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Context of 'March 17, 2003: Ricin Scare in Paris is False Alarm'

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Kamal Bourgass, a radical who will go on to be involved in an alleged ricin plot and kill a policeman (see January 5, 2003), is arrested for stealing two pairs of jeans in East London. He is taken to a police station, interviewed, charged, and fined £70 (about $110) by a magistrate. However, according to authors Sean O’Neill and Daniel McGrory, “His immigration status as an illegal overstayer [is] not discovered, because on the night he [is] detained there [are] no immigration officers on duty in London with whom his name could [be] cross-referenced.” The jeans were apparently stolen as a part of a terrorism fundraising racket run out of London’s Finsbury Park mosque; members of the racket steal clothes and then sell them on a market stall. British authorities are aware of various illegal financial activities at the mosque (see 1995-April 21, 2000), but what they know of Bourgass at this point is unclear. [O'Neill and McGrory, 2006, pp. 243]

Entity Tags: Kamal Bourgass

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

Mohammed MeguerbaMohammed Meguerba [Source: BBC]The first traces of the alleged ricin plot later uncovered in London in January 2003 (see January 7, 2003) are discovered in the wake of the arrest of an illegal Algerian immigrant. Mohammed Meguerba, later alleged to be the mastermind of the plot, is arrested in north London with various false IDs. An epileptic, Meguerba had entered Britain as an illegal immigrant. He had left his homeland in 1995 and traveled through Europe. He became a waiter in Ireland and married, divorced, remarried and, “by pure chance or cultural void,” said Algerian secret service, “allowed himself to be recruited by fundamentalists” at a Belfast mosque in 2000. Activists in London sent him to training camps in Afghanistan, where Osama bin Laden himself allegedly gave him a mission in Britain and supplied him with documentation and money. [Observer, 4/17/2005] After this training, Meguerba returned to London in March 2002. He went to the Finsbury Park mosque, where he began to work on crude poisons with fellow Algerian Kamal Bourgass. On September 18, 2002, Meguerba is arrested in London during an operation into suspected terrorist fundraising. But he is released on bail after suffering an epileptic fit, and then flees to Algeria. [London Times, 5/9/2005] On December 16, 2002, Meguerba is arrested in Algeria by security forces after allegedly being smuggled in by Islamist radicals. On December 28, police begin his interrogation. Within two days, he tells them that he had been working with an al-Qaeda cell in north London and had been helping them produce poisons at a flat. Authorities in Britain receive this information from the Algerian security forces on January 2 or 3. The Algerian intelligence report spurs British authorities into action. As well as information on the poison plot, it contains information on many individuals in Britain who are allegedly engaged in hard-line, violent Islamic radicalism. The report also suggests the existence of a number of terrorist cells in Britain. [Observer, 4/17/2005] Meguerba names Bourgass as ringleader and other Algerians as co-conspirators. [Independent, 4/17/2005] Meguerba had been held in a secret detention center for 17 months by the Algerian security service. His relatives are unaware he had been held from December 2002 until he was moved to a prison in Algiers. When they are finally permitted to visit him, Meguerba weighs 77 lbs and claims he has been badly tortured. These claims are backed up another Algerian man, residing in Britain, who was detained in Algiers in January 2003 and placed by his interrogators in a room with Meguerba, whom the man describes as “bruised, cut, and swollen.” Upon his appearance in an Algiers court, Meguerba appears frail and is missing teeth. The confession extracted from Meguerba during this time was the evidence that led to the Wood Green raid. However, during the later trial, the confession is not relied on by the prosecution as the allegations of torture could be raised by the defense. One source says “the Government has introduced the Human Rights Act but finds itself relying on regimes with appalling human rights records for information.” Algerian secret services deny the claims of torture. [London Times, 5/9/2005]

Entity Tags: Osama bin Laden, Mohammed Meguerba, Al-Qaeda, Département du Renseignement et de la Sécurité, Kamal Bourgass

