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Ricin Found in London: An al-Qa`ida Connection?
Update February 29, 2008: See also Special Report on Ricin. [PDF]
by Jeffrey M. Bale, Ph.D.,
Richard Pilch, MD,
These events occurred following a series of arrests of other Islamist radicals in Rome, Paris, and London. Because some of these individuals, particularly those in the Rome case, were allegedly planning to carry out terrorist attacks using poisons, the most recent incident in London raises several potentially worrisome questions (for more on the Rome case, see "Chemical Terrorist Plot in Rome?") One is whether the arrestees actually intended to employ the deadly toxin as an assassination or mass casualty weapon. A second is whether they were linked to components of the al-Qa`ida network, such as the Groupe Salafiste pour la Predication et le Combat (GSPC: Salafist Group for Preaching and Fighting) in Algeria, or were instead affiliated with some other Islamist terrorist organization such as the Algerian Groupe Islamique Armée (GIA: Armed Islamic Group). A third is whether certain states that have previously produced and tested ricin as a potential weapon played any role at all in transmitting their technical expertise or unused stocks of ricin to violent anti-Western Islamist groups. Before addressing these complex and controversial matters, however, some basic information about ricin will be provided.
Ricin: Technical background
Consisting of a large protein chain, ricin is the toxin found in the castor bean that grows from the plant Ricinis communis. Once the oils have been removed, ricin can be readily precipitated from the remnants of the castor bean mash. Ricin in its toxic form consists of an "A" and "B" chain. The latter part attaches itself to the cell, and the A segment secretes itself into the ribosome, inhibiting protein synthesis. This results in the death of the cell. Victims of ricin poisoning may experience varying symptoms, including nausea, vomiting, headache, and shock that can lead to death. In cases where ricin has been injected, ricin poisoning may also produce a high fever. When inhaled in sufficient doses, ricin causes the death of tissue in the lungs and airways, leading to severe inflammation and edema. Death from ricin poisoning often occurs many hours after exposure.
Ricin presents a threat not just because of its highly toxic effects in humans, but also because of the wide availability of its source material, the castor plant. Furthermore, the techniques for manufacturing ricin are reasonably well known, and have often been described in the open literature.
Castor beans, and particularly the oil that can be extracted from them, have been used throughout the centuries. In the fourth century B.C.E., Herodotus described how the Egyptians used the oil of the versatile castor plant, and its beans have been found in the tombs of the pharaohs. In addition to its excellent lubricating properties in high-performance engines, traditional applications for castor oil include its use in laxatives. The oil lubricant firm Castrol™ has utilized castor beans for engines and other functions since 1909. The worldwide market for castor oil is currently valued at about US$400 million, with the annual demand averaging around 500,000 tons. In addition to its use in lubricating oils, castor oil is found in various products such as plastics, paints, shampoo, and cosmetics. Major national producers of castor beans include India, China, and Brazil. Castor beans are no longer grown in the United States, mostly due to low profit margins but also to liability concerns, since the toxin is still present in castor beans following oil extraction. The potent allergens produced by the beans during processing can also be hazardous to workers.
Near the end of World War I, the United States Chemical Warfare Service (CWS) extracted ricin from castor beans to produce a weapon. In a cooperative effort with British military scientists during World War II, a so-called "W bomb" was developed and tested. There is no evidence that it was ever used in actual combat.
The Threat from Ricin and Bioterrorism
Because the effects of ricin are highly dependent upon the route of exposure, it is worthwhile to consider different scenarios.
While ricin could be delivered in liquid/solvent form, generating a large scale aerosol is achieved best with a dry powder consisting of very small particles. Laboratory tests performed in the United States found that about 40 micrograms per kilogram of animal weight (rhesus monkeys) were sufficient to cause death through the inhaled route. Extrapolated in human terms, this would be equivalent to an (accumulated) lethal dose of about 3 milligrams for the average adult. This is clearly a potent toxin, although it is not much more toxic than the chemical VX nerve agent (which is lethal at about 10-15 milligrams) and is far less toxic than botulinum toxin, the world's most toxic substance.
If injected into the bloodstream, ricin has been estimated to be lethal at 70 micrograms for a person weighing about 160 pounds. Ricin could also potentially be used to contaminate shrapnel. Being heat stable, enough ricin might survive the blast of an improvised explosive device (IED).
For ingested amounts, low absorbability factors and hostile conditions in the gut make oral lethal doses for ricin significantly higher. In studies using laboratory mice, it required 20 milligrams per kilogram of weight to administer a lethal oral dose of ricin.
