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Ricin and the Red Tops: How a Made-Up Terror Plot Helped the Media Build the Case for the Iraq War

Josiah Mortimer talks to a leading lawyer who took part in the 2003 ricin trials on the terror cell that never was

The skull-and-crossbones Mirror front page Photo: Mirror via

Ricin and the Red-TopsHow a Made-Up Terror Plot Helped the Media Build the Case for the Iraq War

Josiah Mortimer talks to a leading lawyer who took part in the 2003 ricin trials on the terror cell that never was

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The 2003 London ricin plot was terrifying in its scale. More than 100 were arrested and dozens of homes raided amid fears that Al Qaeda – backed by Iraq’s despot Saddam Hussein – was using terror cells across Europe to launch poison attacks. The danger was an impetus for the war in Iraq: crush Sadam, crush the terror cells. 

There was just one problem: the plot proved almost completely made up. The red-tops, however, were all too happy to talk up claims of terror plots to shift papers. 

Julian Hayes, senior partner at Berris Law, represented one of the defendants who was, like all but one lone wolf, eventually acquitted. He notes that in 2002, the British press were understandably “anxious” about national security – as was the government. But there was also an “agenda” in terms of the British and American governments to “find reasons to go to war in Iraq,” he told Byline Times

In January 2003, one of those reasons emerged. Algerian authorities passed on intelligence to the British authorities about an alleged UK mass poisoning plot, following information “extracted” from an Algerian national called Mohamed Meguerber. 

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Hayes believes the information was gained through torture: “He’d been seen and he was not in a good shape. That was a very strong belief [that he was tortured],” he tells Byline Times.  

British authorities undertook surveillance on Muslim targets and made a series of arrests in early January. A dozen individuals were arrested, including Kamel Bourgass. (During his arrest, Bourgass murdered police sergeant Steven Oakes. He was separately found guilty of conspiracy to cause a public nuisance.) 

He was the only one found guilty of any poison plot – having been found with notes on how to make ricin, gleaned from US conspiracy websites. 

“Within days the authorities knew there wasn’t any ricin ever located in that property. But the raid was leaked out and the press ran with it: skulls and crossbones on the front pages. It was a media circus,” Hayes says. Much of it appeared almost contemptuous of the legal process – the principle of innocent until proven guilty. 

The Sun screamed: “ricin near Bin [Laden] pal’s home”, reporting: “The poison factory used to make deadly ricin is just 200 yards from the lair of one of Osama bin Laden’s henchmen.” As already, no ricin was ever found. 

As The Justice Gap blog noted, other reports included the Daily Mail’s ‘Ricin assassin on the run’, while the Daily Mirror front page was taken up with a skull and crossbones superimposed on a map of the UK, with the headline: ‘IT’S HERE’ (‘Deadly terror poison found in Britain’; ‘Where is it? How much is there? Who has it? And can we cope?’ ‘Full shocking story, pages 2-7′).

On 5th February, Colin Powell gave an address to the UN assembly, making specific reference to the so-called ricin plot, as evidence that Al Qaeda cells were being sent out from Iraq with WMDs. 

In total, around 100 more were arrested in Britain in the panic that followed.

“The Blair government seized on it. Much to our irritation, it was often used by them to generate changes in the terrorism legislation, and referenced for their stance re the war in Iraq. It was very convenient for them,” the senior legal partner tells me.

Controversial legislation was passed, including an extension from 14 to 28 days of detention without charge. “The ricin case started the ball rolling,” Hayes says. 

Tony Blair made reference to the arrests in a speech shortly after they were made, when speaking to diplomats. “We were flabbergasted. He should have known better,” Hayes says. 

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It was a breach of the principle of sub judice: the rule which prevents MPs or Lords from referring to a current or impending court case so as not to prejudice the outcome. Blair, however, made direct reference to the case. “They were looking for examples and ways of justifying the war.”  

Why, if there was no ricin ever discovered, and this was confirmed just days after the first arrests, was this fact not reported at the time? 

The reason is not clear. The prosecution did ultimately concede the point that ricin was never found. It was a huge source of embarrassment. But that admission only came in 2005, long after the war began. 

So nearly 100 arrests were predicated on the false belief that what was found was ricin, when police knew it wasn’t, and had been falsely reported. 

“The case was very cynically used. And never even acknowledged in the Chilcot inquiry. No one was ever asked about it. It was all brushed under the carpet,” Hayes says. 

The mass arrests over trumped-up fears were fuelled by a ravenous media. Have things changed? “No, I think little has changed in the role of the press. It’s got worse – look at the small boats scenario. If a government is trying to push a policy or narrative and peddle it, they will get the media entities that are sympathetic to push it. 

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He adds: “I have no illusions. This is not a democracy…The red tops’ and broadsheets’ [role] is very insidious. This was one of the first examples of the cosy relationship in action.“

In the nine months after the invasion, YouGov conducted 21 polls asking British people whether they thought the decision by the US and the UK to go to war was right or wrong. On average, 54% said it was right. 

Exclusive polling for Byline Times now reveals that just 21% of voters think the UK was right to have become involved in the Iraq war. 

Would knowing the truth about the fake ricin plot have stopped the war? Unlikely. But that 54% figure might have looked considerably different had the press probed a little more deeply into evidence-free claims that politicians were only too happy to push.

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