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

Kamal Bourgass’s flat in Wood Green, north London.Kamal Bourgass’s flat in Wood Green, north London. [Source: BBC]Metropolitan Police raid a flat in Wood Green, north London, and discover a locked bag in a room occupied by an Islamist militant named Kamal Bourgass. An illegal immigrant from Algeria, Bourgass had arrived in Britain, hidden in a truck, in 2000. Using several false names, he remained in the country after failing to get asylum in December 2001, despite being fined for shoplifting in 2002 (see July 2002). [Independent, 4/17/2005] In addition, police had discovered a false passport for Bourgass in a raid on a storage depot in Wembley, north London, on June 22, 2002. [BBC, 4/13/2005]
'Kitchen Chemistry' - The bag contains an envelope with instructions in Arabic for manufacturing poisons and explosives, as well as lists of chemicals. These “poison recipes” are in Bourgass’s writing. The envelope has the address of the Finsbury Park mosque with the name of “Nadir,” a name which Bourgass also used. Other discoveries include a cup containing apple seeds, cherry stones, nail polish remover, and a bottle of acetone. The search also uncovers 20 castor beans and £14,000 in cash. [Observer, 4/17/2005] In addition, there are stolen bottles of mouthwash and several toothbrushes, which are still in their packaging. The packaging appears to have been tampered with, indicating the plan may have been to poison the toothbrushes and then replace them on shop shelves. [O'Neill and McGrory, 2006, pp. 245] Police announce that they have discovered a “poisons laboratory” that contains recipes for ricin, toxic nicotine, and cyanide gas weapons. [Observer, 4/17/2005] However, a senior policeman will later be dismissive of the level of the poisons, calling what is found “garden shed, kitchen chemistry.” [O'Neill and McGrory, 2006, pp. 245]
Other Arrests - Other flats are raided and seven North Africans are arrested. Six men are arrested on January 5 in north and east London and another man is arrested on January 8 in central London. [Fox News, 1/8/2003] The arrests include a 17-year-old. Police uncover additional poison recipes, false papers, and computer discs with bomb-making instructions.
Bourgass Murders Police Officer - Bourgass had been named as ringleader and other Algerians as co-conspirators in the alleged plot in an intelligence report passed to British officials from Algerian security forces. This report was the result of the interrogation of alleged al-Qaeda operative Mohammed Meguerba (see September 18, 2002-January 3, 2003). Bourgass is not present during the Wood Green raid. However, on January 14, a raid on a flat in Crumpsall Lane, Manchester, seeking another terror suspect, uncovers Bourgass and alleged conspirator Khalid Alwerfeli. After a violent struggle, Bourgass stabs and murders policeman Stephen Oake and wounds several other police officers. [Independent, 4/17/2005]

Entity Tags: Stephen Oake, Mohammed Meguerba, Metropolitan Police Service, Kamal Bourgass, Khalid Alwerfeli

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

Alleged ricin ingredients.Alleged ricin ingredients. [Source: BBC]Home Secretary David Blunkett and Health Secretary John Reid issue a joint statement claiming “traces of ricin” and castor beans capable of making “one lethal dose” were found in a raid on a flat in Wood Green, north London, which also resulted in several arrests (see January 5, 2003). The joint statement says “ricin is a toxic material which if ingested or inhaled can be fatal… our primary concern is the safety of the public.” Prime Minister Tony Blair says the discovery highlights the perils of weapons of mass destruction, adding: “The arrests which were made show this danger is present and real and with us now. Its potential is huge.” Dr. Pat Troop, the government’s deputy chief medical officer, issues a statement with police confirming that materials seized “tested positive for the presence of ricin poison.” A small number of easily obtainable castor beans are found. But the same day, chemical weapons experts at the Defense Science and Technology Laboratory at Porton Down in Wiltshire discover in more accurate tests that the initial positive result for ricin was false: there was no ricin in the flat. But this finding will not be released publicly for two years. [Independent, 4/17/2005] Dr. Martin Pearce, head of the Biological Weapons Identification Group, confirms that there was no ricin in the flat. This report is also suppressed. [Guardian, 4/15/2004] The Ministry of Defence later confirms that the results of the Porton Down test are not released to police and ministers until March 20, 2003, one day after war in Iraq begins. [BBC, 9/15/2005] It appears that there was the intention to create ricin, based on evidence discovered in other raids, but not the technical know-how to actually do so (see January 20, 2003 and January 5, 2003).

Entity Tags: Tony Blair, Martin Pearce, John Reid, Biological Weapons Identification Group, David Blunkett, Defence Science and Technology Laboratory, Ministry of Defence, Pat Troop

