Tuesday, June 06, 2006

THE ANNALS OF TERRORISM: Abandon all skepticism

I've had some experience evaluating the alleged work and capability of jihadi "terrorists" since 9/11. A chronicle of the work can be read here. One formative experience was consulting to the legal defense of a group of alleged terrorists being prosecuted in what became known as the trial of the London ricin ring.

The London ricin ring crashed into the news in January of 2003 when British anti-terror forces raided a dingy apartment in a section of London called Wood Green. The raid was part of an anti-terror sweep called Operation Springbourne in which many young Islamic young men were arrested. As the story was originally told, an al Qaida poison ricin had been discovered at Wood Green and the terrorist plot to attack Londoners had been foiled.

The intelligence gathered in this raid was said to be astonishing and on February 5, Colin Powell linked the London ricin ring to the al Qaida terrorist, al Zarqawi, operating in the north of Iraq. The linkage was provided, Powell claimed, by a "detained al Qaida operative." More simply, al Zarqawi was giving marching orders or training to the London ricin ring and this was one reason among many presented to go to war with Iraq.

(Sidenote: On Thursday, while the mainstream newsmedia went into overkill on al Zarqawi's elimination, they briefly cited his place in the Powell debacle at the UN. What they didn't dwell upon was the original connection to a ricin plot, which was simply imaginary. Since they never looked at the results of the trial of the London ricin ring, they were free to repeat the established meme that al Zarqawi had expertise in ricin and had exported it to Europe, or perhaps London, in the guise of the Wood Green poison plot. This stemmed from only two pieces of information: Colin Powell's discredited speech at the UN Security Council, already mentioned, and a very brief spot by NBC's Pentagon correspondent, Jim Miklaszewski in 2004. Miklaszewski certainly did not know if al Zarqawi was making ricin and the story was poorly sourced to Roger Cressey, a confederate of Richard Clarke's, who had become well known for going to the newsmedia with information aimed at discrediting the Bush administration -- in this case, that opportunities to kill him in a missile strike had been forfeited.

Subsequently no reliable or concrete evidence of ricin production by Zarqawi in Iraq has been published. The most that can generously be said of the information is that it is rumor -- hearsay from American intelligence or journalistic sources of dubious quality. In matter of fact, ricin in ground castor beans, or castor cake, was found in Iraq. And it was written up in the final report of the Iraq Survey Group, which also published a picture of a bag of castor seeds. Attributed to a party ISG called the al Abud network, a group of Iraqis, the ricin effort was undertaken by a Baghdad chemist painted as sympathetic to the anti-US cause. The castor seeds had been ground into castor cake post-invasion and the project was broken up by American forces. But this was not connected to al Zarqawi. What the ISG said was this: "ISG has found no evidence to confirm or deny that the al-Abud network is an integrated and coordinated piece of a larger insurgency campaign in Iraq. However, the al-Abud network’s efforts are likely known to the insurgency because of the proximity in Fallujah of the al-Abud leadership and insurgent Zarqawi network..."

Since the truth was awkward and rather complicated, it has again essentially been forgotten by the US news media. Instead, the meme of al Zarqawi as a ricin-maker in the north of Iraq has become entrenched.

And since then it has become a talking point for the left which uses the meme -- the misinformation, actually -- to bash the administration over the head for allegedly not attacking and finishing off al Zarqawi years ago. Since it is a politically useful fraud it's become unstoppable. On Thurday and Friday it was repeated again and again around the web, spread in histories of the dead terrorist and a long news analysis by David Corn of The Nation, who requoted liberally from Miklaszewski's 2004 piece as if it was proof of something.)

In any case, the trial of the ricin ring took months and ended in April of 2005 with the jury finding everyone in the dock innocent except for one loner, Kamel Bourgass, whom the prosecution could not link to al Qaida or al Zarqawi. In addition, no ricin had actually been found at the London apartment and the training in poison-making was revealed as three sheets of handwritten rubbish, copied from Yahoo computers in Palo Alto. It had not come from al Qaida, or Afghanistan, or even the north of Iraq. And Bourgass -- convicted in the stabbing murder of a police officer -- was sent to prison for a long time.

Very little of this was covered by the US newsmedia. The story didn't fit the script of sensational superterrorism. It made Americans and British anti-terror experts look bad and the threat of alleged chemical or bioterrorism exaggerated and foolish. Other shames included the fact that a prosecution source in the British case, one who was not brought to testify but who set the preliminary tone of news coverage and prosecution strategy, was assumed to have been tortured into a confession, as was the US "detained al Qaida operative" cited by Powell at the UN. More proof, if anyone needs it by now, that torture doesn't work.

The London ricin ring was important news for the American media and statesmen just prior to the war with Iraq. But when it had been dismantled by simple inconvenient truths, it suddenly wasn't news in the States.

I had access to the secret terrorist documents presented at the trial and saw how stupid they looked. So I put images of the translated court copies on the web. Their air of menace, you see, was preserved only when they were kept secret. And if they had been released to the general public in the month before the war on Iraq, maybe Colin Powell would not have chosen to use the London ricin ring in his show before the UN Security Council. It would have saved him at least one embarrassment out of many.

