On 8 January 2003, the British media splashed the news that anti-terror police had raided an al-Qaeda ‘factory of death’ – a shabby north London flat reported to contain a panoply of bomb-making and poison-making equipment. ‘IT’S HERE,’ screamed the Daily Mirror’s front page headline: ‘Deadly terror poison found in Britain.’ The rest of the Mirror page was taken up with a map of Britain covered by a skull and crossbones. ‘The danger is present and real and with us now,’ announced prime minister Tony Blair the same day.
The reverberations of the ‘ricin find’ went far beyond the UK. On 5 February, in a speech to the UN security council, US secretary of state Colin Powell cited the London ricin plot as proof of a ‘sinister nexus’ between al-Qaeda and Iraq. For added dramatic effect, Powell held up a vial of white powder as he spoke. A few weeks later, the first American bombs dropped on Baghdad.
What Powell did not know was that, despite the lurid headlines, no ricin – or poisons or explosives of any kind – were actually recovered from the London raid.
When anti-terror police burst into the flat in north London, they were followed soon after by government scientists from Porton Down, who conducted toxicity tests on a range of items found at the site. Most tests immediately showed negative: no evidence of toxins. The findings for a pestle and mortar were potentially more interesting, as they gave a weak positive reaction for proteins, which could have indicated the presence of ricin – although further testing would be needed to be sure. Once back at Porton Down, the items were subject to a battery of more sophisticated tests, all of which came back negative: no ricin.
Porton Down immediately passed the initial false positive result to the police (who were almost certainly the source of the leak to the media). However, for reasons which have never been explained, it took the laboratory nearly three months to tell the authorities that there was no ricin. It was to be 2005 before the truth was finally made public at the Old Bailey.
As the trial opened in September 2004, five Algerian men stood in the dock, charged with conspiracy to murder and the lesser charge of conspiracy to cause a public nuisance. Earlier charges of manufacturing a chemical weapon had been dropped.
During cross-examination, a Porton Down scientist confirmed that it had been known within a few days of the raids that no ricin had been found. The revelation clearly came as a shock to the jury and also caused consternation among the defence barristers: one QC leapt to his feet and waved the Daily Mirror ‘IT’S HERE’ front page around to emphasise his outrage.
The revelation was largely ignored, however, by most of the newspapers that earlier had devoted pages and pages of coverage to the raid on the supposed Al-Qaeda death factory.
As a result, the myth of the ‘ricin terror cell’ endures. It is the plot that never was, but also the plot that never dies – even among those who should know better. In 2006, the then chancellor Gordon Brown referred to the ‘ricin chemical plot’ in a speech about fighting global terrorism. In his 2009 autobiography, the former Metropolitan Police commissioner Sir Ian Blair cites it as one of the ‘major cases’ he had to deal with.
After a six month trial and nearly a month of deliberating, the exhausted-looking jury finally delivered their verdicts. Four of the men – Mouloud Sihali, David Khalef, Sidali Feddag and Mustapha Taleb – were acquitted of all charges; the fifth, Kamel Bourgass (who was already serving a life sentence for murdering a police officer), was convicted of conspiracy to cause a public nuisance.
The verdicts came as a crushing disappointment to the authorities. A string of acquittals and one conviction on the lesser charge were not much to show for a trial that had cost an estimated £20 million, and had been seized on as proof that a tough ‘war on terror’ stance was both necessary and effective.
For the acquitted defendants, it was the vindication they had not dared hope for. After many months in Belmarsh, and having had the threat of a 30-year sentence hanging over them, they were suddenly released and began to get on with their lives.
The men’s relative peace was to be short-lived. At the conclusion of the trial, then home secretary Charles Clarke, in a clear rejection of the jury’s verdict, had warned he would be keeping ‘a very close eye’ on the men being released. He was soon to prove as good as his word. Within weeks, deportation proceedings were begun against Feddag, Sihali and Khalef, on ‘national security’ grounds, relying largely on evidence that had been discredited at the trial. If returned to Algeria, the men faced the very real risk of torture from a government with a notorious record on human rights.
