Al-Qaeda: a conspiracy of dunces?

The real story of the 'ricin plot' is that Britain's would-be terrorists are a bunch of losers.

Bill Durodié

Topics Politics

Kamel Bourgass, a 31-year old Algerian, has been found guilty of ‘conspiracy to commit a public nuisance by using poisons and explosives’. We now also know that in June 2004 he had already been found guilty of the murder of detective constable Stephen Oake during a bungled police raid on a house in Manchester. The media clamour surrounding this case, however, missed the real story to emerge from the trial.

As well as the murder of Stephen Oake, Bourgass and four others were charged with ‘conspiracy to murder’ using the obscure poison ricin, held to have been manufactured at a flat in north London, but they were not convicted of that charge. A further trial involving four further alleged conspirators was to have followed soon after.

The now infamous ‘ricin factory’ was raided on 5 January 2003, two months prior to the onset of war in Iraq. The blanket media coverage of this raid coupled with the assurance of various politicians that this displayed the willingness of ‘international terrorists’ to develop and deploy so-called weapons of mass destruction, undoubtedly helped soften public opinion to the ensuing conflict.

But the trial has finally forced the authorities to admit that there never was any trace of ricin found in the first place. That is the one, truly newsworthy story to emerge from this saga. Yet following the contemporary fashion for not letting the evidence stand in the way of a good story, this welcome news has been ignored in favour of collective speculation as to what Bourgass ‘might’ have been up to.

Irrespective of the fact that ricin is considered to be a fairly unreliable covert assassination weapon, still less a weapon of mass destruction, most reporting of the case has focused on the various ‘recipes, ingredients and equipment’ which could have enabled Bourgass to manufacture ricin, cyanide and other poisons.

Presumably, the fact that such information is readily available online will allow the police to arrest pretty much whomever they please in the future. At the trial, prosecuting QC Nigel Sweeney listed the equipment that had been found as including ‘scales, thermometers, rubber gloves, a coffee grinder, batteries and bulbs’. It would appear that anyone with a moderately well-equipped kitchen might be in trouble then, as well as those who diligently follow government advice on preparing for possible terrorist attacks.

Of course, none of this is to say that Bourgass is a complete innocent; his repeated stabbing of an unarmed police officer suggests otherwise. But there are already laws for dealing with murder and, having admitted his guilt, he had been duly tried and sentenced accordingly. It is also perfectly possible that Bourgass did want to make some kind of poison, although the quantities of ingredients found – the castor oil beans that have to be ground down to make ricin – were insufficient.

But then the real story ought to be about the sheer naivety and incompetence of all the so-called al-Qaeda operatives sentenced to date. In the UK there have been only three: Richard Reid, the dim-witted shoe bomber who had trouble with matches; Sajid Badat, the Gloucester loner who bottled out of emulating Reid; and now Bourgass, a man who purportedly hoped to cause mayhem by painting car handles with a poison that has to be injected to be effective.

If that is the best of what the supposed massed ranks of al-Qaeda have to offer after three years, then, irrespective of the forthcoming trial of a similar loser who bought more fertiliser than he could handle, we should have little to fear. But the media, politicians and the police have sought to portray the situation differently.

Peter Clarke, the recently appointed Metropolitan Police deputy assistant commissioner charged with countering terrorism, spoke of the ‘fear and disruption this plot could have caused across the country’, blissfully ignoring the fact that the only reason any of us ever heard of ricin was because the authorities pushed it into the public domain, despite there not having been any.

Notably, all of the supposed co-conspirators in this case have been cleared of the charges, so there was no evidence of an organised al-Qaeda ‘cell’ either. The jurors should be commended for reaching this verdict in the context of the constant bombardment about sinister individuals and organisations to which we have all been subjected since 9/11.

But most insidiously of all, much of the coverage of these events is dominated by evidence gathered from a supposed fellow-plotter, Mohamed Meguerba. The story about the car handles, the allegations of al-Qaeda connections and specialist training, even the existence of a supposed Nivea cream pot that contained ricin but that has never subsequently been discovered – all of these claims and others were ruled as inadmissible evidence by the judge, having been derived from interrogations by the Algerian security services.

Yet regardless of this, the BBC and others choose to repeat those statements, presumably because without them there would be no story left. In effect this legitimises the replacement of evidence with fantasy and hearsay, which can only serve to bring contemporary British justice and media reporting still further into disrepute.

There was, it seems, no al-Qaeda cell, no plot, and no ricin – but there was still a bloody good story anyway, from those who have truly terrorised the public.

Bill Durodie is senior lecturer in risk and security at the Royal Military College of Science.

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Topics Politics


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