Try Red Pepper in print with our pay-as-you-feel subscription. You decide the price, from as low as £2 a month.More info ×
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.
Hsiao-Hung Pai meets people affected by the fire, and finds sadness and suffering mixed with a continuing wariness of the official investigations
Chris Williamson MP, winner of the election's tightest marginal, Derby North, and recently reappointed shadow minister for fire services, talks to Ashish Ghadiali about Jeremy Corbyn, the housing crisis and winning from the left
The Corbyn-supporting group is preparing for another election at any moment, writes Adam Peggs – and now has the potential to create powerful training initiatives, union links and party reform efforts
’We believe in you. We are with you. We will never forget.’ Grenfell solidarity sweeps East London in mass banner drops from housing estates
Michael Calderbank profiles Jeremy Corbyn's new supporters in parliament
The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) continues to witness devastating political violence, but the world refuses to act. Ishiaba Kasonga and Serge Egola Angbakodolo ask why?
When fire safety has become a privilege for the rich, it’s time to stop austerity and fund emergency mass works to raise standards immediately, writes Jane Shallice
The election result has irreversibly changed political discourse in the UK, writes James Fox
In commemoration of the 30th anniversary of Bernie Grant's election to parliament, Ayo Wallace explores the life and legacy of his radical representation of Tottenham's black communities.
Across Britain, hundreds of thousands of people have now taken part in mass rallies for Corbyn's Labour. Eli Regan soaks up the atmosphere in Warrington
Contribute to Conter – the new cross-party platform linking Scottish socialists
Jonathan Rimmer, editor of Conter, says it’s time for a new non-sectarian space for Scottish anti-capitalists and invites you to take part
Editorial: Empire will eat itself
Ashish Ghadiali introduces the June/July issue of Red Pepper
Eddie Chambers: Black artists and the DIY aesthetic
Eddie Chambers, artist and art historian, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali about the cultural strategies that he, as founder of the Black Art Group, helped to define in the 1980s
Despite Erdogan, Turkey is still alive
With this year's referendum consolidating President Erdogan’s autocracy in Turkey, Nazim A argues that the way forward for democrats lies in a more radical approach
Red Pepper Race Section: open editorial meeting – 11 August in Leeds
The next open editorial meeting of the Red Pepper Race Section will take place between 3.30-5.30pm, Friday 11th August in Leeds.
Mogg-mentum? Thatcherite die-hard Jacob Rees-Mogg is no man of the people
Adam Peggs says Rees-Mogg is no joke – he is a living embodiment of Britain's repulsive ruling elite
Power to the renters: Turning the tide on our broken housing system
Heather Kennedy, from the Renters Power Project, argues it’s time to reject Thatcher’s dream of a 'property-owning democracy' and build renters' power instead
Your vote can help Corbyn supporters win these vital Labour Party positions
Left candidate Seema Chandwani speaks to Red Pepper ahead of ballot papers going out to all members for a crucial Labour committee
Join the Rolling Resistance to the frackers
Al Wilson invites you to take part in a month of anti-fracking action in Lancashire with Reclaim the Power
The Grenfell public inquiry must listen to the residents who have been ignored for so long
Councils handed housing over to obscure, unaccountable organisations, writes Anna Minton – now we must hear the voices they silenced
India: Modi’s ‘development model’ is built on violence and theft from the poorest
Development in India is at the expense of minorities and the poor, writes Gargi Battacharya
North Korea is just the start of potentially deadly tensions between the US and China
US-China relations have taken on a disturbing new dimension under Donald Trump, writes Dorothy Guerrero
The feminist army leading the fight against ISIS
Dilar Dirik salutes militant women-organised democracy in action in Rojava
France: The colonial republic
The roots of France’s ascendant racism lie as deep as the origins of the French republic itself, argues Yasser Louati
This is why it’s an important time to support Caroline Lucas
A vital voice of dissent in Parliament: Caroline Lucas explains why she is asking for your help
PLP committee elections: it seems like most Labour backbenchers still haven’t learned their lesson
Corbyn is riding high in the polls - so he can face down the secret malcontents among Labour MPs, writes Michael Calderbank
Going from a top BBC job to Tory spin chief should be banned – it’s that simple
This revolving door between the 'impartial' broadcaster and the Conservatives stinks, writes Louis Mendee – we need a different media
I read Gavin Barwell’s ‘marginal seat’ book and it was incredibly awkward
Gavin Barwell was mocked for writing a book called How to Win a Marginal Seat, then losing his. But what does the book itself reveal about Theresa May’s new top adviser? Matt Thompson reads it so you don’t have to
We can defeat this weak Tory government on the pay cap
With the government in chaos, this is our chance to lift the pay cap for everyone, writes Mark Serwotka, general secretary of public service workers’ union PCS
Corbyn supporters surge in Labour’s internal elections
A big rise in left nominations from constituency Labour parties suggests Corbynites are getting better organised, reports Michael Calderbank
Undercover policing – the need for a public inquiry for Scotland
Tilly Gifford, who exposed police efforts to recruit her as a paid informer, calls for the inquiry into undercover policing to extend to Scotland
Becoming a better ally: how to understand intersectionality
Intersectionality can provide the basis of our solidarity in this new age of empire, writes Peninah Wangari-Jones
The myth of the ‘white working class’ stops us seeing the working class as it really is
The right imagines a socially conservative working class while the left pines for the days of mass workplaces. Neither represent today's reality, argues Gargi Bhattacharyya
The government played the public for fools, and lost
The High Court has ruled that the government cannot veto local council investment decisions. This is a victory for local democracy and the BDS movement, and shows what can happen when we stand together, writes War on Want’s Ross Hemingway.
An ‘obscure’ party? I’m amazed at how little people in Britain know about the DUP
After the Tories' deal with the Democratic Unionists, Denis Burke asks why people in Britain weren't a bit more curious about Northern Ireland before now
The Tories’ deal with the DUP is outright bribery – but this government won’t last
Theresa May’s £1.5 billion bung to the DUP is the last nail in the coffin of the austerity myth, writes Louis Mendee
Brexit, Corbyn and beyond
Clarity of analysis can help the left avoid practical traps, argues Paul O'Connell
Paul Mason vs Progress: ‘Decide whether you want to be part of this party’ – full report
Broadcaster and Corbyn supporter Paul Mason tells the Blairites' annual conference some home truths
Contagion: how the crisis spread
Following on from his essay, How Empire Struck Back, Walden Bello speaks to TNI's Nick Buxton about how the financial crisis spread from the USA to Europe
How empire struck back
Walden Bello dissects the failure of Barack Obama's 'technocratic Keynesianism' and explains why this led to Donald Trump winning the US presidency