The Ricin Plot that never was – the legacy of hysteria
The ricin case came to the Old Bailey in September of 2004. Sihali and Khalef stood charged alongside three other Algerian men, Mustapha Taleb, Sidali Feddag and Kamel Bourgass, of Conspiracy to Murder and the quaint sounding and archaic charge of Conspiracy to cause a Public Nuisance.
I sat next to Mouloud Sihali in a cinema recently. Mouloud and I are friends of longstanding and often go to see a film together. Shortly before the main feature started, a commercial flashed up on the screen, full of beautifully dressed glossy people, glamorous locations and fast cars. Mouloud commented “See that? That’s what a lot of Algerians thought Britain was like; all the streets paved with gold. No wonder they wanted to come here”.
Mouloud Sihali had arrived himself in Britain as a young man in 1997, driven out of his native country by fear of what the compulsory two years of army conscription would do to him. Algeria had seen hard times in the 1990s. Free and open elections were held in 1991 for the first time since the eviction of French colonialists in 1962. The popular Front of Islamic Salvation (FIS) party took the first round of voting with a landslide victory, but then the military intervened with a coup, declaring a state of emergency and cancelling the second round of elections. The newly empowered military government branded supporters of FIS as rebels and groups of these disaffected men formed guerrilla bands that took to the mountains and attacked the army troops. Soon the country descended into a long and bloody civil war, riddled with hideous massacres and disappearances, the death toll on both sides eventually rising into the tens of thousands. With the economy in chaos, regular food shortages, brutally enforced nightly curfews and little or no prospect of employment, many young men fled the country in search of a better life. Many ended up in Britain, gravitating inevitably to an area known as Little Algiers: Finsbury Park in north London.
Sihali had been living quietly under the radar since his arrival as an illegal immigrant. Having no papers or formal ID meant he could only take up casual work for cash in hand. With little money to spare, he shared a small room with a fellow countryman David Aissa Khalef, whom he had met at the Finsbury Park Mosque. The mosque at that time was something of a social centre as well as a place of worship and men would meet there to eat, chat and share news of jobs and accommodation. Sihali soon yearned for a better life though and eventually managed to obtain a regular job and earn enough to rent a small flat, with the added prospect of a marriage. Unfortunately he offered the short term use of this flat to a new acquaintance of Khalef’s, which would eventually lead to them both being arrested in 2002 and being charged with terrorism.
The ricin case came to the Old Bailey in September of 2004. Sihali and Khalef stood charged alongside three other Algerian men, Mustapha Taleb, Sidali Feddag and Kamel Bourgass, of Conspiracy to Murder and the quaint sounding and archaic charge of Conspiracy to cause a Public Nuisance. The man who had stayed in Mouloud Sihali’s flat, Mohammed Meguerba, had fled to Algeria after routine questioning and release by the British Anti Terror Squad. He was picked up and questioned in Algeria however and it soon seemed he might have some interesting tales to tell. The secret police there had certainly done a more thorough job of interrogation on Meguerba, most probably involving the use of torture, and he soon revealed details of an alleged terrorist plot involving poisons and explosives to be used against the British public. The Algerians passed the information over to the horrified British authorities, resulting in a dramatic raid on Sidali Feddag’s flat in Wood Green in early 2003 and dozens of arrests. In the hunt for ricin poison, scientists from Porton Down research facility found recipes for toxins, hand written by Kamel Bourgass, and the equipment that might be used to make them. Early non-specific testing on site showed cause for concern when there was a weak positive reaction to something containing proteins (eg ricin amongst other things). However, a specialised test for ricin at the Porton Down laboratories came back negative. No ricin, confirmed the chief testing scientist in his evidence to the Old Bailey, despite the lurid and sensationalist “factory of death” headlines which had appeared in the press at the time of the Wood Green raid.
