The definitive story of the ricin plot, the trial and its aftermath, written by jury foreman Lawrence Archer and journalist Fiona Bawdon
In January 2003, the British media reported that anti-terror police had disrupted an Al-Qaeda cell, poised to unleash the deadly poison ricin. 'This danger is present and real, and with us now,' announced Prime Minister Tony Blair. But, when the 'ricin plot' came to trial, a very different story emerged: there was no ricin and no sophisticated plot. Rarely has a legal case been so shamelessly distorted by government, media and security forces to push their own agendas. For the first time, this book tells the inside story of what really happened.
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About the Author
Lawrence Archer was foreman of the jury at the Ricin trial. Following the trial, Lawrence has conducted lengthy interviews with the major players and attended many of their appeal cases.
Fiona Bawdon has written about legal affairs for the national and specialist press since 1988. In 2002, she launched Independent Lawyer, a magazine which specializes in legal aid and civil liberties issues.
Michael Mansfield QC is an English barrister specializing in criminal defense work. He has often worked to overturn miscarriages of justice, including the wrongful imprisonment of both the Guildford Four and the Birmingham Six. He represented the defendants in the Ricin trial.
Read an Excerpt
On 8 April 2005, after 17 days of deliberation following a six-month trial, the jurors filed back into court 16 at the Old Bailey.
The press box was filled with journalists waiting to hear the verdicts in what had been the first major UK terror trial since the 9/11 attacks on America. The so-called 'ricin plot trial' had been an unprecedented case, with defence lawyers predicting the five men would face up to 30 years in prison if convicted.
The jury foreman, Lawrence Archer, stood. One by one the verdicts were read out.
Mouloud Sihali? Not guilty on all charges.
David Khalef? Not guilty on all charges.
Sidali Feddag? Not guilty on all charges
Mustapha Taleb? Not guilty on all charges.
The fifth defendant was Kamel Bourgass, the alleged ringleader of the plot. In his case, the jury found him guilty of conspiracy to cause a 'public nuisance' by using explosives or poisons to spread fear or disruption. As far as the more serious charge of conspiracy to murder was concerned, the jurors remained deadlocked. (After two further days of inconclusive deliberation, the jury was dismissed by the judge on 12 April 2005.)
The string of acquittals, and a single conviction on the lesser (albeit still serious) charge was not at all the result the government had expected when the ricin trial opened in September 2004. It certainly wasn't much to show for a trial costing an estimated £20 million, which ran for seven months and where the prosecution evidence alone took four months to put before the jury.
The trial that began on 13 September 2004 was the result of a series of dramatic police raids between September 2002 and January 2003. The resulting newspaper headlines were alarming in the extreme: the police had uncovered an active and deadly 'poison factory' and succeeded in breaking up a network of determined Al-Qaeda terrorists. The Sun: 'Ricin near Bin pal's home' ('The poison factory used to make deadly ricin is just 200 yards from the lair of one of Osama bin Laden's henchmen ...'). Daily Mail: 'Ricin assassin on the run' ('Police were last night hunting a lone assassin who slipped through their dragnet as they swooped on a London-based terrorist cell manufacturing the poison ricin ...').
The usually more temperate media took an equally alarmist line. The BBC reported that gas-mask sales had 'soared' following the ricin find. The manager of an army surplus shop was quoted as saying: 'My niece lives in London and she and her husband took gas masks down there. People are worried about the tube.'
Two days later, the BBC claimed the FBI had been put on alert for ricin. Agents were warned that the toxin would be 'most effective in an assassination by injection or as a food contaminant', but could also be used 'to contaminate closed ventilation systems, water supplies, lakes and rivers'.
The Independent newspaper also stressed that the plot was part of an international conspiracy. The finds in north London were being linked to a Europe-wide 'network of terrorist assassination squads', intent on carrying out 'random killings using exotic poison ... designed to maximise panic and fear'.
When the trial opened at the Old Bailey 18 months later, five Algerian men were in the dock. Kamel Bourgass, Mouloud Sihali, David Khalef, Sidali Feddag and Mustapha Taleb stood accused of a terrorist plot, involving homemade explosives and poisons, including the deadly toxin ricin.
