Ricin!

Issue section: 
(352)

Lawrence Archer and Fiona Bawdon, Pluto, £13

On a September morning in 2005 police stormed the home of the sleeping Maloud Sihali and restrained him with such force that he was permanently lamed. At the same instant they broke down the door to the flat of Mustapha Taleb - he was so terrified that he vomited.

The two Algerians had been acquitted several months earlier at a massive terror trial in which they and three other defendants were accused of an Al Qaida mass murder plot using the poison ricin.

The 7/7 bombings a few months later saw the state lash out and the men thrown back into Belmarsh. Their lives are still in ruins today.

The "ricin plot" burst into the news in January 2003, on the eve of the Iraq war. There was a media storm as newspapers competed to provide bloodcurdling details of the "death factory" planned by these men. The plot was presented by Tony Blair and George W Bush as proof that Iraq was aiding Al Qaida terrorism.

Yet there was no ricin. Tests by the Porton Down Defence Science and Technology Laboratory proved this within days. But still the idea of a plot gripped the media and politics in the months before and after the Iraq invasion.

This book is the inside story of the subsequent trial of the men sucked into this phantom terror panic. Its lead author, Lawrence Archer, was the foreman of the jury that acquitted them.

Sihali and Taleb, like their co-defendants David Khalef, Sidali Feddag and Kamel Bourgass, were impoverished immigrants scraping a living on the margins of British society.

The book tells the moving story of how the men were accused on the basis of "evidence" from a tortured prisoner in Algeria - Mohammed Meguerba - whose testimony was so unreliable that it was ruled inadmissible by the judge.

Chance coincidences, and the basic solidarity of immigrants at the very bottom of society who shared food, beds and mobile phones, enabled the police to concoct a case against them. Archer and other jurors were so angered by the renewed arrests after 7/7 that bravely they tracked down the men to hear their story.

This book conclusively exposes the fiction of the ricin plot and the way the press and politicians latched onto it to feed the terror hysteria. It pulls no punches with Kamel Bourgass, the fantasist and petty thief who murdered a policeman when he was arrested.

But it also leaves some crucial questions unanswered. Why were poison recipes found in a bag belonging to the barely literate Khalef? Why did Porton Down fail to communicate the fact that there was no ricin?

And what were Bourgass and Meguerba up to in London? Whatever it was, they were not involved in an Al Qaida terror plot.