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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Friday 20th April 2012

For a long time I’ve believed that the only person in the USA talking sense about ricin, the poison obtained from the castor beans produced by Ricinus communis, the castor oil plant, was George Smith aka Dick Destiny.

Now, however, comes a report1 from a body established by the US Congress under the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991. The Mineta Transportation Institute (MTI) report, authored by Brian Michael Jenkins and Joseph Trella, ‘examines 13 terrorist plots against public surface transportation that were uncovered and foiled by authorities between 1997 and 2010 and two failed attempts to carry out attacks’.

Ricinus communis, the castor oil plant

Ricinus communis, the castor oil plant

Overall, the report gives a pretty good summary of the situation regarding ricin as a terrorist weapon. There are still some points I’d disagree with but it is just nice to find an official document that doesn’t adopt the hysterical approach usually seen.

After a general summary, the report looks at each incident separately. The one that interested me, of course, was what it calls the Heathrow Express Ricin Plot or the Wood Green ricin plot. This is the ricin plot that wasn’t (see blog entries for 2nd and 13th October) so I’m not completely happy with the title chosen but the text does show that this was a non-plot.

According to the MTI, the plotters were intending to smear ricin onto handrails and the lavatories of the Heathrow Express intending that users would get the poison on their hands as a result. It describes this as an ‘alleged scheme’ and notes that some people believe the plot was ‘imaginary’. When Kamel Borugass was convicted the BBC reported that he had discussed ‘various ways of spreading nicotine poison, including smearing it on car door handles in the Holloway Road area of north London’2. Note, nicotine not ricin. It was not until four days later that the Daily Telegraph reported ‘Senior Whitehall officials3’ as saying the intention had been to use ricin on the Heathrow Express.

It would have been better if the MTI had reached a conclusion on whether the ‘imaginary’ claim was justified but it does at least say ‘The plotters possessed no ricin’ and the ‘handful’ of castor beans found in Bourgass’s flat would have made ‘a tiny amount of crude ricin’. It would, also, have been truer to say that Bourgass ‘was convicted of conspiracy to cause a public nuisance by the use of poisons and/or explosives to cause disruption, fear or injury’2 rather than ‘was found guilty of a lesser charge of plotting to use ricin to create a public nuisance’ because that description keeps alive the notion that ricin was involved.

But, if the description of the facts of the case is a little suspect, the analysis is more pragmatic. After describing the possible effects of such a plan and citing some of the alarmist headlines and comments of the time, such as ‘250,000 of Us Could Have Died.4’ the MTI says;

‘That is a gross exaggeration of what was a terrorist fantasy or, at most, an amateurish scheme. The Heathrow Express plotters possessed no ricin, and their planned method of dispersal was dubious.’

Ricinus communis, the castor oil plant

Ricinus communis, the castor oil plant

It then goes on to look at the practicality of using ricin in the way alleged and, whilst accepting the notion that unrefined ricin could be produced using the available recipe, points out the difference between the crudely produced impure ricin that might be available to amateur chemist and the highly pure ricin referred to when people cite its extreme toxicity.
The three sentences that I found most cheering are;

‘Crudely made ricin also lacks the toxicity of pure ricin. Ricin is most dangerous when inhaled or injected (which makes it a weapon of assassination, not a weapon of mass destruction) (emphasis added). It is less lethal when ingested—ingestion of crudely made ricin might cause little more than mild stomach upset.’

At last, someone in the USA, other than Dick Destiny, has said that ricin is not a WMD and that stories about adding it to salad bars and the like are just fairy tales.

The MTI report then goes on to detail the ‘ifs’ that would come into play for the sort of plot alleged to have any effect. ‘If’ a way was found to suspend ricin in a solution so it could be painted onto surfaces leaving a deposit of ricin once the ‘paint’ dried. ‘If’ the person touching that surface had cuts on their hand so the ricin could get passed the skin. Or, ‘if’ they immediately touched the eyes or nose while the ricin was on their hands. With all of those ‘ifs’, the MTI concludes that the ‘Heathrow Express plot’ had it been carried out would certainly not have produced mass casualties and might not have produced any identified poisoning cases.

Looking at ricin in isolation, you might be able to produce a scenario where it could be used to mount an attack but the uncertainties involved mean that no serious terrorist would give it any consideration. Quite simply, there are many better ways to kill people than using ricin.

The MTI does conclude, with justification, that ricin could be a useful terror weapon;

‘However, had it became known that the Heathrow Express had been contaminated with ricin, which the terrorists themselves could announce, public alarm, fuelled by sensational headlines (emphasis added) might have been considerable.’

The ‘sensational headline’, which seems to have appeared in the Daily Star on 8th January 2003, about 250,000 people dying as a result of this ‘ricin plot’ may be the most extreme but there were plenty of others that came close and those sort of headlines continue to appear.

In August, I wrote about the New York Times report headlined ‘Qaeda Trying to Harness Toxin for Bombs, U.S. Officials Fear5’ a piece that turned out to be a book puff but was picked up around the world and re-reported often without the ‘Trying’ element of the story.

And, whereas that story was widely reported, the MTI report seems to have only made one news website, the Wall Street Journal’s ‘Market Watch’ that simply reproduced the MTI’s press release6.

Meanwhile, two of the so-called ‘Georgia ricin gang’ have entered guilty pleas to charges related to conspiring to obtain a banned explosive and an illegal silencer. Some of the initial reports had headlines referring to a ‘ricin plot’ but these seem to have been revised. The other two members of the gang have refused to accept a plea bargain and are fighting the charges.

References

1.Carnage Interrupted: An Analysis of Fifteen Terrorist Plots against Public Surface Transportation Mineta Transportation Institute April 2012
2.Killer jailed over poison plot 13th April 2005
3.Ricin terror gang 'planned to unleash terror on the Heathrow Express' 17th April 2005  
4.The Daily Star is given as the source of this headline but it is not in the newspaper’s online archive. 
5.Qaeda Trying to Harness Toxin for Bombs, U.S. Officials Fear New York Times 12th August 2011 
6.Analysis of 15 Failed Terrorist Plots Against Surface Transportation Provides Insight into Tactics, Weapons, and More Wall Street Journal 10th April 2012

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