Ricin Watch: A Brief History

Evan Kohlmann
Over the past two years, the unusual bioweapon ricin has jumped into the headlines after a long period of near total obscurity.  Prior to 2002, ricin was best known for its use in the elaborate assassination of a Bulgarian dissident during the Cold War.  However, for modern international terrorists seeking to kill on a mass scale, ricin (derived from the castor bean) is somewhat of a curious choice; it does not survive long in outdoor conditions and it is not easily transferred through the human skin.

Though it is perhaps less mobile than other comparable biotoxins, ricin is also extremely deadly.  Less than a pinch of ricin ingested into the human body would cause nausea, vomiting, internal bleeding, liver failure and near certain death within 72 hours from the collapse of multiple organs.  There is no known antidote, and it can be weaponized as a powder, mist, or pellet.  It can even be dissolved into drinking water.

In various conflict zones around the world where al Qaeda has gained a foothold, makeshift amateur weapons laboratories have sprouted teaching the basics of bioweapons including Anthrax and ricin.  Captured al Qaeda operative Ahmed Ressam has testified in federal court about his experiences in al Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan during 1998, where crude “scientific” experiments were done in the field of chemical and biological weapons.  Other al Qaeda bases around the world — particularly in Northern Iraq — have also specialized in the development of such non-conventional weapons.  The Ansar Al-Islam group in Iraqi Kurdistan operated prolific facilities at Sargat near the mountainous border with Iran, until they were bombed into oblivion by American B-52s.  Last spring, investigators digging through the wreckage found latex gloves, surgical masks, broken beakers and a white powder later identified as ricin.

Yet perhaps the most disturbing recent case involving ricin came in January 2003, when London police discovered traces of the substance and production equipment during a terror raid on a local apartment.  After a number of additional arrests and searches across the UK, Scotland Yard finally arrived at the door of the notorious hook-handed cleric, Abu Hamza al-Masri.  Abu Hamza is no stranger to the world of international terrorism. He lost his hands during an explosion in Afghanistan years ago, and since then has served as spiritual advisor to Zacarias Moussaoui and Richard Reid, among others.  London police searched Abu Hamza’s Finsbury Park mosque, turning up a stun gun, a CS gas canister, a large number of passports and credit cards, and evidence linking Abu Hamza to the distribution of written instructions detailing how to manufacture ricin.

For now, the latest ricin scare in Congressional offices on Capitol Hill bears all the marks of a simpler domestic terrorism case.  But it is also a reminder that even less developed fanatic groups can gain relatively easy access to deadly bioweapons in the 21st century.  Here, the ricin was relatively low grade and was quickly detected by mail security.  Next time, we may not be nearly as lucky.

Evan Kohlmann is a Senior Terrorism Consultant for the Washington, D.C.-based Investigative Project and author of the upcoming book, "Al Qaida's Jihad in Europe: the Afghan-Bosnian Network," to be released by Berg Publishers in June 2004.