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The Ricin Dossier
In February 2001, Jason Burke of The Observer reported an interview with Rida Hassaine, an Algerian asylum seeker in the UK, who stated that a dirty tricks campaign was being run by the French intelligence service, the DGSE, against Algerian dissidents in London: "though it too involved burglaries of mosques and Islamic groups' premises as well as the funding of a newspaper supporting the terrorist Osama bin Laden, Hassaine was advised to help the French by his [UK] handlers".
Notwithstanding this note of caution, the authorities in Britain were quick to respond to a tip off from the Algerian security forces received on 2nd or 3rd January 2003. The well-informed Burke, writing again in The Observer on 17th April 2005, notes "The Algerian secret service intelligence reports that arrived at Scotland Yard in January 2003 still make frightening reading. Based on interrogations of a senior Islamic militant, they gave details of a plot to poison Britons, and contained information on scores of individuals in the UK who appeared to be deeply engaged in hard-line, violent Islamic radicalism. Worse, they suggested a number of shadowy cells in Britain beyond the poisoners. They were not disclosed to the terrorist trial at the Old Bailey last week and are still classified 'secret'…".
Jason Bennetto, Crime correspondent of The Independent, provided further details of the Algerian tip-off: "they (Algerian security) had arrested a suspected Algerian terrorist, Mohammed Meguerba, 36, who told them that he had been working with al-Qa'ida supporters in Britain and had been helping them produce poisons at a flat in north London" (14th April, The Independent).
According to Jason Burke, "an epileptic, Meguerba left his homeland in 1995 and travelled through Europe, ending up as a waiter in Ireland where he married, divorced, remarried and, 'by pure chance or cultural void', said the Algerian secret service, 'allowed himself to be recruited by fundamentalists' at a Belfast mosque in 2000. Activists in London sent him to training camps in Afghanistan. Then Osama bin Laden himself gave him a mission in the UK, with a false passport and $600".
Based on this information, Met Police officers raided a flat in Wood Green, North London, on Sunday morning 5th January 2003, together with specialists from the biological and chemical research centre at Porton Down. They discovered a locked bag in room occupied by an Algerian failed asylum seeker Kamal Bourgass. The bag contained an envelope with a set of instructions in Arabic in his writing for making poisons and explosives and also lists of chemicals. On the front of the envelope was the address of the Finsbury Park mosque with the name of 'Nadir', by which Bourgass was also known. Also found on the premises was a cup containing apple seeds, cherry stones, nail polish remover and a bottle of acetone. The search also found 20 castor beans and £14,000 in cash. Seven arrests were made - of whom only one, a woman, was released in a few days. However Bourgass himself was not present.
Duncan Campbell, a respected security expert, has stated that "it is true that when the team from Porton Down entered the Wood Green flat in January 2003, their field equipment registered the presence of ricin. But these were high sensitivity field detectors, for use where a false negative result could be fatal. A few days later in the lab, Dr Martin Pearce, head of the Biological Weapons Identification Group, found that there was no ricin" (14th April 2004, The Guardian). As far as the recipes were concerned, Duncan states that "the chemical lists found in London were an exact copy of pages on an internet site in Palo Alto, California", the recipes being the invention of survivalist Kurt Saxon.
Simon Jenkins, writing in The Times on 1st January 2003, observed, "Each weekend Downing Street and its 'terrorism unit' summons the press for the Sunday scare story. We have now had the Nine-Eleven anniversary scare, the sarin-on-the-Tube scare, the smallpox scare, the 'threat to public transport' scare, the Christmas shopping scare and last Sunday's 'London quarantine' scare. (Note, these stories always appear on a Sunday.) They offer no useable public advice. They are pure heebie- jeebie" (1st January 2003, The Times).
In this context, the Wood Green raid in the week beginning Monday 8th January 2003 was manna from heaven. Dr Pearce's findings and other investigations were sidelined.