With the threat of deportation hanging over them, the men were kept on immigration bail, and had to report to the police station regularly. Worse was soon to follow.
On 7 July 2005, suicide bombers attacked London’s transport system, killing 52 and injuring and maiming scores of others. Soon afterwards, prime minister Tony Blair announced that ‘the rules of the game are changing’. Mouloud Sihali and Mustapha Taleb were soon to find out just how much the rules had changed.
On 15 September, Sihali and Taleb were woken in the early hours as armed police stormed into their homes to arrest them as threats to national security. With the Stockwell shooting fresh in his mind, Sihali was convinced he was going to be shot, and held up his hands screaming: ‘I didn’t do anything!’ He was pinned to the floor by five officers with such force that his knee was permanently damaged. Over in north London, Taleb was thrown to the floor face down, while officers stood on his hands. He was so terrified, he vomited.
Later the same day, Charles Clarke announced a package of tough anti-terror measures, including plans for 90-day detention without trial for terrorist suspects. The home secretary denied the arrests and announcement had been orchestrated.
After four months in Belmarsh, Sihali and Taleb were released on stringent control-order style conditions. They were tagged and curfewed for up to 20 hours a day. During the period when they were allowed outside, their movements were restricted to an area of about a square mile. They were banned from using the internet or having a mobile phone and had to report daily to the police. Their homes were searched several times a week by immigration officials who would turn up without warning and go through all their belongings. Any visitors had to be vetted and approved by the home office. Unsurprisingly, the pair’s mental and physical health rapidly deteriorated.
Sihali was eventually cleared of being a threat to national security in May 2007 – although he still faces the threat of deportation. For Taleb, the nightmare continues. He remains on control order conditions, even though he has never been charged with any offence or even questioned by police. He is isolated, forced to live in an area where he knows no one, and where the nearest shop is a 40-minute walk away. As he waits for his case to reach the European Court of Human Rights, he is kept barely sane by a regime of prescription drugs and occasional visits from a handful of Home Office approved visitors.
Taleb has little else to do with his days other than reflect on his current situation. Others, too, would do well to reflect on their role in this shameful case – not just politicians, but also the media. It is an interesting question whether the so-called ricin plot would ever have reached trial were it not for the distorting influence of those emotive and highly misleading press reports about the factory of death. Without the panic sparked by unquestioning reports that ricin had been found, might the prosecution have made a different assessment of the strength of the evidence against the defendants at the outset?
As Mark Twain famously said, a lie can be halfway around the world before the truth has got its boots on. The ricin hare – set running by the leaking of one false positive test result – has proved remarkably difficult to stop; and continues to trample on the lives of those caught up in the case.
Yasmin Gunaratnam reflects on John Berger’s gut solidarity with the stranger
Charlie Clarke and Heather Mendick discuss how to work through the tensions within Momentum
As man-made global warming gets closer to the tipping point, Andrew Simms finds reasons to be positive about averting catastrophic climate change
In this extract from his new book The Candidate, Alex Nunns tells the inside story of how Jeremy Corbyn scraped onto the Labour leadership ballot in 2015
Graham Jones proposes a framework for a diverse movement to flourish
Musician Eliane Correa reflects on the fading revolution
Trump's victory is another sign of the failure of the centre-left's narrative on climate change. A new message is needed, and new politicians to deliver it, writes Alex Randall
Siobhán McGuirk says the question we are too afraid to ask is simple - what kind of society leads to Donald Trump as President?
The battle lines are clear. Democracy is in peril and the left must take itself seriously electorally and politically. Ruth Potts speaks to Gary Younge, who was based in Muncie, Indiana, for the US election, about the implications of Donald Trump’s victory
We need a society built on openness, community and equality to truly defeat everything that trump stands for, writes Nick Dearden.
