The papers today are full* of the Kamel Bourgass story, the guy who was arrested back in 2003, murdered a Manchester policeman and is already serving a life sentence. He's now been given a further seventeen years for his part in a suspected al-Qaeda plot. The details make for grim reading after reporting restrictions were lifted on Wednesday and unsurprisingly London was a possible target.
Police believe the plot extended to planned attacks on the London underground system along with the Paris metro and Eiffel Tower as well as plans to spread nicotine poison by smearing it on car door handles in the Holloway Road area of north London. So just how worried should we be?
Michael Howard, The Daily Mail and the usual right-wing suspects are worried about (surprise surprise) asylum seekers. They claim that the mess the government made of the asylum system led to Bourgass, a failed asylum seeker, being in the country in the first place. The Tories are now calling for 24-hour security at major ports, the creation of a new border police and the detention of asylum seekers who arrive with "suspect documents.
Labour is also going to get a hammering from those on the left as this was the plot that helped to spur on the argument for the war in Iraq. Blair would like to see Iraq fall off the election agenda and this conviction be seen as an example of how the current 'war on terror' is working. However, despite the fear filled headlines no ricin was ever found either at the Wood Green flat first linked to Bourgass or in Manchester where he was eventually (and accidentally) discovered. There are still no links at all to Saddam Hussein or Iraq. As the BBC's Jon Silverman puts it:
"Indeed, no traces of biological or chemical weapons were detected. That finding was confirmed during the trial when Porton Down scientists gave evidence. This raises the question of how much influence was played by Mohammed Meguerba who, under interrogation in Algeria, was adamant that two pots of ricin had been manufactured at the Wood Green premises?"
It's important to note that Bourgass' conviction was only for conspiracy to commit a public nuisance. The charge of conspiracy to murder was not proved and four other men charged were acquitted.
The whole thing is messy and it's still not clear as to how much danger London (and elsewhere) was actually in. Bourgass was obviously dangerous (a fact that the Manchester police were slow to realise), but it is still unknown if this was part of some wider plot or whether he was acting alone as Gareth Peirce, the solicitor for four men found not guilty in the trial, argues:
"There was never any ricin, there were no poisons made. There seems to be a pathetic, clumsy, amateurish attempt to make some by a man who was conceded, I think by all, to be a difficult, anti-social loner... But I think one also has to consider how was it that all of us in this country were allowed to believe that there was ricin. That there was a substantial plot. That it wasn't an individualist, tiny, failed attempt".
Former Home Secretary, David Blunkett is still adamant that there was a wider group involved:
"It is absolutely certain that al-Qaeda were planning and preparing for co-ordinated attacks. We were very close indeed to disaster. We were actually much calmer and much more reassuring to the public than we felt ourselves".
The Guardian meanwhile is wondering just what all this had to do with Iraq:
Tony Blair, David Blunkett, then home secretary, and Britain's most senior police officers, all seized on the arrests to emphasise the threat from what they called a new and highly dangerous kind of terrorist. To further press the case for war, politicians implied there was a clear link between Saddam Hussein, al-Qaida, and terrorists planning chemical or biological attacks on targets in the west, including London.
Londonist is also confused as to how one guy photocopying recipes for poison managed to become an example of the dangers of weapons of mass destruction. The only thing that the ricin and Saddam's WMDs had in common was their non-existence. We're not suggesting that Bourgass had no intention of creating recin and using it or that Saddam wasn't a brutal dictator, but we are suggesting that taking a country to war is a serious business and perhaps it's not a good idea to link every threat against London to the doorstep of the government's favourite villain of the week.
*The Star decided to run instead with the headline "SEX, RUCKS & GIRL-ON-GIRL" about a new celebrity wrestling show and then managed to give half the front page over to some bint from Hollyoaks (oiled up in a bikini) because she was moving to Eastenders. Oh, to live in the world of Star readers...