A further trial of four other defendants, all facing similar charges and with links to the alleged ricin plotters in the initial trial, was planned to follow on directly afterwards. However, even before it started, the trial must have been something of a let down for those who saw the arrests as vindicating the government's tough anti-terror stance. For all the lurid newspaper headlines at the time of their arrests, earlier charges of manufacturing a chemical weapon had been dropped in the run up to the trial.
Bourgass was said to be the leader of the terror cell along with another man, Mohammed Meguerba, who, although absent from the Old Bailey dock, was to have a central role in the proceedings.
The spectre of Meguerba, an Algerian in his mid-thirties, haunted the trial. In the summer of 2002, Meguerba had been an associate of Bourgass's in London but fled the UK later that year after being questioned and then released by anti-terror police. By December 2002, he was back in Algeria. What the ricin jurors weren't told was that, on his return, Meguerba had been interrogated and almost certainly tortured by the notorious Algerian secret service – and it was this evidence that alerted British security forces to the ricin plot and led to the arrests of Bourgass and the other defendants. This information about Meguerba was only one of several key facts which were kept from the jurors in the interests of ensuring a fair trial and which only emerged after they had delivered their verdicts.
Sitting in the glass-walled box of the prisoners' dock at the Old Bailey, Bourgass made for an unlikely terror suspect: with his meek manner and wire-rimmed glasses, he looked more like a librarian than a master terrorist. However, Bourgass – who went under a variety of names, including Nadir Habra and Omar Rami – was alleged to be the ringleader and main organiser of the plot. The prosecution claimed the poison recipes seized by police were in his handwriting and that his fingerprints were all over the ingredients and equipment allegedly stockpiled for making poisons and explosives which had been seized during the raids.
Entirely unbeknown to the jurors throughout the ricin trial, Bourgass was already the convicted killer of a police officer. In June 2004, Bourgass had been found guilty at the Old Bailey and sentenced to life imprisonment for the fatal stabbing of Detective Constable Stephen Oake during his arrest in Manchester. Three other police officers were also injured in what was a frenzied attack. However, Bourgass's convictions for murder and wounding had not been reported in the media so as to avoid prejudicing the subsequent ricin trial – and the jury only learned about them once the trial had ended.
Bourgass's co-defendants were accused of having lesser but still significant roles in the ricin plot. They were a ragbag bunch for the jury to look at, ranging from the pimply teenager Sidali Feddag, to the thuggish-looking Mustapha Taleb.
The most striking of the four was Mouloud Sihali. Tall, good-looking, and well educated with fluent English, Sihali was accused of having a pivotal role as a general 'Mr Fix-it', supplying the plotters with finance and false documents, as well as a safe house for Meguerba before he had skipped the country.
Sihali often shared a room with another defendant, David Khalef, but the pair appeared to have little in common. Whereas Sihali was urbane and clearly intelligent, Khalef was largely illiterate with a low IQ. Khalef spoke little English and relied on an interpreter throughout the trial. He was accused by the prosecution of providing safekeeping for one of the poison recipes that Bourgass had written out.
The youngest defendant was Sidali Feddag, just 17 when he was arrested and still sporting teenage acne at the time of the trial. It was alleged that he had let the lead conspirator, Bourgass, stay in his bed-sit in north London.
The final defendant was Mustapha Taleb, who had a habit of staring straight at the jurors. With his hard-faced and shaven-headed appearance, he could easily have been mistaken for the leader of the plot but, in fact, was alleged to be a minor player, accused of photocopying the poison recipes in the bookshop at Finsbury Park Mosque where he worked.
The five defendants each faced two counts: conspiracy to murder; and conspiracy to cause a public nuisance. One defendant, Mouloud Sihali, also faced a further five charges of possessing false or doctored passports.
There was an awful lot riding on the trial – and not just for the defendants who potentially faced lengthy jail terms. It was a trophy trial for the authorities: convictions would give a huge boost to the government, police and security services in their efforts to show the UK was winning the so-called 'war on terror'. A successful prosecution would help allay public fears and bolster support for controversial anti-terror laws which had recently been introduced.
