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Why Ricin?

Article, 13 November 2007
Technology, Terrorism
Ricin is a disappearing poison, and very difficult to detect on autopsy. So, this article asks, who wants to kill who covertly - and why?

What We Know

There are three widely-documented malicious uses of Ricin: in the assassination of Georgi Markov in London in 1978, and in two other cases (one in Paris and one in the US), where both victims recovered. The cause of Markov's death was not known for years. Indeed, there was only a detailed investigation of his death because Markov had been threatened, and because the actual insertion of the poison pellet was suspected by Markov, who told this to his wife before he died. The attack in Paris was so well conducted that the victim only realized he had been attacked months after he had recovered, and then only because he remembered symptoms similar to Markov's. When the pellet was finally found in his back, most of the poison was still sealed-in by his own body fat. Early autopsies on Markov found nothing, not even the pellet which contained the poison. Newspaper reports of the time contained phrases such as 'MI5 baffled' and the like. Ricin residue was never recovered from his body. Even at the inquest the examining pathologist had not identified Ricin. The coroner 'assumed' it was Ricin as a result of testimony from government scientists that animals dosed with Ricin had died the same way as Markov. Some commented that the coroner assumed too much. There were still articles being published in 1981 questioning whether Markov had really been murdered. It was the inability to detect the mysterious cause of death that was the story. Some attributed Markov's reporting of threats to his own paranoia. Ricin is indeed 'Macavity The Mystery Cat': it virtually disappears in the body. This 'vanishing' characteristic is its unique quality - but that does not make it effective as weapon for mass killing. The Arrests in London - January 2003 In this case, we have is persons with suspected Al Qa'ida links carrying a material that is useful for covert assassination. We do know that Ricin was found in caves in Afghanistan formerly occupied by Al Qa'ida.

The media hype was primarily caused by a statement from the Prime Minister's Office essentially congratulating the Security Services on recent arrests. Such a statement seems reasonable, and the Prime Minister's Office would have been aware of the operational details, perhaps making such a statement even more warranted. At the same time, the statement served a useful political purpose as the government tries to persuade a sceptical nation (and Labour Party) that America's War on Terror and Iraq is also Britain's fight. Cynics have noted that the government statement was made in the middle of the Secretary of State for Defence's speech in the House of Commons announcing a much smaller deployment to the Gulf than had been expected.

Even though the subsequent media debate has been hysterical, it has missed the main point. There is no conspiracy and probably no government effort to inflate the facts. Rather what we are witnessing is just the media and their commentators doing their best, albeit with few Ricin experts in their address books, and a poor memory for the fact that, for years, Markov's death was a mystery.

The Implications

So why did those arrested in London have a poison whose main utility is to allow covert assassination? There are a number of possibilities:

  • Theory One. Tests have only found 'traces' of Ricin on those arrested in London, so we are not absolutely sure that those arrested had suspicious quantities of it. Probably they did. They would be unlucky indeed if they had come to the attention of the Security Service, had lots of castor beans and crushing equipment, and also happened to have Ricin. However, it is just possible that those arrested had the Ricin innocently and they only had the minute amounts that supposedly do arise from some North African culinary practises. This theory would feed cynics who think the whole story is government spin to draw fire away from the Gulf War debate. This is not a convincing theory - based on the science, the trail of coincidences, or that the government could, or would, sustain such a conspiracy. (Probability: VERY LOW1)
  • Theory Two. It is possible that those arrested knew vaguely that Ricin is a poison, and how to make it, but did not appreciate its value as a covert assassination tool. They therefore planned to use it for mass poisoning, not knowing that if they only had primitive means of dissemination, they would be better off using something else. But one of those arrested was a chemist and would probably have understood Ricin and its benefits and limitations. (Probability: MODERATE)
  • Theory Three. Those arrested knew very well that Ricin could be used to kill people and that it would have to be injected into them, Markov-style. Using Ricin would give them a better chance of getting away than if they used more open methods such as guns. In this scenario their targets could be just about any public figure. Those with low levels of security, celebrities and sports stars, would be the most plausible targets. (Probability: MODERATE)
  • Theory Four. The most thought provoking possibility is perhaps most likely. It is that the would-be assassins wanted to disguise the killing of someone as a natural death. If no one had talked about Ricin for over a decade, and if the assassins had managed to get the Ricin into the victim undetected (as in the Paris attack), it may well have worked. But who and why? Perhaps extremists wanted to kill moderate Muslim clerics and avoid the blame? (Probability: HIGH)

Conclusion

The most relevant point of this debate is why those arrested had Ricin. The bland assumption that it was simply to poison people en masse, overlooks the unique quality of Ricin as a covert assassin's poison. It also reinvents the story about Markov, as if the Ricin was known about from the start and overlooks the commentary of the time which suggested he may have died of a heart attack.

If the last theory is true, and the Ricin was intended to kill moderate Muslim clerics covertly, then Al Qa'ida may well be weaker than many have supposed. On the theme that Islamic militants may be targeting moderate Islamic leaders, the recent murder in Vancouver of a prominent and moderate member of the Islamic community might be significant, but as yet no firm conclusion can be drawn from this attack. Simon Sole is the Director of Exclusive Analysis

Simon Sole is the Director of Exclusive Analysis

    FOOTNOTES

    1. Exclusive Analysis Limited aims for precision in the language of Risk which are assessed as VERY LOW (0%), LOW (20%), MODERATE (40%), HIGH (60%), VERY HIGH (80%) and EXTREME (100%). The figures are the probability of each Risk occurring. The Risks of particular asset being attacked are lower that those quoted for the country as a whole. Most risks need to be defined against a time period to be meaningful. All EA assessments are prepared with Due Diligence, the future course of international events cannot be guaranteed.

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