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.
Fiona Bawdon and Lawrence Archer are the authors of Ricin! The Inside Story of the Terror Plot that Never Was, published by Pluto Press. Lawrence Archer was the foreman of the jury in the trial