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Last Updated: Wednesday, 13 April, 2005, 15:37 GMT 16:37 UK
Questions over ricin conspiracy
By Chris Summers
BBC News

Kamel Bourgass has been convicted of a plot to spread ricin and other poisons on the streets of Britain but eight other men have been cleared. The BBC News website investigates the story behind the headlines.

When police raided a scruffy flat in a north London suburb on 5 January 2003 they thought they had discovered a factory producing the deadly poison ricin for an Islamic terror gang.

A policeman guards the flat
A policeman guards the flat, which was above a pharmacy

Within days the newspapers were full of alarming stories about this deadly substance which, until then, the general public had never heard of.

There was talk of a plot to release the poison on the Tube with potentially catastrophic results.

The plot was quickly tied in with al-Qaeda, especially when a police officer was stabbed to death during a raid on another flat in Manchester a few days later.

In February 2003 the then US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, spoke to journalists about the al-Qaeda threat and said: "When the British unearthed a cell there just last month, one British police officer was murdered during the disruption of the cell."

At the time, people living near the flat in the High Road in Wood Green, north London were understandably terrified.

Mukesh Shah, who ran a nearby post office, told the BBC News website at the time: "It is frightening to think people may be making this dangerous substance right under your nose."

Convicted of murder

Bourgass, one of the men who had been living in the flat, fled to Bournemouth and then, via Weymouth and Bristol, ended up in Manchester.

It was there nine days later that he stabbed to death a Special Branch officer, Detective Constable Stephen Oake, during a raid on another flat in the Crumpsall district of the city.

Bourgass was eventually convicted of DC Oake's murder, but that fact can only now be reported following the collapse of the ricin trials.

He has also now been convicted of conspiring "together with other persons unknown to commit public nuisance by the use of poisons and/or explosives to cause disruption, fear or injury".

Blairs at Oake funeral
The Blairs attended the funeral of DC Stephen Oake

But the situation was never as black-and-white as those initial media reports suggested.

No ricin was actually found at the flat in 352B High Road or at any of the defendants' other addresses.

Police had found 22 castor oil beans - the raw material for ricin - as well as apple pips and cherry stones - which can be used to make a cyanide - and a series of recipes for the manufacture of ricin and cyanide.

They also found recipes for the manufacture of botulinum, nicotine poison and rotten meat poison.

Bourgass said at one point he had picked the recipes up in the street and brought them back to the flat, something which he later admitted was foolish.

But at the conspiracy trial he said he had written out the recipes for another man, Mohamed Meguerba, who was planning to take them back to his village in Algeria, where they would be used against bandits.


Police also found, in another flat in north London, a CD-Rom showing how to make bombs "in the furtherance of the jihad".

Nigel Sweeney QC, prosecuting, said an Arabic document was found at one of the flats which had been downloaded from the internet.

He said: "It was a declaration attributed to Osama Bin Laden. It was dated 15 March 2002. It included a number of exhortations."

But despite exhaustive tests carried out at the Ministry of Defence's chemical weapons laboratory at Porton Down Mr Sweeney had to admit there was no trace of ricin itself.

Mr Sweeney also alluded to scales, thermometers, rubber gloves, a coffee grinder, batteries and bulbs which were also found.

Passengers on the Tube
Despite rumours there was no evidence of a plot to poison Tube passengers

Mr Sweeney claimed that between January 2002 and the date of their arrest Bourgass and nine other men, all north Africans, were involved in a conspiracy.

Bourgass was joined in the dock by four other men and a second trial was planned for four other suspects. A tenth man, Mohamed Meguerba, jumped bail and went back to Algeria, where he is now awaiting trial.

Police informant?

Defence lawyers claimed throughout the trial that Meguerba was a police informant, something the prosecution denied.

Mr Sweeney told the jury: "Their objective was in furtherance of their extremist Islamic cause to cause acts of terrorism in the UK by the production and use of poisons - ricin and cyanide - and explosives, including time-delayed explosive devices, to cause death, disruption and fear.

"These conspiracies were disrupted by police activity in September 2002 and were ended by further arrests in January 2003."

We are all frightened of terrorism - some of it is genuine but not all of it - it's difficult when everyone in the courtroom is a potential victim
Marguerite Russell
Defence lawyer
But the four other defendants' lawyers maintained their clients were innocent people who either shared a flat with Bourgass at one time or another or, like Mustapha Taleb, got their hands on the poison recipes by photocopying them.

Marguerite Russell, representing David Khalef, told the jury they were bound to be influenced by the "daily diet of terrorism, asylum-seekers and immigration" which had been on TV, radio and in the newspapers in the last two years.

She said: "We are all frightened of terrorism. Some of it is genuine but not all of it. It's difficult when everyone in the courtroom is a potential victim."

She said her client worked in a pork factory, which suggested he was not an extreme Islamic fundamentalist.

"The prosecution haven't called one word of evidence about Khalef or his lifestyle to suggest he is the kind of man who would take part in this conspiracy."

Bourgass is now serving a life sentence for DC Oake's murder while most of the others are facing questioning about immigration and passport offences.


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