Analysis Yesterday's conviction of Kamel Bourgass for terrorism offences prompted some spectacular spin from the security services, an al-Qaeda ricin feeding frenzy in this morning's press and - of course - claims from Home Secretary Charles Clarke that the case highlighted the need for ID cards. The snag is that there was no ricin, the security forces' case for an al-Qaeda link had been discredited in an earlier court case last week, and a further eight individuals claimed as co-conspirators were cleared or had charges against them dropped.
One man with a ricin recipe but no ricin, and no established al-Qaeda connection is not much of a result from something that two years ago was claimed as an international terror conspiracy poised to mount attacks on London. These claims were used by Tony Blair to show there was a threat of weapons of mass destruction in the UK and deployed by Colin Powell to back his case to the UN for war against Iraq. But despite the fact that the security forces had their chance in court to show that there was more to the conspiracy than fevered imagination, and blew it, here we go again with a justification for ID cards and, it would appear, for control orders.
Neither of which, as it happens, would have been of the slightest use in this case. We'll get back to that, but we'll deal with the non-existent ricin and the equally non-existent al-Qaeda link first.
The story begins with a police raid, following a tip off, on a flat in Wood Green, North London in January 2003. Four people were arrested there, but Bourgass was not one of them. Police found a ricin recipe in Bourgass' handwriting together with details of other poisons and some ingredients for ricin. Later that month special branch officers conducting a raid in Manchester stumbled across Bourgass by accident. Bourgass killed one officer with a kitchen knife in a struggle, and was subsequently convicted for murder. The terrorism case against him then proceeded, leading to his conviction yesterday, but it was the trial of four of his claimed co-conspirators, who were found not guilty last week, which destroyed the conspiracy theory.
This process is described in some detail by George Smith of Vmyths, Crypt Newsletter and GlobalSecurity here. Smith pointed out that the Bourgass' ricin recipe differed from the recipe put forward by the prosecution as establishing the al-Qaeda connection. The "al-Qaeda" recipe appears in a "Manual of Afghan Jihad" obtained by UK security forces in 2000, and is markedly different from the Bourgass recipe, which follows the ricin recipe in Maxwell Hutchkinson's The Poisoner's Handbook, and itself derives from Kurt Saxon's pamphlet The Weaponeer, published in 1984. The Hutchkinson recipe is widely available on the Internet, along with much other tripe, but should you wish to splash out you appear to be able to get it on Amazon for around $25.
Clearly, Bourgass' recipe originated in the US, and this al-Qaeda connection was smoke. Smith also notes that "Manual of Afghan Jihad" seems to have originated in the first jihad against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, when you'll recall the US was on a rather different side. Its status as an "al Qaeda" document is therefore questionable.
At the Wood Green flat police had found 22 castor seeds (an ingredient of ricin), bottles of acetone (also part of the recipe), a large number of apple pips and some spices. An initial identification of the presence of ricin by the UK's Porton Down Lab was discovered to be a false positive two days later, but this finding was then conveyed to the authorities, in what Smith describes as "an astonishing example of sheer incompetence", as confirmation of the presence of ricin.
The Government and security services must have been made aware of this error fairly swiftly, but there was no correction of the original claims, and headlines around the world have reinforced and elaborated the myth of the Wood Green poison terror cell ever since. When the Bourgass verdict came in yesterday, the security services resumed the spin, and off again went the news reports describing Bourgass as part of an al-Qaeda poison conspiracy with an al-Qaeda terror handbook. The non-existence of the ricin is frequently not mentioned in these.
Also found were recipes for poisons described by Smith as "trivial affairs" and likely descended from the Hutchkinson book. The "silly notes" cover the production of "'cyanide' from 'cup of apple seeds or apricots 10,000 [sic], peaches, plums or cherries'". Which explains the apple seeds, after a fashion. An alleged intent to produce nicotine poison has produced reports of some dastardly terror plot to smear it on the doorhandles of cars in the Holloway Road; locals may consider this to be not entirely the ideal street to stride up and down carrying a spatula and a bucket of brown gunk, but there you go. It shouldn't take MI5 particularly long to find half a dozen Internet sites with recipes for nicotine poison, and if they'd care to stretch themselves just a little more they'll find a recipe for a molotov cocktail variant that contains poison gas, and that you don't have to light.
Need we go on? Here's one for luck, a deadly nicotine tea used for the mass destruction of aphids by guerrilla gardeners.
Now, about the control orders and ID cards. As Charles Clarke, being Home Secretary, ought to be aware, asylum seekers will not, according to his own Government's plans, be allowed to have UK national ID cards. Asylum seekers do however already have their own biometric ID card. These were introduced in 2002, and Bourgass was an asylum seeker - a failed, absconded one. Bourgass arrived in the UK in 2000, so clearly will not have been given a card at that point. A fingerprinting system was however introduced in December 2000, and Bourgass' application for asylum was processed and rejected in August 2001. His fingerprints should therefore have been on record. He absconded after the failure of his application, but a conviction for shoplifting in 2002 failed to identify him as a rejected asylum applicant.
So, if he had arrived after 2002 he would have been assigned an asylum seeker's ID card, while if he had arrived from 2001 he would have been recorded in an immigration fingerprint system. Whether or not either of these things subsequently happened to him is somewhat academic, as he wasn't found until a full 16 months after the refusal of his application and his disappearance. Should you happen to meet Charles Clarke on the doorstep during the current election campaign, you might care to ask him why it therefore follows that we desperately need ID cards.*
The four people arrested in Wood Green were, as we said earlier, cleared last week, at which point charges against a further four were dropped. Clarke's reaction to this was to say that the eight would be watched closely, and to suggest that the whole matter illustrates the difficulties the current British judicial faces in dealing with terrorism. Which is perhaps something else to ask him on the doorstep. What is it about people being cleared of charges because there wasn't any evidence against them that the British judicial system is having trouble with? And what is it about people who definitely weren't part of a ricin terror conspiracy that means you have to watch them? Watching some of them won't exactly be hard anyway - three are now in prison for that old standby of the failed terror raid, passport offences.
The security services now have an alternative al-Qaeda connection for Bourgass, and a revised ricin scare. Mohamed Meguerba, currently held by Algerian security, claims to have been in an Afghan training camp with Bourgass, and that ricin was successfully manufactured in the Wood Green 'terror lab', and placed in two Nivea cream tubs. As a "senior anti-terrorist officer" said: "Everything Meguerba told us turned out to be true. We have no reason to disbelieve him when he said he and Bourgass has made ricin. We just couldn't find it." We presume Porton Down's techies will be grateful for the large quantity of handcream tubs about to descend on them for testing. The state of the art ricin terror scare, should you be interested, can be found here.
Bourgass, also Algerian, could not have been returned there after the rejection of his asylum application, because of the danger of torture. The conditions under which Meguerba's claims were obtained are not clear.
* Equally puzzling was the reaction of the Ghost of Home Secretaries Past, D Blunkett, to news of the industrialisation of postal ballot rigging the other week. This too, said our David, illustrated the need for ID cards. Postal ballot fraud happens, you may be aware, when somebody takes somebody else's postal ballot form, fills it in and, er, posts it. Blunkett neglected to say where in this process you could could possible shove an ID card. Readers with suggestions should send them to him, not us, please. ®