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

Raid on Finsbury Park Mosque.Raid on Finsbury Park Mosque. [Source: BBC]The Metropolitan Police mount an early morning raid on Finsbury Park mosque, sending in 200 officers.
Decision to Launch - The raid is primarily the result of intelligence about Kamal Bourgass, a man implicated in an alleged ricin plot (see September 18, 2002-January 3, 2003). Bourgass was in possession of an envelope with instructions in Arabic for manufacturing poisons and explosives, as well as lists of chemicals, discovered by police during a raid in Wood Green days earlier (see January 5, 2003). These “poison recipes” were in Bourgass’s writing, and the envelope had the address of the Finsbury Park Mosque with the name of “Nadir,” an alias used by Bourgass. [Observer, 4/17/2005; O'Neill and McGrory, 2006, pp. 254] Like other illegal immigrants, Bourgass had used the mosque as a place to stay and as his postal address for correspondence with the immigration service. He had stayed there in the weeks before his attempts to make ricin were discovered. [BBC, 2/7/2006] In addition, one of many suspects detained by the police around Britain at this time tells police that the photocopier in the mosque’s office had been used to copy some “recipes” written by Bourgass. Other suspects detained have links to the mosque, and have worked or slept there. Finally, two suspects the police want to detain are known to sleep in the mosque’s basement.
High-Level Approval - Due to the politically sensitive nature of the operation, it is approved in advance by Prime Minister Tony Blair, Home Secretary David Blunkett, and Foreign Secretary Jack Straw. In the 24 hours before the raid, Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir John Stevens says publicly that many terrorists are under surveillance and Blunkett says he is happy for counterterrorist units to take “whatever steps necessary, controversial, or otherwise.” [O'Neill and McGrory, 2006, pp. 254-256]
Searches, Discoveries - Armored officers batter down the doors to begin days of searches. In addition, they make seven arrests. After the trial and conviction of radical cleric Abu Hamza al-Masri for hate crimes in February 2006, police will reveal their discoveries from the raid. The police uncover chemical weapons protection suits, pistols, CS spray, and a stun gun. Other military paraphernalia include a gas mask, handcuffs, hunting knives, and a walkie-talkie. The police also find more than 100 stolen or forged passports and identity documents, credit cards, laminating equipment, and checkbooks hidden in the ceiling and under rugs, as well as more than $6,000 in cash. A senior police officer will say, “The fact that they were happy to keep this sort of stuff in the building is an indication of how safe and secure they felt they were inside.” Authors Daniel McGrory and Sean O’Neill will comment, “This was exactly the kind of material that informants like Reda Hassaine had told the intelligence services about years before” (see 1995-April 21, 2000).
Afterwards - Despite the haul, Abu Hamza is neither arrested nor interviewed, although police believe he must have known what was going on. The items seized will not be mentioned at his trial, or, with the exception of the photocopier, the ricin trial. However, they lead to police inquiries in 26 countries, which McGrory and O’Neill will call “a clear indication of the reach and influence of the terrorist networks operating out of Finsbury Park.” [O'Neill and McGrory, 2006, pp. 260-262; BBC, 2/7/2006]

Entity Tags: Metropolitan Police Service, Sean O’Niell, Kamal Bourgass, David Blunkett, Jack Straw, John Stevens, Abu Hamza al-Masri, Daniel McGrory, Tony Blair

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

Spanish police arrest 16 alleged al-Qaeda operatives in Barcelona, Girona, and other cities in northeastern Spain. Officials say the men may have links to the recent alleged ricin plot in Britain (see January 5, 2003). [CBC News, 1/24/2003] Police allegedly discover large quantities of bomb-making material, manuals on chemical warfare, and equipment to manufacture false credit cards and identity documents, as well as a cache of timers, fuses and remote-control devices. [Time, 1/26/2003] Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar says the people arrested “were preparing to commit attacks”; other officials say that a major attack has been foiled. Since the 9/ 11 attacks, 35 suspected Islamic terrorists have been arrested in Spain. [CBC News, 1/24/2003] The British media quickly identifies chemicals confiscated by Spanish police as ricin. However, it soon emerges that the Spanish police report refers to “resina” (resin). Other “evidence” gathered in the raid soon proves to be equally useless. The chemicals discovered by police are comprised of “two drums with liquids which in the first analysis contain aliphatic hydrocarbons, and a bottle, also with liquid, in which appear substances present in resins and synthetic rubber.” Subsequent tests prove that the liquids are harmless. Tests by US experts on the alleged ricin powder reveal it to be detergent. The electronic equipment proves to be equally innocuous (mobile phones, wires, etc.). It is also revealed that the raid was instigated by a French examining magistrate, Jean-Louis Bruguiere, dubbed Europe’s leading al-Qaeda investigator. Bruguiere had claimed that four of the Algerians arrested by French police in December in connection with the planned bombing of Strasburg cathedral had been in contact with the suspects. But when Guillermo Ruiz Polanco—the Spanish examining magistrate in charge of the case—asks to see the French court’s evidence, he is met with bureaucratic delay. Then, a month after the arrests, Bruguiere communicates he will not be asking for the extradition of any of the 16. Even Mohamed Amine Benaboura, who allegedly lived with one of the French al-Qaeda suspects, or Mohamed Tahraoui, who was found with a false French passport, arouse no interest from Paris. By April, all the suspects will be released, the court citing lack of evidence. “Very weak,” is Polanco’s view of the evidence the police have presented so far against the Algerians and Moroccans accused of plotting mass murder. [New Statesman, 4/14/2003]