Using ricin to cause mass casualties would require either its aerosolization by means of a dispersal device or its addition to food and beverages as a contaminant. Both of these methods would require extensive prior research, development, operational planning, and testing, and are thus probably beyond the means of most terrorists.
Ricin's Role as an Assassination Poison
The current wisdom among biological defense experts is that ricin is more likely to be used as a tool in assassinations than as a weapon of mass destruction. This has certainly been true in the past. In 1978, Bulgarian dissident Georgii Markov was assassinated with ricin toxin by an operative of the Bulgarian secret service. In 1994 and 1995, four members of an American anti-government militia group, the Minnesota Patriots Council, were convicted under the US 1989 Biological Weapons Anti-Terrorism Act for conspiring to kill law enforcement officials using ricin. Earlier, these men had responded to a March 1991 advertisement in the right-wing CBA Bulletin, which proffered a "Silent Tool of Justice...Castor Beans...Silent Death...Including instructions for extracting the deadly poison 'Ricin' from Castor Beans." In this case, ricin was manufactured by these individuals despite their lack of education and expertise. An FBI analysis of the group's recovered stockpile revealed the existence of 0.7 grams of powdered ricin of five percent strength, which was estimated by the US Army Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) to be sufficient for 129 lethal doses.
Defense against Ricin Poisoning
Harkening back to the groundbreaking studies performed in the late 19th century by Paul Ehrlich, the father of modern immunology, work is ongoing in the United States to develop a vaccine against ricin. While therapy for ricin poisoning presently consists mainly of supportive and symptomatic care, there is currently an investigational new drug (IND) that uses an inactivated toxin from ricin that can be administered following exposure.
Ricin and International Law
Ricin, while explicitly prohibited as a toxin weapon by the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC), is also listed in Schedule 1 of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). (The CWC has three Schedules in which chemicals or precursors identified by the Convention as requiring the implementation of comprehensive verification measures are enumerated. Schedule 1 agents--which also include, for example, the organophosphates VX and sarin--warrant the most attention because they have been developed as chemical weapons in the past and pose an otherwise high risk due their potential for illicit use). Ricin had acquired notoriety due to the Markov assassination case and had been developed as a toxin weapon in the past. However, its inclusion in the CWC had much to do with serving as a "place holder" for a future BTWC protocol and the prohibition of biological toxins.
Al-Qa`ida and Ricin
The investigation into possible links between the North Africans recently arrested in London and the al-Qa`ida terrorist network is still underway, but there are already strong indications that such a connection exists. The leadership of al-Qa`ida has previously disseminated information to its militants about the production and employment of ricin, and various components of 'Usama bin Ladin's group apparently already possess the dangerous toxin.
First of all, instructions about how to produce ricin have appeared in materials that were prepared and used to train al-Qa`ida terrorists. For example, in a chapter on assassinations from an undated al-Qa`ida military manual, 'I'alan al-Jihad 'ala al-Tawaghit al-Bilad [Declaration of Jihad Against the Country's Tyrants], a copy of which was seized in 2002 by the Manchester police, a number of recipes for making poisons are provided, including a method for manufacturing ricin. The manual instructs the reader to "soak...castor-oil plant seeds in about 10 ounces of water, adding two teaspoons of [lye]...." etc. Curiously enough, the recipe described in this particular al-Qa`ida manual appears to have been translated nearly word-for-word from The Poisoner's Handbook (1988), an underground pamphlet that was originally published and distributed in the United States.
Second, it was reported in March 2002 that trace amounts of both Bacillus anthracis (anthrax) spores and ricin were found at five or six of the approximately 110 sites searched by coalition forces in Afghanistan, but the trace evidence turned out to be insufficient to permit an accurate determination. Later, on 10 July 2002, US forces detained a suspected BW smuggler in the Afghan village of Hesarak. A preliminary examination of the materials in his possession revealed trace amounts of ricin, but additional testing in the United States did not confirm this result.
Third, in August 2002, it was reported that the Kurdish Islamist group Ansar al-Islam (Supporters of Islam), which has apparent ties to both al-Qa`ida and Iran, tested ricin on barnyard animals and possibly also on an unwitting human who later died. This particular extremist group currently operates in the northeastern region of Iraq that lies outside of Saddam Husayn's direct control, numbers several hundred guerrillas--including 150 "Afghan Arabs" (i.e., Arab volunteers who fought against the Soviets in Afghanistan)--and has apparently already seized control over a dozen or more villages. As yet, the reports about its testing of ricin have not been confirmed. The United States is now investigating reports that some of the men arrested in Britain had links to this group.