This practice -- the making secret or withholding of terrorist documents -- has become a repeating game, one in which papers are seized from alleged plotters, and trumpeted by the media as evidence of something horrible lurking in the shadows. But their import is disguised when they are kept from from the general public, allowing those with a certain story to tell to interpet them.

Enter the New Yorker magazine earlier this year. A journalist had been assigned to profile the head of a private intelligence firm called the SITE Institute. Located in northern Virginia, The SITE Institute translates and distributes documents it liberates from jihadist websites. It does it for a price and provides this service as intelligence to various clients.

Normally, I don't pay attention to SITE Institute's product. I'm wary, as most people should be, of for-profit firms that purport to either compete with or replace functions of the work of national intelligence agencies, no matter how lousy one may think such agencies are. An inescapable fact of the war on terror is that capabilities and threats are frequently exaggerated. To get people to listen to your story or stories, to make them buy something you are selling, you have to frighten them. And if the evidence at hand isn't sufficiently scary, or the people who you aren't attentive enough, then the temptation is strong to embellish and sell the goods like something they ain't. (Another good example are the forged documents, peddled for money, that purported to show Hussein attempting to get uranium in Niger.)

In summer of 2006, the New Yorker finally published its story on the work of Rita Katz and the SITE Institute in "Annals of Terror."

Writer Benjamin Wallace-Wells, who hangs his hat at the Washington Monthy, contacted me to discuss a document published by the SITE Institute. I had bought one called "Preparation of Botulism Toxin." Secured from a jihadist website, it purported to inform how to brew botulism, a singularly deadly toxin produced by the bacterium, Clostridium botulinum.

"Preparation of Botulism Toxin" became important in mid 2005 when the New York Times ran an editorial by a Stanford business professor who cited it in a warning that terrorists could poison the nation's milk supply rather simply, killing hundreds of thousands. The op-ed defied logic. Possess a jihadist paper on botulism and you're possibly a superterrorist, one that makes the 9/11 plotters seem like pikers?! No way. But it was necessary to actually have a look at the damn thing before making an evaluation, at which point I found it was for sale by SITE Institute.

I secured a copy and along with colleague and biological arms control expert Milton Leitenberg at the University of Maryland, we set out our take on the subject. It was a strong and unequivocal rebuttal, one we took to the New York Times. The Times had taken the unusual step of publishing an outrageous claim, one that put the potential for botulism poison production in the hands of terrorists, and delivered it through authority. And the SITE Institute's document was a central piece of it. In the simplest possible language, we politely called it nonsense.

The Times declined to print our counter-argument. In the coming days, for practical purposes, it didn't matter. It was published on the website of the Federation of American Scientists and pointed to by Steven Aftergood's Secrecy News. At that point, lots of other people became interested from staffers in Congressional committees, to contractors for the CIA being briefed on bioterrorism, to people in the dairy industry who had worked on securing the milk supply and who objected to this new unverified theory of terrorist threat.

Wallace-Wells, for the New Yorker, was told this. I put it to him as an example of the way alleged pieces of intelligence are misrepresented and misused to create the impression of a clear danger. And I cited another document, again sold by the SITE Institute as well as a competitor in the same business, the Terrorism Research Center, this one on the production of plague.

These documents weren't what they wound up being cracked-up as, either.

I pointed out that someone had shopped them to the news media. The Washington Post had bitten on the latter and published a Sunday feature of al Qaeda on the world-wide web and how it was judged to be training in bioterrorism through a couple of these jihadist "papers."

The Los Angeles Times had also been trawled and one of its reporters contacted me for an evaluation of the materials he had been given. After giving him the same briefing I give everyone on these types of things, the newspaper never published a story.

You see, when one can weave a story of menacing documents taken from the web, it's always good to go. But when the intelligence documents are shown to reveal the opposite, editors and reporters lose interest. The reality is awkward and not sufficiently seasoned with potential fear. Their ability to grab the reader is lessened.

For the New Yorker, I was written out of the story. What I had to say was reduced to a sentence, and a not very accurate one: "Katz has many critics, who believe that she is giving terrorists a bigger platform than they would otherwise have, and that the certainty and obsession that make her a dedicated archivist also make her too eager to find plots where they don’t exist; she publicized a manual for using botulinum in terror attacks, for example, which experts later concluded was not linked to any serious threat."

This was a sneaky way for the New Yorker to get around saying that the document I had analyzed was a piece of crap. Of course experts later concluded it was not linked to any serious threat. As a practical matter, the only thing you could do with "Preparation of Botulism Toxin" was print it out, roll the paper into a cylinder and use it to swat flies.