Entity Tags: Guillermo Ruiz Polanco, Jean-Louis Bruguiere, Mohamed Tahraoui, Jose Maria Aznar, Mohamed Amine Benaboura, Al-Qaeda

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

A suspicious substance is discovered in a train station locker at the Gare de Lyon in central Paris. Agents find two vials of powder, a bottle of liquid, and two other vials with liquid. The Interior Ministry says the contents of the vials are “traces of ricin in a mixture which has proven to be a very toxic poison.” [Newsday, 4/12/2003] Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy calls for greater public vigilance and says there could be a connection with a network of Islamic extremists who were detained around the capital in December. Officials have in the past linked ricin production to al-Qaeda and Iraq. On January 5, British police claimed to find traces of ricin in a raid on a London flat during which five men of North African origin with alleged al-Qaeda connections were arrested (see January 5, 2003). [BBC, 4/11/2003]
Terrorism Scare - The discovery sparks widespread terrorism concerns just two days before the invasion of Iraq. French authorities double the number of soldiers in the streets to 800 and order increased surveillance in train stations and ports. Flights are temporarily banned over nuclear power plants, chemical, petrochemical and other sensitive facilities. [Newsday, 4/12/2003] Ricin, which is derived from castor beans, is relatively easy to make and stockpile. If added to food or drinks, or injected into a victim, it causes severe and rapid bleeding to the stomach and intestines. If the poison gets into the bloodstream, it can attack the liver, kidneys and spleen, often leading to death. It may be inhaled, ingested or injected. There is no treatment or antidote. [New York Times, 4/12/2003]
Alleged al-Qaeda link - US officials said in August that the Islamic extremist group Ansar al-Islam tested ricin along with other chemical and biological agents in northern Iraq, territory controlled by Kurds, not Saddam Hussein. The group is allegedly linked to al-Qaeda. UN weapons inspectors, who left Iraq in 1998 after a first round of inspections, listed ricin among the poisons they believed Saddam produced and later failed to account for. [Newsday, 4/12/2003]
False alarm - The ministry soon downgrades the assessment, saying the traces of suspected ricin are too minute to be lethal. In fact, the substance later proves to be entirely harmless. Further Defense Ministry laboratory tests show the vials contain a mixture of ground barley and wheat germ. “Preliminary tests pointed towards ricin but they were not confirmed by more complete analysis,” an official says. [BBC, 4/11/2003] They said the grain was mistakenly identified as ricin because it consists of protein whose structure is similar to that of ricin. [New York Times, 4/12/2003] However, French officials are still not entirely satisfied that the substances found are not in some way related to a planned terrorist attack. A senior Interior Ministry says the substances may be “the product of an experiment” or the remains of an effort to produce a toxic weapon. Antiterrorism police agents will continue to investigate the incident, the officials says. [New York Times, 4/12/2003]

Entity Tags: Ansar al-Islam, Al-Qaeda, Nicolas Sarkozy

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

April 8-12, 2004: Ricin Accused Mostly Freed

After one of Britain’s longest criminal trials and 74 hours of deliberation, the jury acquits Mouloud Sihali, David Khalef, Sidali Feddag, and Mustapha Taleb of conspiracy to carry out a chemical attack. The jury decides that the prosecution has failed to prove any existence of an al-Qaeda plot or any ability to produce weapons of mass destruction (see January 7, 2003). On April 12, the jury acquits Kamal Bourgass of the most serious charge—conspiracy to carry out the attack—but finds him guilty of “conspiracy to commit a public nuisance by the use of poisons or explosives to cause disruption, fear or injury.” The judge sentences him to 17 years in prison. [Independent, 4/17/2005] He has previously been sentenced to life in prison for the murder of a policeman, as well as receiving jail terms for the attempted murder of other policemen during a fight when he was arrested. [O'Neill and McGrory, 2006, pp. 248] The government admits that no ricin was found in the invesigation, only 20 castor beans, some cherry stones, apple pips, and botched “nicotine poison” in a Nivea jar (see January 5, 2003). Director of Public Prosecutions Ken Macdonald drops the charges against four other alleged conspirators the day before their trial starts. Khalid Alwerfeli, Samir Asli, Mouloud Bouhrama, and Kamal Merzoug are formally declared innocent. Mohammed Meguerba has yet to stand trial in Algeria and remains in custody. [Independent, 4/17/2005] Five of the acquitted make fresh asylum applications. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office had been in talks with Algeria about returning the men, but lawyers point to Meguerba’s alleged torture at the hands of the Algerian security forces as evidence that it will be impossible to deport any of the ricin defendants despite them being cleared (see September 18, 2002-January 3, 2003). [London Times, 5/9/2005] The cost of this trial and another related one exceeds £20 million. At one point, 800 police officers worked on the investigation, which included more than 100 arrests and operations in 16 countries. [Guardian, 4/14/2005]

