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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Saturday 13th August 2011

I wanted to look up the meaning of ‘terrorism’. Unfortunately, because of the political problems in deciding the difference between terrorists and freedom fighters, definitions of ‘terrorism’ are somewhat involved. So, instead, I looked up ‘terror’ and that has a simple definition; intense, overpowering fear, one that instils intense fear and the ability to instil intense fear.

I was interested because a story, originally reported by the New York Times, has been picked up by the media all around the world and it is a story that can easily create terror. It is, of course, another story about ricin, the poisonous ingredient in Ricinus communis, the castor oil plant.

Ricinus communis, castor oil plant

Let’s start with the New York Times story. This says that American counterterrorism officials are concerned about the Al Qaeda affiliate in Yemen, which, the story says, is believed to be trying to obtain sufficient ricin to pack it around small explosive devices as a way of disseminating it in public places. Of course, it contains the usual claims about ricin i.e. that ‘a speck’ could be fatal if inhaled or if it reached the bloodstream. I’m not sure what the scientific definition of ‘a speck’ is but I do not that unless ricin is milled very, very fine its particles are too large to penetrate far enough into the lungs to cause poisoning.

As often happens, after the headline ‘Qaeda Trying to Harness Toxin for Bombs, U.S. Officials Fear’ the actual report states ‘These officials also note that ricin’s utility as a weapon is limited’ partly because it is degraded by heat. Now, unless someone has found a way to create a bomb that explodes without generating heat it should be obvious that the alleged planned delivery method comes from deep in fantasyland.

Even later in the article, it says ‘“Is it going to kill many people? No,” said Mr. Leiter, the former counterterrorism official. “Is it going to be a big news story and is it going to scare some people? Yes.”’ So, who is the one potentially created the terror? An ill-defined group of people somewhere in the Yemen who have, supposedly, been trying to obtain castor beans since last year and could by now have grown their own if they wanted. Or, the New York Times for reporting the story.

And who is Mr. Leiter? Well, he resigned as director of the National Counterterrorism Center in July so he should, you would think, know what he’s talking about. As should the journalists whose by-line appears on the story. After all, they have written a book entitled ‘Counterstrike: The Untold Story of America's Secret Campaign Against Al Qaeda’ due to be published in 16th August. Wait. Could it be that this supposed news story in the New York Times is no more than a puff piece for a book written by the same people? Surely, the New York Times would risk an act of terrorism, i.e. by being someone ‘that instils intense fear’ just to promote a book.

Ricinus communis, castor oil plant

If the original story in the New York Times is bad, at least, you can unpick it because buried within it is an explanation of what this is about. That can’t be said for those who have re-reported the story. Take the UK’s Daily Mail for example. What for the New York Times was ‘the evidence points to’ becomes ‘Al Qaeda intend’ and the headline has gone from ‘Trying to Harness’ to ‘planning deadly ricin attack’.

The Daily Telegraph, meanwhile, has one of those stories where the headline and the sotry are completely different. Under the headline ‘Barack Obama warned that al-Qaeda planning ricin attack’ the story says ‘US officials are reported to have told Mr Obama that an attack is not imminent and that the terrorist arm has yet to formulate a means for dispersing it as a weapon’.

Some of the re-reports are much shorter than the New York Times’ piece so meaning changes by the removal of detail. UPI, the news agency used by many media outlets around the world for foreign stories, takes the New York Times’ ‘Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen has been making efforts to acquire large quantities of castor beans’ and makes it into ‘al-Qaida operatives have been collecting castor beans’ making the plot seem much more real and, therefore, terrifying.

Almost every report, as I’ve come to expect, cites the 2003 ‘ricin’ plot in the UK that, of course, did not involve any ricin and many of them refer to ricin as a nerve agent which it is not. Happily, at least some of the blogs who have picked up the story have noted that, in effect, there is no plot, there is no threat and all that there is the media doing Al Qaeda's work for it.