Fourth, on 13 January 2003, Russian presidential aide Sergei Yaztrzhembsky claimed that his country's special forces units operating in Chechnya had found instructions for making poisons, including ricin, in the possession of a guerrilla fighter they had killed. This discovery may have added significance, in that several members of a French Islamist cell arrested in December 2002 by the Direction de la Surveillance du Territoire (DST: Directorate for Territorial Security, the French domestic intelligence agency) had previously received training together with Chechens in Georgia's Pankisi Gorge area. These particular individuals, who apparently formed part of the very same network as those later arrested in London, were originally suspected of plotting to carry out a terrorist attack with chemical weapons. After conducting a thorough forensic examination, however, French authorities concluded that they were instead planning to manufacture conventional explosives.
Most recently, US officials have stated that four of the Islamists originally arrested in their north London flat were "associates" of a fugitive al-Qa`ida leader whose nom de guerre is Abu Mus`ab al-Zarqawi. Al-Zarqawi is a chemical warfare specialist who has been accused by Jordanian authorities of organizing both the foiled January 2000 "Millenium" plot to bomb luxury hotels and bridges in Amman and the October 2002 assassination of American diplomat Lawrence Foley in the same city. It may also be highly significant that on 4 December 2002 al-Zarqawi's chief deputy, al-Qa`ida operative Abu `Abd Allah al-Shami, was killed in northern Iraq while participating in a surprise Ansar al-Islam attack on Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) forces.
National Military Programs and Ricin
In addition to the strong likelihood that the men arrested in Britain were Islamist extremists who may have been affiliated with one or more terrorist groups, their apparent attempt to produce ricin raises questions about possible direct or indirect state involvement. This could include supplying the toxin itself, or spreading the techniques for manufacturing, storing, transporting, weaponizing, and employing it. In the past, several governments produced and tested ricin for possible use as a weapon of mass destruction (WMD) or assassination weapon, including the United States, the former Soviet Union, Canada, Britain, France, Iraq, and possibly also China, North Korea, Syria, Iran, Egypt, Cuba, and South Africa. As we have already seen, nations such as Bulgaria used it to murder "enemies of the state."
Journalists have once again begun to speculate about whether Iraq may have provided elements of al-Qa`ida with ricin or other dangerous toxic substances. Although this remains an open question, there is little doubt that the Iraqi Ba`th regime previously manufactured significant amounts of ricin. According to Iraq's own declarations to the United Nations during the 1990s, its biological weapons scientists had tested ricin's usefulness as a potential weapon in 1989. (Iraq, like the United States in World War II, considered ricin to be a chemical warfare agent rather than a biological agent. Although the Iraqi declarations do not specify this, their own approach to extracting ricin from castor beans closely followed the original US patent for purifying ricin toxin.) In November 1990, Iraq declared to UNSCOM that it had produced a total of 10 liters of ricin, which had been extracted from 100 kg of castor beans. Iraq also claimed that this entire quantity was used up during field tests with 155 mm artillery shells, and that its efforts to weaponize ricin ended in failure.
Ever since 11 September 2001, there has been a great deal of speculation concerning Iraq's supposed links to al-Qa`ida and its possible involvement in the spectacular "9/11" terrorist attacks or the subsequent anthrax letter mailings in the United States. Despite a plethora of conflicting claims and counter-claims, there is as yet no firm evidence of Iraqi collaboration with Bin Ladin or elements of his network. Furthermore, even if one suspects that Saddam Husayn's hatred of the United States might induce him to provide some sort of tangible logistical support to al-Qa`ida elements, a scenario buttressed by some damning but uncorroborated insider testimony and other suggestive bits of evidence, under normal circumstances it seems doubtful that he would knowingly provide WMD to uncontrollable religious fanatics of the jihadist stripe for fear that they might later use them to target his own regime. After all, the Iraqi dictator has a long record of brutally suppressing domestic Islamists, and there is in any case a profound incompatibility between the secular Ba`th ideology and Islamism. The circumstances are no longer normal, however. Once the Iraqi leader becomes absolutely convinced that his days are numbered, he may decide to throw caution to the winds and supply portions of his WMD arsenal to other enemies of the United States. Hopefully, he has not already reached this point and crossed that dangerous threshold.
Notwithstanding the possible involvement by state
actors, the recent incident in London may
well signal renewed efforts by
al-Qa`ida to employ dangerous substances in the WMD category against
its enemies in the West. It therefore warrants closer scrutiny.
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