Entity Tags: Mouloud Sihali, Samir Asli, Mouloud Bouhrama, Sidali Feddag, Mohammed Meguerba, Mustapha Taleb, Khalid Alwerfeli, Kamal Bourgass, David Khalef, Michel Massih, Ken Macdonald, Kamal Merzoug

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

Kamal BourgassKamal Bourgass [Source: BBC]After an 11-week trial at the Old Bailey, Kamal Bourgass is sentenced to life imprisonment, with a minimum of 22 years, for murdering DC Stephen Oake during a raid on a flat in Crumpsall Lane, Manchester, as part of the investigation into the alleged ricin plot in north London (see January 5, 2003). The sentence is kept secret due to the impending trial of Bourgass and others for the alleged plot, where Bourgass will only be found guilty on a secondary charge (see April 8-12, 2004). [Independent, 4/17/2005]

Entity Tags: Stephen Oake, Kamal Bourgass

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

On September 13, after two months of legal argument in court, the British trial begins against Kamal Bourgass and his alleged co-conspirators Mouloud Sihali, David Khalef, Sidali Feddag and Mustapha Taleb. The trial reveals the true extent of the capabilities of the so-called “ricin ring.” The same day of the raid, January 5, 2003, chemical weapons experts at the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory at Porton Down in Wiltshire had discovered in more accurate tests that the initial positive result for ricin was false: there was no ricin in the flat (see January 5, 2003). This finding was not released publicly for two years. [Independent, 4/17/2005] The trial also reveals that the results of the Porton Down test were not released to police and ministers until March 20, 2003, the day after the war in Iraq begins (see January 7, 2003). [BBC, 9/15/2005] George Smith, a scientist and senior fellow at GlobalSecurity.org, serves as an expert for some defendants in the trial and confirms that the discovery that the initial ricin finding was a “false positive” was made “well before the outbreak of the war in Iraq.” The alleged ricin plot was used by authorities, including Colin Powell, as evidence against Saddam Hussein’s regime in the build-up to war with Iraq. [Washington Post, 4/14/2005] The “poison recipes” discovered in the raid are found to have come from a website in Palo Alto, California, and are the invention of right-wing survivalist Kurt Saxon. His website sells books and CDs with bomb and poison manufacturing instructions. Journalist Duncan Campbell of the Guardian, called as an expert witness, further demonstrates that the instructions could have come from the Mujahedeen Poisons Handbook, which was written by veterans of the Afghan war and had been on the Internet since 1998. In fact, these recipes were useless in the production of weapons of mass destruction. [Guardian, 4/15/2005] The hysteria over the capabilities of ricin is also laid to rest during the trial. It is made clear that ricin is not a weapon of mass destruction and has only ever been used for one-on-one killings and attempted assassinations. Ricin was used by the Bulgarian secret service to kill dissident Georgi Markov on the streets of London in 1978. Professor Alistair Hay, a prominent authority on toxins, says Bourgass’s attempts to manufacture chemical weapons were “incredibly amateurish and unlikely to succeed.” He dismisses the allegations of suspected Algerian al-Qaeda operative Mohammed Meguerba that ricin would be smeared on door handles. To reliably kill, ricin has to be directly injected; swallowing ricin could kill, but is a thousand times less effective, while touching ricin is even less likely to kill. Hay’s testimony leads to the prosecution dropping Meguerba’s claims. They then suggest that Bourgass planned to smear ricin on toothbrushes, and put them back on a shop’s shelves. Professor Hay tells The Independent that this was a highly ineffective method. “The claims made before the trial about this major ricin plot were very, very questionable,” he says. [Independent, 4/17/2005]

Entity Tags: Duncan Campbell, Sidali Feddag, Defence Science and Technology Laboratory, Alistair Hay, David Khalef, Mouloud Sihali, Mustapha Taleb, Maxwell Hutchkinson, Globalsecurity.org, Kamal Bourgass, Mohammed Meguerba, Kurt Saxon, George Smith

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, Events Leading to Iraq Invasion

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