Perhaps it could be confusing in a scary way to a layman, but it was still useless, with no potential in weapons applications. Second, I could care less what platform terrorists have. It's a reporter's misinterpretation of a complicated set of issues which cannot be reduced to a single sentence. As has been discussed in this blog entry, terrorist documents are exaggerated by different parties, but often for similar reasons -- to make them appear to be evidence of a capability that is not possessed, to tell a frightening story, to get people to entertain the conceit that valuable counter-terror and intelligence work is being done. The documents taken from the claimed London ricin ring were exaggerated and as long as people bought that simple distortion, they believed a complicated bioterror plot was afoot in London. "The Preparation of Botulism Toxin" was likewise distorted.

In fact, "Preparation of Botulism Toxin" would have remained an obscure bit of electronic detritus produced by jihadists if it had not been given the imprint of authority on the editorial page of the New York Times. After that it became part of a larger effort to scare people over the safety of the milk supply, one that had ramifications that are ongoing. (By example, on June 1 the US government announced it was awarding Cangene, a Canadian firm, $363 million to produce 200,000 doses of botulism anti-toxin, which comes out to $1,815 per dose on the taxpayer dime.)

Instead, the New Yorker chose to publish a story in which value statements -- the usual journalist's he-said/she-said -- are presented as weapons and jousts in a duel between talking heads of counter-terrorism. On one side, the SITE Institute and its boosters, battling hard in the war on terror and against the slow ineptitude of the intelligence agencies. On the other, people who begged to differ.

But back to the New Yorker phrase -- "publicized a manual for using botulinum in terror attacks . . . "

It's too generous. So I thought about it and decided to give you, the reader, the capability for using botulinum in a terror attack from the publicized manual.

For this to work, you will have to suspend your natural sense of disbelief and common sense. You will have to believe that by reading jihadist statements -- no matter how trivial or inapt -- you have the potential to be a superterrorist in your head.

First, let's skip right to the juicy part of "Preparation of Botulism Toxin," entitled HOW TO USE THE TOXIN AS A BIOLOGICAL WEAPON.

"The first step is to dissolve the toxin in water using any detergent in a concentration of 0.1 to 1 percent . . . it may be either used as

"1 -- spray form..." writes the jihadist(s). To use it in a spray, put it in a nebulizer.

"2 -- Addition of toxin to water tanks or food supplies . . ." says the jihadist. This is the part that grabs the attention of the easily impressed or the person looking to tell a scary story.

"3 -- using carriers . . . " More unimportant and brief gibberish deleted.

Not very exciting, huh? Seems empty, devoid of content.

Skipping forward in "Preparation" brings us to the crux of the issue. To have any hope of using botulism toxin as a weapon, you have to be able to find and grow the right toxic strain of Clostridium botulinum. It's one of the complicated parts and if it can't be achieved, all the rest of the singing and dancing is fancy bull.

So in SEARCHING FOR THE BACTERIA (Clostridium botulinum) type A or B and there [sic] ISOLATION:

"In the following steps, we will isolate the bacteria . . . from soil and identify them.

"The samples used to isolate the bacteria are samples Either from soil-lakes -- animal faces [sic] . . . "

The terrorists mean "animal feces."

Then there are a few pages on bacterial cultivation taken from a simple lab text on microbiology, but that's pretty much it. Just find it in "soil-lakes" and animal dung. It's a trope that is found in many Islamic terrorists' documents, ones that purport to show an interest in making botulism toxin. Its allure is that it sounds easy -- just get the bacteria from "soil-lakes" and horse crap. Indeed, a similar form of it was found in the papers of Kamel Bourgass, the man convicted in the trial of the London ricin ring.

However, "Preparation of Botulism Toxin" is a more complicated document than those found in the expunging of the London ricin ring. It contains many pages of lab procedures, none of them particularly revealing or indicative of much knowledge in the art of microbial preparations, copied from unnamed clinical lab texts.

Finally, the jihadists get to ISOLATION OF THE TOXIN AND ITS PURIFICATION. Since they don't know what methods have been used by national biowarfare programs and are unfamiliar with the great amount of scientific literature on the isolation and characterization of the botulism toxin, they wing it by shotgunning a few briefly described methods taken from first year biochemistry lab. Lucky you, I once taught biochemistry lab and recognized them.

You can use "cell fractionation," write the bioterrorists. Since "there are too many methods for cell fractionation," pick your own, they indicate.

"BEAD MILL HOMOGENIZATION" is described in half a page.

And ENZYMATIC LYSIS with lysozyme is given another half page.

But I'm betting your getting bored with this game. As bored as I was having to read "Preparation of Botulism Toxin" a year ago and arriving at the conclusion that it had been used as a prop to sell a scary story, one that certainly seems to have contributed to the idea that Islamo-terrorists could kill 200,000 people with botulism toxin if we don't buy a cure ahead of time.

Anyway, "Purification of Botulism Toxin" can't teach you to be a bioterrorist. That was the right message. Awkward, and certainly not scary, but the truth. Click here if you want more precise technical information on Clostridium botulinum than the authors of "Purification" had access to. And click here for even more. Nyah!

RELATED READING: From the Poisoner's Handbook to the Botox Shoe of Death! More from the little black books of jihadists.

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