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Ireland is not exempt from toxic terror attack

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  • Ireland is not exempt from toxic terror attack

    Ireland is not exempt from toxic terror attack

    Emergency planning committee to reconvene after ricin discovery

    THE discovery of the deadly toxin ricin in London caused little reaction here but could have major implications for this country. Although ricin is not a likely 'weapon of mass destruction', it is almost certain that it was being stockpiled for a terrorist purpose. And Ireland, as an EU member state and Britain's neighbour, cannot regard itself as exempt from attack.

    Ricin is significant as a potential biological weapon as it is one of the deadliest and most available toxins. Its discovery also underlines fears that Al Qaeda is still attempting to realise its objective of inflicting terror on centres of Western liberal democracies.

    Ireland may not be on Al Qaeda's target list per se but that does not confer this country with any protected status. Confidential memoranda to Government have confirmed this and preparations are quietly under way to prepare for biological attack by supplying nominated hospitals with stockpiles of antibiotics, antivirals and antitoxins.

    These preparations began last year largely as a result of intelligence drawn up by US and other EU intelligence agencies prior to September 11 in some cases that Al Qaeda or some other group would attempt attacks on Western nations with biological or other weapons of mass destruction.

    Until the events of September 11, 2001, the warnings of "catastrophic attack" were dismissed or trivialised and the low-key reaction here to the news that ricin had been discovered in London is indicative of the continuing scepticism about security warnings.

    In fact, the threat of an attack using biological or toxic agents or other weapons in mass attacks was raised most strongly in January 2001 eight months before the attacks on the Twin Towers and Pentagon by the US Commission on National Security/21st Century.

    This all-party Commission actually anticipated September 11, stating: "A direct attack against American citizens on American soil is likely over the next quarter century. Weapons proliferation and the persistence of international terrorism will end the relative invulnerability of the US homeland to catastrophic attack."

    The Committee's statement that "the risk is not only death and destruction but also a demoralisation that could undermine global leadership" is now taken very seriously by all leading democracies.

    The policy adopted by the Government here is to make as much preparation as is feasibly possible without giving rise to public concern. The 200 false anthrax scares here in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks shows how prone people are to panic.

    The Government appointed the Minister for Defence, Michael Smith to chair the Emergency Planning Committee which has sat on 20 occasions since September 11. It is being reconvened this week and will discuss the potential consequences for Ireland relating to the discovery of ricin in London.

    The Minister has established an Office for Emergency Planning in his Department, the only office in Government which includes a senior military officer an Army colonel on its permanent staff.

    The Emergency Planning Office was last week studying a report drawn up by the Army on the significance of the threat from ricin and other toxic and biological weapons.

    Ricin is regarded as one of the significant potential biological warfare toxins because of its wide availability and its toxicity. It is a by-product of castor bean oil production, the market for which is estimated at {ðE}2 billion globally. Castor oil is most commonly used in brake fluid. The plant is easily grown in any hot climate.

    Ricin has no known antidote and is virtually impossible to detect in the body after death. It is the third most toxic substance known. A gram of pure ricin can kill 3,600 people, while a gram of pure cyanide can kill 16.

    Saddam Hussein's bio-chemical programme considered it significant enough to test its use in shells in the early 1990s, importing large quantities of castor beans and growing the crop beside a chemical plant.

    The toxin was first identified in 1889. Allegations have surfaced that KGB agents used ricin in a botched assassination attempt against Soviet dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn in the 1960s. The toxin was used to kill the Bulgarian dissident, Georgi Markov, on Westminster Bridge in London in 1978. Markov was hit by a poison dart hidden in an umbrella.

    It has been discovered on at least four occasions in relation to conspiracies in the United States, two of these occasions involving right-wing militia. In 1995, members of the Patriots Council of Minnesota were jailed for between three and six years for having the toxin. They had planned to mix it with a solvent and smear it on the door handle of a Federal building to kill a law agent who had been investigating them. Members of another West Virginia militia were found to have ricin at the Canadian border in 1997.

    A Florida woman poisoned her husband with castor bean extract in 1996 and a container of Ricin was found in a makeshift laboratory in the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas in 1996.

    When ingested, ricin causes agonising death over a 36 to 72-hour period with severe respiratory symptoms followed by vascular collapse and multiple organ failure.

    Ricin is stable and is lethal if breathed which has raised the concern that groups like Al Qaeda were experimenting with ways of 'aerosolising' it and possibly spreading it in the London Underground.

    So far, however, the opinion of military experts is that ricin is probably not the most likely agent for use as a "weapon of mass destruction". It meets some of the requirements in that it is easily available, cheap to manufacture, stable in aerosolised form, lethal and has no antidote.

    However, it is easily dispersed and cannot be communicated from person to person. It is estimated that it would take four tons of ricin to cause mass destruction over an area of 100 square kilometers whereas the same effect could be achieved by the use of a kilo of anthrax. It is also possible to decontaminate skin with a mild bleach solution or even soap and water.

    This week's Emergency Planning Committee is likely to conclude there is no major threat to this state from the ricin discovery in London. But it will take note of the fact that Islamic fundamentalists are still intent on using chemical or biological weapons.

    However, the fact remains that London is the closest European capital to Ireland and there are dozens of flights to Dublin each day. If, for instance, Al Qaeda were to dump anthrax or another biological agent in or around Heathrow Airport, the spores could find their way to the centre of Dublin within hours. That is the type of nightmare scenario for which the Government's Emergency Planning Committee is quietly making preparations