

On 5th January this year, the story of a ‘ricin factory’ above a chemist’s in Wood Green, North London, dominated the media. Public anxiety was stoked to a high pitch, with the Deputy Chief Medical Officer issuing public health notifications on 7th January. Politicians contributed to the hysteria, with the Shadow Defence Secretary Bernard Jenkin on 15 January stating on the Today Programme that “we are dealing with suicide bombers”. A dragnet was thrown, and within the next few days upto 8 persons had been arrested in various parts of the country. The tragic fatal stabbing of DC Oake during the search of a flat in Manchester hardened public perceptions. The persons arrested under the Terrorism Act 2000 were a 17-year-old youth, Samir Feddag, his brother Mouloud Feddag aged 18, Mustapha Taleb, Nasreddine Fekhadje, Mouloud Bouhrama, Kamel Bourgass and Samir Asli,. Subsequently, Rabah Kadre, Mouloud Sihali and Aissa Khalef were also detained.

The London arrests were a tip-off from the French intelligence services. It was also thought that “some of the suspects are alleged to have links with a gang seized in Paris last month” (The Times, 9 January 2003). The eleven men, including two teenagers charged with “conspiring to develop a chemical weapon” meanwhile remain incarcerated awaiting their trial.

The discovery of some vials and powder during a routine search of lockers at Gare de Lyon station in Paris in March was taken up as sign of “a pan-European Islamic network [is] preparing chemical attack” (Adam Sage writing in The Times, 20 March 2003). Journalist Piotr Smolar writing in Le Monde (22 March 2003) noted that “Ce même poison avait été retrouvé à Londres, en janvier, chez des islamistes” – ‘the same poison [Ricin] has been found in London, in January, with the Islamists’

French police however are now beginning to distance themselves from this Ricin scare story – the powder turned out to be a harmless mixture of ground barley and wheatgerm (Vikram Dodd, The Guardian, 12 April 2003). At the time the French Ministry of Interior was quite adamant that Ricin had been uncovered: “les analyses effectuées ont permis de constater que les deux derniers flacons contenaient des traces de ricine dans un mélange qui s'est révélé être un poison très toxique” – ‘analysis indicates that the two flasks contain traces of Ricin in a mixture that is a very toxic poison’.

While authorities find it expeditious to downgrade scare stories after the event, it is Muslim communities, particularly asylum seekers, in London and Paris that suffer the consequences and the climate of hate and suspicion. We now await a trial or early release of those held in London on the Wood Green Ricin scare.

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