The judge presiding over the historic trial was Mr Justice David Penry-Davey. Penry-Davey, aged 60 at the time, was appointed a high court judge in 1997 and is well liked and respected at the Bar. He is not a typical judge. A towering figure, standing 6 foot 7 inches tall, Penry-Davey is a product of Hastings Grammar School and King's College London, rather than having taken the more traditional route to the judiciary of public school and Oxbridge. Even less typically, the year before the ricin trial, Penry-Davey made newspaper headlines as a 'have-a-go hero' when he tackled a gang of seven muggers who attacked him at a train station. Despite being punched and kicked to the ground, the judge ran after the muggers, commandeered the car of a passing motorist and managed to retrieve most of his stolen property.
Penry-Davey was also a self-proclaimed believer in the wisdom of juries. In 1996, he told the Independent: 'You shouldn't see it as a failure if someone is acquitted. ... My experience over many years tells me that generally, [juries] have got it right.'
Opening the case for the prosecution was Nigel Sweeney QC, a highly experienced prosecutor, who had appeared in numerous other terrorist cases, including the trial of those accused of the 1984 IRA bombing of the then Conservative government at the Grand Hotel in Brighton. It took Sweeney three days just to outline the prosecution case against the five men in the ricin case, such was the detail and complexity of the accusations. He told the jury that all the defendants were involved to some degree or another in a plot to make and use poisons and/or explosives.
Sweeney opened with a dramatic description of the 5 January 2003 police raid on a flat at 352b High Road, Wood Green. Wood Green is an insalubrious area of north London popular among Algerians and other immigrants because of the availability of cheap rental accommodation. A room in the flat at 352b had been leased to the teenager Sidali Feddag since September 2001, but by summer 2002 it was regularly used as a place to stay by Bourgass who had nowhere permanent to live.
Sweeney told the jury that the police raid on 5 January uncovered a treasure trove of apparently incriminating items. Police found a locked sports bag belonging to Bourgass, containing £4,100 in cash and, of far more interest to the authorities, a lengthy document in Arabic. The document in Bourgass's handwriting turned out to be a series of recipes for poison and explosives. It described the ingredients and manufacturing processes for various toxins, including cyanide, nicotine and ricin, and instructions for making explosives similar to those that were used two years later in the 7/7 London bombings. There was also a diagram of a detonator and a separate list of chemicals, showing their usual household names, common uses and where they could be obtained.
Sweeney then took the jury through Feddag's arrest and the evidence the teenager had subsequently given to police at Paddington Green police station.
Feddag had come to England from Algeria in 2000 with his father. The older man had subsequently returned to his home country, leaving his 15-year-old son in the care of a family friend in east London. The boy had applied for asylum but he failed to turn up for an immigration interview and remained in the country illegally.
His illegal immigration status did not, however, prevent Feddag from receiving help with housing. In September 2001, Islington Council Asylum Team had found him the room at 352b High Road, Wood Green – the address the media were later to describe as a 'factory of death'.
Feddag lived at Wood Green, surviving hand to mouth, for about a year. But, in the summer of 2002, he moved back to east London to house-sit for the family friend, who had had to return to Algeria following the death of his mother.
A spare room was a precious commodity among the Algerian community, so rather than leave 352b standing empty, Feddag had offered it to Bourgass, whom he knew as 'Nadir'. The two knew each other slightly via the Finsbury Park Mosque and Feddag was aware that Nadir didn't have a permanent place to live.
The prosecution barrister, Nigel Sweeney, reeled off a list of items found at the Wood Green premises which he said were for use in the making of poisons or explosives: rubber gloves, scales, thermometers, blotting paper, a funnel, three plastic bottles of acetone (the principal ingredient in nail varnish remover) and isopropanol (rubbing alcohol), a coffee mill, a mortar and pestle, fruit seeds and a total of 22 castor beans, most of which were kept, incongruously, in a pink jewellery box.