The Government was to make opportunistic use of the event to bolster the case for the 'war against terror'-cum-Iraq's WMD: "The government said at the time that chemical weapons had been found in Britain for the first time" (David Leppard, 5th October 2003, The Times). The compliant sections of the media covered the events with lurid headlines like, "IT'S HERE" (The Mirror front page, 8th January 2003). The then Shadow Defence Secretary Bernard Jenkin joined the chorus, on 15 January 2003 stating on the Today Programme "we are dealing with suicide bombers".
It was not difficult to find academics ready to back the Government line. The 'Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence' at the University of St Andrews, established in 1994 and with funding from ESRC for research on the domestic management of terrorist attacks in the UK is a case to point. For example Professor Professor Paul Wilkinson, speaking on Sky News on 7th January 2003, said: "We are facing an extremely dangerous form of terrorism. This particular incident seems to reveal that we should have the maximum proportions in place and preventative mechanisms against the kind of chemical, biological and possibly radiological weapons that terrorists are undoubtedly able to get these days. It doesn't totally surprise one because, of course, one of the scenarios that the police and intelligence services have been investigating is the possibility of a poison attack of some kind using a toxin or a chemical weapon." It would have been appropriate for the experts to have said forcefully that ricin was not a poison which can be used for mass murder.
The price of this innuendo was of course borne by the Muslim community at large, who had to live under a cloud of politician and media-stoked suspicion.
The Police command and control structure, not unassailable from political pressure, cast a dragnet and within the next few days up to 8 further persons were arrested in various parts of the country. These included ten unfortunates who would end up incarcerated in Belmarsh from January 2003 to March 2005 - entirely innocent of any act threatening the well-being of the country. Sir John Stevens, then Commissioner for the Met, apparently subscribed to the Government's worst scenario as well, stating "Recent arrests and the recovery of ricin [sic] is a start indication of how face of terrorism is changing" (24th January 2003). His remarks were again of the sort essential to justify the state of public emergency that formed the basis for derogation from the European Human Rights Convention - the only grounds under which indefinite detention without trial at places like Belmarsh was possible.
On 14th January 2003 Manchester police officers, including Special Branch cadre, raided a flat in the Crumpsall district. It appears that this was only targeted at rounding up one rejected asylum seeker, and the Police were surprised to find not one but three men, including Bourgass. However this account is not entirely plausible for three reasons. First, because of the previous week's happenings; second, one of the officers - DC Oake who was tragically murdered in the raid - had told his father that he was on a difficult assignment; thirdly, the detained men were made to wear chemical suits.
The detained men in the Crumpsall flat were not handcuffed, and perhaps as moves were made to place him into the suit, Bourgass ran into the kitchen, grabbed a knife and started attacking the officers. DC Stephen Oake was fatally struck - stabbed eight times - and three others injured.
Bourgass was brought to trial in spring 2002, but this was subject to reporting restrictions and hence the proceedings were not known to the public. He was found guilty of the murder of DC Oake and sentenced to a life sentence, with a minimum of 22 years. The Guardian reported that "he did not give evidence in his defence in the murder trial. Instead, he offered in explanation a claim that he had feared for his life as he knew how the authorities in Algeria behaved towards suspects and thus was afraid that he would be tortured and killed if arrested" (14th April 2005, The Guardian).
Following this sentencing, Government prosecutors launched a second trial of Bourgass and others - the eight men arrested as a result of the Wood Green and related swoops - for murder and for plotting to spread poison in the UK. Police forensics established that Bourgass's fingerprints were on the cup of apple seeds, the paper containing cherry stones and the bottle of acetone. The cost of the two trials was in excess of £20 million with at one stage 800 police officers working on the operation. Among countries visited in the course of enquiries were China, Canada and Georgia. Both trials are estimated to have cost in the region of £20 million.
A detective at the second trial described the recipes as 'garden shed chemistry' and to make Bourgass's ingredients "into ricin or anything else would have taken tremendous effort" (Simon Jenkins writing in The Times, 15 April 2005). After four weeks deliberation, the jury found Bourgass guilty to commit a public nuisance by using poisons and explosives, for which he was given a 17 year sentence. Of the remaining eight, four Algerians were acquitted on both charges of conspiracy to murder and conspiracy to cause a public nuisance, while the trial of three other Algerians and one Libyan was withdrawn. The net result is that all eight defendants were cleared of the poison charges. London had not been threatened by mayhem and a major conspiracy to attack it by chemical weapons. Was this manufactured plot related in any way to a similar event in France? The discovery of some vials and powder during a routine search of lockers at Gare de Lyon station in Paris in March 2003 was also 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'.
