Al-Qaida trying to use ricin toxin for bombs, U.S. officials fear
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WASHINGTON -- U.S. counterterrorism officials are increasingly concerned that the most dangerous regional arm of al-Qaida is trying to produce the lethal poison ricin, to be packed around small explosives for attacks against the United States.
For more than a year, according to classified intelligence reports, al-Qaida'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 so deadly that just a speck can kill if it is inhaled or reaches the bloodstream.
Intelligence officials say they have collected evidence that al-Qaida operatives were 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, such as a shopping mall, airport or subway station.
President Barack Obama and his top national security aides were first briefed on the threat last year and have received periodic updates since then, top aides said. Senior U.S. officials say there is no indication that a ricin attack is imminent, and some experts say the al-Qaida affiliate is still struggling with how to deploy ricin as an effective weapon.
These officials also note that ricin's utility as a weapon is limited because the substance loses its potency in dry, sunny conditions, and unlike many nerve agents, it is not easily absorbed through the skin.
But senior U.S. 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-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen, is very, very real," said Michael E. Leiter, retired director of the National Counterterrorism Center. "It's not hard to develop ricin."
First Published August 13, 2011 12:00 am