Evidence from the police officer who interviewed Feddag after the 17-year-old's arrest was read to the court. Feddag had insisted throughout these interviews that all the suspect items belonged to Bourgass, the man he knew as Nadir. Feddag seemed to think that the items were entirely innocent and didn't apparently question why Bourgass had wanted to stockpile such a curious array of goods. Feddag's claim that all these belonged to Bourgass was supported by the fact that none of Feddag's fingerprints had been found on any of the items – whereas Bourgass's prints were all over them.
The officer testified that Feddag had been generally helpful during questioning – answering everything he was asked and going through a large number of photographs to identify various people he knew, mainly from the Finsbury Park Mosque.
The Finsbury Park Mosque in north London is best known for being a centre for radical Islam. However, even at the height of its notoriety, the mosque's role was much wider than that, acting as a magnet for many young Algerian men, who used it as a social as well as religious centre.
During questioning, Feddag had confessed to police to holding a false passport in the fictitious name of Osman Koufi, and to having tried to buy one for his brother, who was due to arrive in London from Algeria. At the end of 2002, Feddag had asked Bourgass to vacate the room at 352b, so his brother could stay there instead and, as a result, Bourgass was no longer living at the flat when the police raided.
The prosecution barrister then turned to the recipes in Bourgass's handwriting that had been found at Feddag's flat. On the pieces of paper found by police, Bourgass had written out instructions for producing five different poisons in total: cyanide, botulinum (which he called 'rotten meat poison'), nicotine poison ('cigarette poison'), solanine ('potato poison') and ricin ('castor bean poison'). He had also noted an indication of the deadliness of each of the toxins ('X milligrams of poison will result in X number of deaths'), with one estimating that 80,000 people could die from a single dose.
The prosecution called on an expert in toxicology and biological warfare from the government laboratory at Porton Down who testified that the figures quoted by Bourgass were largely accurate: the poisons listed were potentially extremely dangerous and deadly. In the words of the prosecution barrister, they were 'no playtime recipes'.
The public gallery was screened off during the toxicology expert's evidence and he was referred to throughout only as 'Dr A'. Although these measures added to the already heightened atmosphere in the court, the doctor's identity was being concealed not because of safety concerns arising from the ricin trial but to protect him from the threat of attacks from animal rights activists who object to the Porton Down laboratory's use of animal testing.
Dr A explained that scientists at Porton Down had followed the instructions as written in the Bourgass recipes, to see what they produced. Dr A went through his team's findings in turn.
The ingredients listed for producing cyanide included fruit seeds, such as apple pips and cherry stones. Dr A testified that it would be possible to make cyanide following Bourgass's recipe – but not with the tiny amounts of seeds that had been found at the flat. Sack-loads of fruit would be needed to make a single lethal dose, making it a highly inefficient and unlikely method of production, he said. Dr A added that there are far more efficient ways for a determined poisoner to make cyanide, such as by simply combining the relevant chemicals.
Bourgass's recipe for homemade botulinum – the bacteria which causes botulism poisoning – was even more unlikely. It detailed making a dough from ground corn and water, adding rotten meat and dung, covering the concoction with water and keeping it warm in a sealed flask for a few days. Dr A explained the theory behind the recipe: the dung was to provide the initial source of botulinum bacteria; the dough provided food for the bacteria to grow; and the airtight flask would create the conditions where the bacteria could flourish. However, while the theory might be sound, the practice was decidedly hit and miss, he explained: there was no way of knowing whether a particular dung sample actually contained botulinum bacteria, and it would be difficult to ensure the perfect seal on the flask needed to create the optimum conditions for the bacteria to grow.
Excerpted from "Ricin!"
Copyright © 2010 Lawrence Archer and Fiona Bawdon.
Excerpted by permission of Pluto Press.
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Table of Contents
List of Photographs viii
Foreword Michael Mansfield QC ix
1 The Trial 5
2 The Road from Algeria to the UK 46
3 Everything Changes on 9/11 68
4 Mohammed Meguerba 93
5 Arrests 107
6 Kamel Bourgass 126
7 What Ricin" 137
8 Backlash 143
9 Legacy 161
A Dramatis Personae 179
B Timeline 183
C Significant Addresses 189