Lat week in the UK a father and son were jailed on terrorist charges. They were by all accounts a nasty pair – neo nazi thugs who planned to overthrow the Government. But what made me pause as I was flicking through the news headlines was the method they had decided to wreak havoc with…that favourite of extremists and conspiracy theorists…Saddam Hussein’s biological weapon of choice…the third most lethal toxin known to man…RICIN.
I know more than I would ever wish to about this particular poison thanks to the research I did when I was writing Devil in the Red Dress. The toxin had formed a crucial part of the prosecution case against both Sharon Collins & Essam Eid, it was the one thing that raised Eid’s involvement to more than a rather unsuccessful con artist. In the summer of 2008 we spent days in a rather stuffy courtroom in the Four Courts listening to the details of how ricin was found in Eid’s cell in Limerick prison and how the army were scrambled into action and the services of an elite lab in the UK were drafted in to test the microscopic traces found in a contact lens case under Eid’s bed.
It was only when I started researching the book that I realised what a thorny issue ricin is. Ever since UN weapons inspectors found that Saddam Hussein had been stockpiling the stuff it’s been popping up in newspaper headlines with an infamy it hasn’t enjoyed since it was used to off Bulgarian writer Georgi Markov in a memorable piece of cold war skulduggery. The assassination using a rigged umbrella as Markov was crossing Waterloo Bridge has passed into the popular consciousness and has appeared in countless spy movies over the years. What people don’t tend to remember is that another Bulgarian dissident was attacked at around the same time and lived. Ricin has it’s problems as a method of assassination and hasn’t been used as often as you might think.
This hasn’t stopped the countless ricin recipes from cropping up on the Internet. They would have you believe that the production of ricin is nothing more than a simple home chemistry experiment, barely more complicated than the old adding a mint to a bottle of cola to cause a plume of fizz several feet high (and don’t try that one at home children, it might not be life threatening but it certainly makes a hell of a mess). It’s the ease of production that makes ricin so attractive to your average nut. There aren’t many chemical weapons you can cook up in your kitchen after all. That’s certainly what Essam Eid thought when he cooked it up using a coffee filter and a blender in his Las Vegas kitchen and it seems that’s what appealed to Ian and Nicky Davidson when they were looking for something to get rid of “Zionist” politicians.
But it’s not as simple as that. This is one of those cases where what you find on the Internet might not be what it appears. Certainly the most common recipe, the one that appears on most of the right wing forums (like I said, been places researching that book that would turn your stomach – I’m sure I’m on some form of security watch list at this stage (if I am then – Hello Boys, do say Hi sometime.) I ended up spending way too long on the ricin research portion of the book. Not because I found it overly fascinating but because it’s so difficult to find straight answers and I’m not a bio chemist. You see the most common recipe was actually written by a fifteen year old. You can tell by the spelling and the confusion about basic chemistry. I’m not going start linking to the recipes, before you start wondering. I’ll get to the why later.
Now this first recipe that I’m talking about goes back to the newsgroups in the early days of the Internet. It doesn’t make ricin. At best it makes castor bean mash (castor beans are the main ingredient in ricin recipes – even the ones that actually work). Castor bean mash has been used as a fertiliser by American farmers since the 1950s. It contains about 2% ricin, slightly more than the beans do in their natural state.
Then there’s the so-called Al Qaeda recipe which has cropped up in another high profile terror trial. Except in that ricin trial there actually wasn’t any ricin. There is a recipe floating around on line that is supposedly written by Muslim extremists but this also doesn’t actually make ricin, at least not the kind of pure stuff that you’d need for chemical weapon purposes or any other purposes. It makes a good fertiliser though.
Ricin is arguably the big bad wolf of the Internet. Recipes are easy to find but don’t deliver what they claim. The press and the authorities will periodically lament the ease with which such a deadly toxin can be made and the nutcases take notes and get onto Google. Don’t get me wrong, ricin is a very nasty substance indeed. If it kills you it will do so almost cell by cell and the death it brings will be truly agonising. It’s one of the three most deadly toxins known and is more deadly gram for gram than anthrax or arsenic. But as a murder weapon it’s less than impressive, which is probably why Markov has the distinction of being the only high profile, provable ricin assassination. Ricin is also a pretty lousy weapon of mass destruction. There are all kinds of problems with getting it out there, although apparently Saddam had his weapons guys working on that one.
What ricin does have is the instant fear factor. It doesn’t matter that the vast majority of cases that come to light were making use of these bogus recipes or that the white powder they had made was once again little more than fertiliser. I’m being deliberately vague in this post. The recipes I’m not going near because despite their uselessness there are still deluded souls out there who cook them up with murderous intent and I cover trials, I don’t want to end up as evidence in one. I’m also not going into detail to back up my argument because – well – it’s all in the book, there’s a whole chapter on this and I’ve no wish to repeat myself.
But seeing a trial like the Davidson one brings home the draw this stuff has and how many people believe it really is that easy to make. It was almost impossible when I was doing the research to get anyone official to talk dispassionately about the whole ricin thing. I understand why. It is a scary substance and there’s always the chance that someone, somewhere will one day make it right. And as long as they’re cooking up ricin they’re not making something that actually kills. For all the times ricin has appeared in the news over the past few years it’s always been because the means of making it was found never because it’s killed anyone. But it’s always irritated me that this wooliness exists.
It might not matter in the long run whether the nuts cooking up castor beans in their kitchens are on a hiding to nothing, what probably matters in the end is that they think they are making one of the most deadly poisons known to man and they intend to use it. But I can’t help thinking that it should be reported right and the media at least shouldn’t just accept the deadliness of the white powder in a case. You very seldom see the actual percentage of ricin in a sample made public, if it was ever tested for in the first place. Most tests check for the existence of ricin, which you will have if you have castor beans. What would be more useful is if they had the percentage of ricin. Then you could tell if the guy in the dock was just a rather dumb crackpot or someone really dangerous. But then, the guy in the dock is usually the dumb guy, the one whose plan had the fatal flaw that led to his capture. The really clever ones don’t tend to end up in the dock.