British police have been warned that quantities of ricin – one of the most lethal known poisons – may have entered the UK after being manufactured by a militant based in Lyons.
French investigators have been working to track down dozens of small containers of the poison – which can kill in hours if inhaled, injected or injested – made by a 29-year-old chemist arrested 18 months ago.
Investigators say Menad Benchellali, who allegedly trained in Georgia’s lawless Pankisi Gorge on the Chechen border, created ricin in a makeshift laboratory at his parents’ home and stored it in the form of a white powder in small glass flasks and jars of Nivea face cream. French sources claim that samples of Benchellali’s ricin have been found in the UK and say several jars are unaccounted for.
Experts told The Observer that ricin, which is made by boiling castor beans, does not need special storage.
‘It is effective after years just lying around,’ said one former UN weapons inspector. ‘Ricin is very difficult to weaponise as it has to be inhaled or injected, but is nonetheless a serious threat. Though the psychological impact of its use may outweigh the actual physical damage done, it’s certainly bad to have it out there.’
There are fears among European and American intelligence officials that Islamic militants will try to mount a chemical or biological attack. In March UK police broke up a group alleged to be planning an attack involving industrial chemicals. In April, police in Jordan foiled a plan which officials said involved using chemical bombs and poison gas against embassies in the capital, Amman.
A report by the American Congress commission investigating the 11 September attacks said last week that Al-Qa’ida ‘remains extremely interested in conducting chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear attacks’. The report concluded: ‘The intelligence community expects that the trend towards attacks intended to cause ever higher casualties will continue.’
It also raised concerns about the activities in the UK of a controversial cleric whose contacts with the 11 September hijackers were judged ‘suspicious’ by the bipartisan panel.
Anwar Aulaqi, an American prayer leader, preached a series of lectures attended by hundreds of young Muslims in Britain last year. Special Branch officers in London and the Midlands are trying to establish if he is still in Britain, has returned to the US or has travelled to Yemen, where he has family connections.
Aulaqi is mentioned several times in the commission’s 20-page ‘Outline of the 9/11 plot’, which is based on hundreds of interviews with intelligence and law enforcement officials. He is reported to have ‘established a relationship’ with two of the hijack team, both experienced Islamic militants, in San Diego in early 2000 while preaching at a mosque in the city.
Aulaqi is then said by the commission to have headed to the east coast, where he may have had further contact with the terrorists.
The report raises the possibility that he put the two hijackers, who were both handpicked by Usama Bin Ladin to take part in the plot to attack the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, in touch with a local activist who provided critical logistical support.
‘The circumstances surrounding his relationship with the hijackers remain suspicious,’ the commission noted, though adding that they ‘have not uncovered evidence that he associated with the hijackers knowing that they were terrorists’.
Aulaqi, who has denied any wrongdoing, spoke at the Muslim Association of Britain’s summer conference last year. In London, he spoke about the duty of Muslims to ‘think globally (and) act locally’.