At the end of the trial, which had lasted seven months and had the jury deliberating for seventeen days, the verdicts came in: Kamel Bourgass guilty of Conspiracy to cause a Public Nuisance. The other four defendants were found not guilty of all charges. The press revealed the shocking fact that Bourgass had already been tried and found guilty of murder and malicious wounding in a previous trial, held in secret to avoid tainting the evidence in the ”ricin trial”. Bourgass had gone on the run when the Wood Green raid was taking place and was eventually discovered, purely by accident, in a Manchester flat. When he was recognised he was arrested but, crucially, not restrained. When he tried to escape he grabbed a knife from the kitchen and made a break for the front door while lashing out with the weapon. One police officer died in the chaos, several others were badly wounded. Bourgass was sentenced to 22 years for the murder with concurrent sentences for the woundings and then received another 17 years for the ricin conspiracy charge.
The four cleared defendants were released almost immediately. Mustapha Taleb had already been granted asylum in Britain in 2000, as a result of his torture at the hands of the Algerian secret police. The other three, Khalef, Feddag and Sihali, were put under immigration bail conditions as they had entered Britain illegally, but all four walked free from the courts. Within a matter of weeks however their situation was to change drastically when the Home Secretary announced the government’s intention to deport them back to Algeria, a country with an appalling record on human rights which had been widely ostracised by Western nations for decades. Appeals and legal process was brought into play to oppose these deportation attempts.
During the summer of 2005 London was rocked by the 7th July and the 21st July (failed) bombings on tube trains and buses. In the wake of these terror attacks, and with the public understandably jittery after the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes, the British government attempted to introduce stricter anti-terror measures, including the proposed 90 day detention period for terror suspects. On the 5th August 2005 Prime Minister Tony Blair made his infamous speech, claiming “the rules of the game have changed”. On the 15th September 2005, perhaps coincidentally on the same day as Home Secretary Charles Clarke announced a new package of anti-terror laws, police officers raided the homes of Mustapha Taleb and Mouloud Sihali and arrested them as “threats to national security” (although neither has ever been charged with any offence or even interviewed by the police.) This was to mark the beginning of a long and bitter struggle by both men to resolve their legal position in Britain and avoid deportation.
Sihali and Taleb were initially put in prison but were eventually released under strict bail conditions (Control Orders in all but name). These demanded electronic tagging, 20 hour curfews, staying within a limited, mapped -out area, regular searches of their property and all visitors to be approved and vetted by the Home Office, among other measures. It was at this stage that I first met both men face to face and subsequently I applied to be cleared as their visitor. I have followed their lives ever since.
The two men are very different. Mustapha Taleb is dignified, calm and fatalistic, while he struggles through the seemingly endless legal mire of deportation hearings and appeals. I first met him at a SIAC hearing where I was surprised to find him sitting in front of me, rather than in the dock surrounded by security guards as I had imagined. I was even more bemused to see the “threat to national security” leaving the hearing to go home on the bus afterwards. At one point Mustapha was returned to prison for two years, held as a high absconsion risk in Long Lartin jail. The last time I visited him there the man on the table next to us was attacked with a razor blade by his prisoner son, leaving the older man bleeding heavily from a gaping wound in his neck. While I was horrified, Mustapha simply looked on calmly. Such is the toll that continual confinement, exposure to prison brutality and a regime of antidepressants has taken on his life. Despite this he somehow retains a sense of humour.
Mouloud Sihali on the other hand is an unhappy man, angry with the authorities and his fate. Eventually cleared of being a risk to national security and taken off the strict Control Order style conditions, he is still threatened with deportation after years of legal battles. Stress has taken a huge toll on him. While he was under the bail regime he developed Sarcoidosis, a rare lung disease thought to be triggered by mental pressures, which sometimes leaves him in pain and short of breath. Mouloud longs to be happy; a married family man, earning his own way in the world. The cinema allows him brief periods of relief from the grim realities of his life under legal limbo, a long way from those streets paved with gold.
*Lawrence Archer was the foreman of the jury in the ricin trial. He is a telecoms engineer and co-author of “Ricin! The inside story of the terror plot that never was”. (Lawrence Archer & Fiona Bawdon. Pluto Press. 2010.)