Today’s most odious news comes from the New York Times and concerns an alleged plot by al Qaeda in Yemen. And the plot involves — ricin bombs.
Reported by Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker, the story also appears to be a bit of tease for their book, “Counterstrike: The Untold Story of America’s Secret Campaign Against Al Qaeda.” set for publication next week by Times Books.
The tome is mentioned in the story. However, Schmitt and Shanker do not really mention they’re the authors, too. One supposes editors thought it obvious.
In any case, readers already are sniffing a self-serving business here.
But on the bit about ricin bombs, news of which must have been communicated to the authors a decent interval ago, news-wise.
American counterterrorism officials are increasingly concerned that the most dangerous regional arm of Al Qaeda is trying to produce the lethal poison ricin, to be packed around small explosives for attacks against the United States.
For more than a year, according to classified intelligence reports, Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen has been making efforts to acquire large quantities of castor beans …
Long time readers know that no one — that’s NO ONE — has ever developed a “ricin bomb.”
A long long time ago the US military tried. And the only result was an infamous patent for the purfication of ricin. Since the work was done long before scientists understood protein chemistry (full disclosure: DD’s Ph.D. is in protein chemistry) reading it leads a current scientist fluent in the field to realize it actually destroyed ricin.
Ricin is a protein. And proteins don’t like lots of things — like heat, harsh handling, many solvents, being taken out of their natural environment, and … well I won’t go into the rest right here.
And the old US ricin patent used all the things that are hard on proteins. Which perhaps has something to do with why ricin bombs have never been made.
Readers will note the first sentence of the Times piece states that al Qaeda is trying to pack ricin around explosives. Therefore, from this it can be inferred that al Qaeda has no competent scientists working on this project in Yemen.
These officials also note that ricin’s utility as a weapon is limited because the substance loses its potency in dry, sunny conditions, and unlike many nerve agents, it is not easily absorbed through the skin. Yemen is a hot, dry country, posing an additional challenge to militants trying to produce ricin there.
In the first sentence, the journalists show that someone in government has told them a little bit of what I’ve just put up here on the nature of ricin and proteins.
But in the same sentence they make this BIG mistake: “[Ricin] is not easily absorbed through the skin.”
Ricin is not absorbed through the skin. Period. Proteins are not absorbed through the skin. If they could be absorbed through the skin you could eat your sandwich by putting the slice of salami on your forearm or pouring your cup of beef bouillon on your stomach.
Proteins are large macro-molecules. And they are not absorbed through the skin — which is made up of keratin — the structural protein that makes up the outer layer of our hide.
Nerve agents are not large molecules at all. In fact, they are quite other things.
In the scheme of things during the war on terror, the US has funded the development of two ricin vaccines. They are not ready yet. However, during development ricin toxicity is tested on rodents. And it is used in an aerosol, not as a contact poison.
It is also purified ricin.
The New York Times story does not make any indication that al Qaeda has purified ricin. In fact, if they are planning on using it with explosives, the likelihood is that they do not have anyone savvy enough to purify it to the state in which it is used for research in the United States.
The Times continues:
Michael E. Leiter, who retired recently as director of the National Counterterrorism Center, said at a security conference last month. “It’s not hard to develop ricin.”
And here is the problem of relying on an expert who may know everything about fighting terrorism but who knows nothing about advanced chemistry or biology.
Ricin is not easy to “develop” unless, in using that word, you mean “grinding castor seeds into powder.”
And that is what people fiddling with castor seeds, in large quantities or small, always do. They transform seeds into castor mash. And the mash may be subsequently washed with an organic solvent, like acetone, to remove castor oil.
None of this is a purification. It is merely a change from seed to powder, and a bit of oil removal.
Back to the Times:
In 2003, British and French operatives broke up suspected al Qaeda cells that possessed components and manuals for ricin bombs …
This is also wrong.
The London ricin plot was not connected to al Qaeda. It was one man — Kamel Bourgass — who was sent over for it. No manuals or components for ricin bombs were recovered.
I have translations of the papers seized in the British “ricin ring” raids.
These are not manuals. They are elementary scraps of paper. Rubbish, really.
In London, the plot was to smear ricin (castor powder, really) mixed with skin creme on door handles. No bomb. In any case, an expert testified that ricin wasn’t a contact poison, anyway.
No ricin was discovered in England.
Martin Pearce, the Porton Down scientist who accompanied the anti-terrorism team on the Wood Green raid noted items of potential interest to include, toiletries, a common funnel, two scales, bottles of acetone and some rubber gloves.
Twenty-two intact castor seeds were recovered. Twenty-one were found in a jewelry case along with one other in an unspecified location within the Wood Green apartment.
Months earlier and behind the scenes, the British government had seen its claims, that the group [of men eventually found innocent in a jury trial] had the capability to produce ricin and that materials on a ricin recipe found in their belongings could be linked to al Qaida, rupture. And equally startling, it was confirmed that a preliminary positive finding of the poison in a residue tested in a raid on their apartment in Wood Green in January of 2003 was false but that through bureaucratic bungling, just the opposite news was presented to British authorities.
Near the end the Times reporters write:
Months after the initial ricin intelligence reports surfaced last year, Saudi intelligence officials revealed a twist to the ricin plot: Qaeda operatives were trying to place the toxin in bottles of perfume, especially a popular local fragrance made of the resin of agarwood, and send those bottles as gifts to assassinate government officials and law enforcement and military officers. There is no indication that Al Qaeda ever succeeded with this approach, intelligence officials said.
Even this idea is old news.
My crude drawing, from years ago, is a copy of how American survivalist Kurt Saxon proposed that ricin might be used from one of his old pamphlets published in the Eighties.
The illustration to the left, for example, is Dick Destiny blog’s rendition of a drawing of what to do with your bowl of ricin poison, published in Kurt Saxon’s “The Weaponeer” in 1984.
It is no surprise that al Qaeda has an abiding interest in ricin. The “recipe” for turning to castor seeds into dry powder is easy to come by. And there has never been any shortage of US government men and mountebank counter-terror “experts” saying that it’s easy to make.
But history has shown quite the opposite. Ricin is far from easy to make into a weapon, much less any notional bomb. It can be used and has been used as a poison aimed at one person, sometimes in a household, or more famously from a Cold War example I won’t bother to mention.
And every year the FBI arrests a share of white American kooks who are puttering around with castor seeds.
So it is quite logical that al Qaeda might wish to try and do something using it. And, through the war on terror, some of them have always believed, too, that ricin is easy to make into a weapon.
Because they have frequently read that this is so in the American press.
The New York Times article has one takeaway which is not a mistake. The US counter-terror man asserts that any “ricin bomb” would most certainly “scare” people and be very big news.
That’s very accurate, unfortunately. It makes it possible for them to make a “ricin bomb” that doesn’t actually work, although the immediate explosion would, by itself, kill people close by.
Once news got going that a “ricin bomb” had been deployed anyone even remotely near the thing would probably be terrified they’d been poisoned. The American media would be the vector for this whether anyone had actually been poisoned or not.
Related materials: My inimitable Ricin Kooks tab.
This post has been updated slightly for clarity.