This certainly promotes the theory of an Algerian intelligence connection. Even Jason Burke comments on the Meguerba tip-off that first incriminated Bourgass, "But there are signs the Algerians made more of his words than was justified. They had received information on suspects in Algeria from the UK and wanted to reciprocate" (17th April 2005, The Guardian). Burke continues "So, where are we now? Was the case a farrago, the threats of al-Qa'ida cells imagined by one informant egged on by over-enthusiastic intelligence officers? Should we be more, or less, scared?" (17th April 2005, The Observer).
The stakes at the time were high and it served powerful interests to establish a connection between al-Qai'da and Iraq. "The ricin claims were seized by Colin Powell, the US secretary of state, in his dramatic but now discredited speech on Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction programme to the UN [5th February 2003]….it seems clear Mr Blair personally alerted the Bush administration of the British arrests….the day after Mr Powell's UN speech, Mr Blair kept up the momentum using the alleged threat from ricin in a televised appeal for public backing on Iraq" (14th April, The Guardian). Gareth Peirce, who acted as solicitor for three of the acquitted men noted that, "there was a great deal that this country was led to believe in that in part caused it to go to war on Iraq, erected on the basis of an alleged major conspiracy involving ricin" (14th April 2005, The Independent).
At the second trail Bourgass claimed he was collecting fruit seeds and other ingredients to make traditional Arabic medicine. His barrister, Michel Massih, dismissed the charges [of poisoning the public] as 'utter nonsense, complete and utter fantasy' - why should anyone go to such trouble to create a poison "when one could simply buy weed killer or rat poison from a shop in Britain. Journalists Rosie Cowan and Duncan Campbell quote Mr Massih as arguing, "It is around the time of the build-up to the war in the Middle East. You have a scenario which is almost begging for there to be something ... Then on January 8 this rubbish comes out. The lies Bourgass told the police were almost forced upon him ... They were the lies of a seriously frightened man ... fanciful, silly lies. Asked about a black bag discovered in the flat in which the recipes were hidden, Bourgass claimed he had found it in the street in Brixton. Asked why he had kept it, he replied 'because I'm stupid'. This was not a cunning plot, this man was knee-jerking" (14th April 2005, The Guardian). It has been suggested Bourgass' s intentions were not really in traditional medicine, but even creating chemicals needed for forgery. His hare-brained mind may also have thought of contaminating shop products or smearing his poisons on door handles. His co-defendents believed he had copied the recipes from the internet - the prosecution claimed it had come from Afghanistan. Journalist Jason Benneto has indicated that "the British security services thought the intended target was to be the Jewish community in north London" (14th April 2005, The Independent). Whatever his intentions, Bourgass was a desperado and a deranged individual for whom there is no sympathy because of his murder of PC Oake and for any criminal act he had in mind. Duncan Campbell describes him as "an Islamist yobo on his own, not an al-Qaida-trained super-terrorist.
A poignant aspect of this episode is the injustice caused to ten innocent men who were locked up in Belmarsh under anti-terrorism laws that allowed indefinite detention without trial of non-British nationals. The only basis for their incarceration was that they were associated with those arrested in Wood Green. The subsequent acquittals highlight the grievous miscarriages of justice. Men languished in Belmarsh, not knowing what wrong they had done or when they would be brought to court.
The only party to emerge with enhanced dignity and respect in this affair is the family of DC Oake. The statement by the late officer's father, a former chief constable, will serve as an inspiring model of patience and perseverance in the face of great tragedy: "seeing him [Bourgass] in court I have been prayng for him and so have the family, every day since. We feel so sad that a young man like that got into this position in life" (14th April, 2005, The Guardian).