Utopia: Work less play more
A shorter working week would benefit everyone, writes Madeleine Ellis-Petersen
Short story: Syrenka
A short story by Kirsten Irving
Utopia: Industrial Workers Taking the Wheel
Hilary Wainwright reflects on an attempt by British workers to produce a democratically determined alternative plan for their industry – and its lessons for today
Mum’s Colombian mine protest comes to London
Anne Harris reports on one woman’s fight against a multinational coal giant
Bike courier Maggie Dewhurst takes on the gig economy… and wins
We spoke to Mags about why she’s ‘biting the hand that feeds her’
Utopia: Daring to dream
Imagining a better world is the first step towards creating one. Ruth Potts introduces our special utopian issue
Utopia: Room for all
Nadhira Halim and Andy Edwards report on the range of creative responses to the housing crisis that are providing secure, affordable housing across the UK
A better Brexit
The left should not tail-end the establishment Bremoaners, argues Michael Calderbank
News from movements around the world
Compiled by James O’Nions
Podemos: In the Name of the People
'The emergence as a potential party of government is testament both to the richness of Spanish radical culture and the inventiveness of activists such as Errejón' - Jacob Mukherjee reviews Errejón and Mouffe's latest release
Survival Shake! – creative ways to resist the system
Social justice campaigner Sakina Sheikh describes a project to embolden young people through the arts
‘We don’t want to be an afterthought’: inside Momentum Kids
If Momentum is going to meet the challenge of being fully inclusive, a space must be provided for parents, mothers, carers, grandparents and children, write Jessie Hoskin and Natasha Josette
The Kurdish revolution – a report from Rojava
Peter Loo is supporting revolutionary social change in Northern Syria.
How to make your own media
Lorna Stephenson and Adam Cantwell-Corn on running a local media co-op
Book Review: The EU: an Obituary
Tim Holmes takes a look at John Gillingham's polemical history of the EU
Book Review: The End of Jewish Modernity
Author Daniel Lazar reviews Enzo Traverso's The End of Jewish Modernity
Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants
Ida-Sofie Picard introduces Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants – as told to Jenny Nelson
Book review: Angry White People: Coming Face to Face With the British Far-Right
Hilary Aked gets close up with the British far right in Hsiao-Hung Pai's latest release
University should not be a debt factory
Sheldon Ridley spoke to students taking part in their first national demonstration.
Book Review: The Day the Music Died – a Memoir
Sheila Rowbotham reviews the memoirs of BBC director and producer, Tony Garnett.
Power Games: A Political History
Malcolm Maclean reviews Jules Boykoff's Power Games: A Political History
Book Review: Sex, Needs and Queer Culture: from liberation to the post-gay
Aiming to re-evaluate the radicalism and efficacy of queer counterculture and rebellion - April Park takes us through David Alderson's new work.
A book review every day until Christmas at Red Pepper
Red Pepper will be publishing a new book review each day until Christmas
Book Review: Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics
'In spite of the odds Corbyn is still standing' - Alex Doherty reviews Seymour's analysis of the rise of Corbyn
From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation
'A small manifesto for black liberation through socialist revolution' - Graham Campbell reviews Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor's 'From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation'
The Fashion Revolution: Turn to the left
Bryony Moore profiles Stitched Up, a non-profit group reimagining the future of fashion
The abolition of Art History A-Level will exacerbate social inequality
This is a massive blow to the rights of ordinary kids to have the same opportunities as their more privileged peers. Danielle Child reports.
Mass civil disobedience in Sudan
A three-day general strike has brought Sudan to a stand still as people mobilise against the government and inequality. Jenny Nelson writes.
Mustang film review: Three fingers to Erdogan
Laura Nicholson reviews Mustang, Deniz Gamze Erguven’s unashamedly feminist film critique of Turkey’s creeping conservatism
What if the workers were in control?
Hilary Wainwright reflects on an attempt by British workers to produce a democratically determined alternative plan for their industry