Wood Green ricin plot
The Wood Green ricin plot was a 2002 alleged bioterrorism plot to attack the London Underground with ricin poison. The planned attack had connections with al-Qaeda. The Metropolitan Police Service arrested six suspects on 5 January 2003, with one more arrested two days later.
Within two days, the Biological Weapon Identification Group at the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory in Porton Down were sure that there was no trace of ricin on any of the articles that were found. This fact was initially misreported to other government departments as well as to the public, who only became aware of this in 2005. Reporting restrictions were in place before the public's perceptions could be corrected.
The only subsequent conviction was of Kamel Bourgass, sentenced to 17 years imprisonment for conspiring "together with other persons unknown to commit public nuisance by the use of poisons and/or explosives to cause disruption, fear or injury" on the basis of five pages of his hand-written notes on how to make ricin, cyanide and botulinum. Bourgass had already been sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder of detective Stephen Oake, whom he stabbed to death during his arrest in Manchester. Bourgass also stabbed three other police officers in that incident; they all survived. All other suspects were either released without charge, acquitted, or had their trials abandoned.
Physicians throughout the United Kingdom were warned to watch for signs that patients had been poisoned by ricin, and the public health director for London urged the public not to be alarmed following some media reports. Britain's largest circulation tabloid newspaper, The Sun, reported the discovery of a "factory of death", and other newspapers warned on their front pages "250,000 of us could have died", "Poison gang on the loose" and "Killer with no antidote".
The fact that no ricin had been found was known to some government departments very early on, but this information not revealed to the public until after Bourgass's trial two years later, although in the interim it was cited as evidence for further terrorism laws, as well as featuring in US Secretary of State Colin Powell's 5 February 2003 speech to the UN to build the case for the 2003 invasion of Iraq, as part of the alleged Abu Musab al-Zarqawi global terrorist network. As late as February 2006, Chancellor Gordon Brown described it as a significant terrorism plot spanning 26 countries.
Timeline of arrests and announcements
- 5 January 2003 – Police raid a flat above a pharmacy at 352 High Road, Wood Green, north London, and arrest six men on suspicion of manufacturing ricin intended for use in a terrorist poison attack on the London Underground.
- 7 January — Seventh man arrested.
- 12 January — Five men and a woman arrested in the Bournemouth area for terrorism involving ricin, but released without charge several days later.
- 14 January — Three men arrested in Crumpsall, north Manchester, in a raid to detain a man who had been certified under part 4 of the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001. Detective Constable Stephen Oake dies after being stabbed eight times with a kitchen knife by Kamel Bourgass who was also there.
- 20 January — Police raid and close the Finsbury Park mosque for several days as part of the investigation. Seven men arrested; another arrested in London the next day.
- 5 February – Colin Powell, the United States Secretary of State, refers to those arrested as the "UK poison cell" of a global terrorist network in making a case for military intervention in Iraq to the United Nations Security Council. A week later he testifies to the Committee on International Relations of the United States House of Representatives that this ricin originated in Iraq, though this is disputed immediately.
- 11 March — The Home Secretary issues control orders against ten terrorist suspects just released from detention connecting them to the ricin plot, even though it was alleged to have occurred while they were in custody. Letters of apology were sent two weeks later explaining that it was a "clerical error", but that they were still terrorist suspects.
- 21 March — Two vials containing traces of ricin are found in a train station in Paris. These were said to be connected to an attack on the Russian embassy, until further tests proved that they were jars of wheat germ.
- 16 September — Several of the men are re-arrested to face deportation on terrorism charges based on information from a prisoner in Algeria. One of them, who in 1997 was sentenced to death in absentia by an Algerian court, continues to fight his deportation. Two of the jurors who found him not guilty at his trial express their sense of anger and betrayal at his subsequent treatment.
On 30 June 2004, Kamel Bourgass was convicted for the murder of DC Stephen Oake during his arrest and was jailed for life with a minimum tariff of 22 years. During periods of his imprisonment, Bourgass has been placed in segregation after he was accused by prison authorities of involvement in attacks on other prisoners and attempts to force other inmates to convert to Islam.
The trials of five defendants, including Bourgass, for conspiracy to commit murder and as part of a ricin plot, began in September and lasted until 8 April 2005. Bourgass alone was convicted and sentenced to 17 years for conspiring to cause a public nuisance by "plotting to spread ricin and other poisons on the UK's streets". Mouloud Sihali and David Khalef are convicted of possessing false passports.
