It had been quiet for so long. And then, last week, the US issued a ‘travel advisory’ – not quite an alert, but it had the same dramatic effect – to its citizens in Europe, asserting that a co-ordinated al-Qaida attack on the transport networks and tourist sites of major West European cities could be expected soon. The Europeans had different ideas about how to respond: copycat warnings were issued by Sweden and the UK; the Germans said there was nothing to worry about; the French said Britain was unsafe. Following hoax bomb threats, the Eiffel Tower was evacuated twice in two weeks. In Brussels, there was consternation about the mixed messages. After the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull in the spring, when the ensuing travel chaos cost national economies billions, it was felt that what was missing in these matters was a centralised approach. The Belgian interior minister, Annemie Tertelboom, said Europe needed to ‘frame better the message coming from our continent’. Governments should seek advice from the Joint Situation Centre (SitCen), the EU’s post-9/11 intelligence hub, before issuing public warnings. ‘It is very important,’ she said, ‘because in my country we use levels one, two, three and four, while others use colours.’ She meant it’s important to ensure that – whatever language they speak – people are scared to exactly the right degree.
The information that made the alert possible, according to the German papers, had come from a man being held by the Americans at Bagram airbase in Afghanistan. Ahmad Sidiqi, a German citizen, had worked as a cleaner at Hamburg airport and frequented the mosque once known as al-Quds (where Mohamed Atta and other 9/11 hijackers had also assembled). He was arrested in Kabul after spending time at training camps in North Waziristan, where he claimed to have met a man called Sheikh Younis al-Mauritani, who referred to himself as ‘al-Qaida’s number three’, though this was news to everyone, and where he heard of plans for ‘Mumbai-style attacks’ – the phrase keeps coming up – on European cities. That’s all that he, or the Americans, seemed to know. It made sense that the next large-scale al-Qaida-sponsored attacks might follow the model of the successful operation in Mumbai – men with guns in crowded places. But it wasn’t much to go on, as was made clear by the fact that three months passed before the US issued its nebulous travel warning: Sidiqi had been arrested in July. Whether anything new has been learned since then is extremely doubtful: in August, the German authorities closed down the old al-Quds mosque; in late September, the Americans started attacking villages in North Waziristan with unmanned drones. It’s what they do. But there are no further informants.
This is how it always begins: with the words of one man in one small room, whether extracted by interrogators from a state we officially have nothing to do with or surrendered under the watch of our own agencies. Those few words, beamed back to the West, set whole operations in motion and create the conditions for a terror alert. It’s how things have been since the days of Jack Bauer and 24: you catch your man, he talks, you act. There is never time for anything else. A detailed case study of how wrong it can all go is provided by Ricin!: The Inside Story of the Terror Plot That Never Was (Pluto, £14.99). You remember the scenario: on 5 January 2003 a number of Algerians were arrested in Wood Green and charged with manufacturing ricin, a poison that had lingered in the public consciousness since the killing of a Bulgarian dissident on Waterloo Bridge in 1978 with a ricin-filled dart fired from an umbrella. When the news got out on 8 January a skull and crossbones filled the front page of the Mirror, superimposed on a map of the UK. The headline read: IT’S HERE. DEADLY TERROR POISON FOUND IN BRITAIN. Later that day, Tony Blair said the arrests showed that ‘this danger is present and real, and with us now.’ On 5 February, in his presentation to the UN Security Council, Colin Powell said: ‘Let me remind you how ricin works. Less than a pinch – imagine a pinch of salt – less than a pinch of ricin, eating just this amount in your food, would cause shock followed by circulatory failure. Death comes within 72 hours and there is no antidote, there is no cure. It is fatal.’ On 20 March the US dropped the first bombs on Baghdad.
The Wood Green ‘poison factory’ had been raided as the result of information given to the Algerian secret police by a man called Mohammed Meguerba. Meguerba had been in London the previous year and, in his confession to the Algerians, listed the names and addresses of some of the people he had encountered there. The raids quickly followed. In one flat, a pink jewellery box was found, containing 22 castor beans, looking like little scarabs. There was also a pestle and mortar, and a brief on-site test suggested the presence of ricin, which castor beans contain. This discovery the police duly passed on to the papers, but they didn’t pass on the fact that a further laboratory test had already established that the first test had been a false positive: the raids had uncovered no actual poison at all. Ricin! is cowritten by Lawrence Archer, the foreman of the jury which, two years and £20 million later, acquitted four of the five accused Algerians of all charges against them; the fifth, who had indeed rather wishfully hoped to make cyanide from apple pips, was charged with ‘conspiracy to cause a public nuisance’. After the trial, Archer and two of his fellow jurors met and became friendly with some of the defendants, and it’s their story he tells: a banal but compelling compendium of floors slept on, jobs sought, minor thievery, and fingerprints inevitably ending up in the wrong places as people with no connections and no home try to find some temporary purchase in a few North London streets. The unfortunate fact for those Algerians, and many others like them, is that their loose network of hospitality and acquaintanceship looks rather like a more sinister kind of network to a security apparatus that sees enemies around every corner.