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.
NY TIMES – 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, which are required to produce ricin, a white, powdery toxin that is so deadly that just a speck can kill if it is inhaled or reaches the bloodstream.
Intelligence officials say they have collected evidence that Qaeda operatives are trying to move castor beans and processing agents to a hideaway in Shabwa Province, in one of Yemen’s rugged tribal areas controlled by insurgents. The officials say the evidence points to efforts to secretly concoct batches of the poison, pack them around small explosives, and then try to explode them in contained spaces, like a shopping mall, an airport or a subway station.
Senior American officials say they are tracking the possibility of a threat very closely, given the Yemeni affiliate’s proven ability to devise plots, including some thwarted only at the last minute: a bomb sewn into the underwear of a Nigerian man aboard a commercial jetliner to Detroit in December 2009, and printer cartridges packed with powerful explosives in cargo bound for Chicago 10 months later.
“The potential threat of weapons of mass destruction, likely in a simpler form than what people might imagine but still a form that would have a significant psychological impact, from Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen, is very, very real,” 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.”
The ricin plots believed to be emanating from Yemen are the latest example of terrorists’ desire to obtain and deploy unconventional weapons in attacks. In 1995, the Aum Shinrikyo cult released sarin nerve gas on underground trains in Tokyo, killing 12 people and injuring more than 5,000, and nearly paralyzing one of the world’s leading economies for weeks.