Watching the police officers come and go, some of them in protective white suits and masks, and seeing the long hours they spent in the top-floor apartment above a local pharmacy, neighbors in North London's multiracial Wood Green section knew that something big was up. Last Tuesday morning they learned just how big. The Metropolitan Police Anti-Terrorist Branch as part of a joint intelligence operation with the Special Branch and MI5, Britain's domestic security service raided premises in North and East London early on Jan. 5 and took six men, all believed to be North Africans, into custody under the Terrorism Act of 2000. (A woman arrested with them was released, and a seventh man was apprehended later.) On Saturday, four of the men named by Scotland Yard as Mustapha Taleb, Mouloud Feddag, Sidali Feddag and Samir Feddag were charged with chemical weapons production and terrorism offenses. A fifth man was charged under forgery and counterfeiting laws and a sixth with drug offenses, while a seventh was released into Immigration Service custody.
Found in the apartment above the Guardian Pharmacy was residue of ricin, a poison so lethal that mere grains of it can kill. A presumed al-Qaeda terror lab had been shut down. But at least two suspects were still missing and police feared that some of the deadly product was too. Had terrorists got away with enough of the toxin to launch a strike?
While the police and MI5 launched a massive manhunt, news of the poison sent a shiver through London that could not be attributed to last week's icy weather. "This has got everybody on edge," says Sonia Merzoug, a convert to Islam who has lived near the apartment where one of the suspects was arrested for the past seven years. "This is a bit too close to home for my liking."
"The baseline anxiety level has been rising since 9/11," says Magnus Ranstorp, a terrorism expert at Scotland's St. Andrews University. Terrorists, he notes, are "looking for low-tech ways of making maximum mayhem." Substances like ricin what Ranstorp calls "weapons of mass disruption" fit the bill. As with the post-Sept. 11 anthrax attacks in the U.S., a small number of deaths can trigger a huge reaction.
"Alert, not alarm," was the police message to the public and the health authorities. Although there is no vaccine or antidote for ricin poisoning, the substance is not suitable for killing on a mass scale. In one of Agatha Christie's earliest detective stories, The House of Lurking Death (1929), the killer put ricin in fig-paste sandwiches and a cocktail glass, claiming three lives. Said to be deadlier than cobra venom, the poison works most effectively when injected or ingested.