On 12 April 2005 the jury was dismissed after failing to reach a verdict on the charge of conspiring to commit murder, and a second trial of four further defendants was abandoned before it started.
There had been a blanket ban on the media reporting on anything involving the Bourgass case for two years until the trial had ended. In October 2005, Eliza Manningham-Buller, the Director General of MI5, revealed that the evidence which uncovered the so-called ricin plot came from Mohamed Meguerba, a man who jumped bail and fled to Algeria where he was detained and probably subjected to torture.
On 13 April 2005, Jon Silverman, a legal affairs analyst for the BBC wrote:
[I]s this case... notable for the way in which criminal investigations are shamelessly exploited for political purposes by governments in the UK and United States, whether to justify the invasion of Iraq or the introduction of new legislation to restrict civil liberties?
A key unexplained issue is why the Porton Down laboratory, which analysed the material and equipment seized from a flat in Wood Green, said that a residue of ricin had been found when it had not.
On 11 April 2005, George Smith, of GlobalSecurity.org summed up:
It is no longer a surprise when one finds that many claims from the alleged best of American government intelligence in the war on terror are bogus. It is still dismaying, though, to see intelligence derived from materials submitted in the alleged trial of the "UK poison cell" that is so patently rotten. Who was informing Colin Powell on the nonsense before his date with the UN Security Council?
There was no UK poison cell linked to al Qaida or Muhamad al Zarqawi. There was no ricin with which to poison London, only notes and 22 castor seeds . There was no one who even knew how to purify ricin.
I spoke at the annual Stop the War conference a couple of months ago [and] referred to the famous ricin plot... It was alleged that a flat in North London inhabited by Muslims was a "Ricin" factory, manufacturing the deadly toxin which could kill "hundreds of thousands of people". Police tipped off the authorities that traces of ricin had been discovered. In the end, all those accused were found not guilty by the court. The "traces of ricin" were revealed to be the atmospheric norm.
The "intelligence" on that plot had been extracted under torture in Algeria. Another police tip-off to the media was that the intelligence said that the ricin had been stored in plastic jars, and they had indeed found plastic jars containing a suspicious substance. It turned out the containers in question were two Brylcreem tubs. What was in them? In the first, paper clips. In the second, Brylcreem.
The Wood Green conspiracy allegations were also depicted critically in the 2007 documentary Taking Liberties.
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- Smith, George (11 April 2005). "UK Terror Trial Finds No Terror: Not guilty of conspiracy to poison London with ricin". Globalsecurity.org. Retrieved 17 October 2006.
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- Colin Powell (14 February 2006). "The President's international affairs budget request for fiscal year 2004; hearing before the Committee on International Relations; 108th Congress". House of Representatives. Retrieved 31 October 2006.
- "Europe skeptical of Iraq-ricin link". CNN. 12 February 2006. Retrieved 31 October 2006.
- "Apology over control orders error". BBC. 16 April 2005. Retrieved 18 October 2006.
- "Ricin found in Paris". BBC. 21 March 2003. Retrieved 18 October 2006.
- "Ricin 'linked to militants'". BBC. 21 March 2003. Retrieved 18 October 2006.
- "Paris 'ricin' find is harmless". BBC. 11 April 2003. Retrieved 18 October 2006.
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- "Questions over terror informant". BBC. 24 May 2006. Retrieved 18 October 2006.
- two anonymous jurors (19 September 2006). "Our verdict was ignored". The Guardian (UK). Retrieved 18 October 2006.[dead link]
- Terrorists Bourgass and Hussain denied court challenge
- "Killer jailed over poison plot". BBC. 13 April 2005. Retrieved 18 October 2006.
- "The ricin case timeline". BBC. 13 April 2005. Retrieved 18 October 2006.
- "MI5's 'torture' evidence revealed". BBC. 21 October 2005. Retrieved 18 October 2006.
- Silverman, Jon (13 April 2005). "Comment: Questions unanswered". BBC. Retrieved 18 October 2006.
- Murray, Craig (17 August 2006). "The Hair Gel Terror Hype — Hitting a Nerve". Counterpunch. Retrieved 18 October 2006.
- Lawrence Archer, Fiona Bawdon, Michael Mansfield (2010). Ricin!: The Inside Story of the Terror Plot That Never Was. Pluto Press. ISBN 978-0745329277.
- Dispatches: Spinning Terror The 'ricin plot'
- List of suspects involved from the BBC
- Ricin case timeline from the BBC
- Critical view from The Register
- GlobalSecurity.org report assesses the entire case and all the allegations