Preliminary tests conducted by MSNBC.com indicate that the deadly toxins ricin and botulinum were present on two items found at a camp in a remote mountain region of northern Iraq allegedly used as a terrorist training center by Islamic militants with ties to the al-Qaida terrorist network. The field tests used by MSNBC.com are only a first step in the evidentiary process and are typically followed by more precise laboratory testing that MSNBC.com has not conducted. U.S. intelligence agents were conducting their own tests in the same area and had not yet released their results, according to officials in northern Iraq.
MSNBC.com conducted the tests over a two-day period at Sargat, an alleged terrorist training camp a mile from the Iraq-Iran border. MSNBC.com purchased the test kits commercially. The field tests, developed by Osborn Scientific Group in Lakeside, Ariz., are regarded by some experts as very effective and have been used by U.N. weapons inspectors and federal government agents around the Sept. 11, 2001, attack site in New York City.
The Sargat camp, set back in an isolated valley and surrounded by snow-capped peaks, was home to the radical Islamic militant group Ansar al-Islam, which counts among its some 700 followers scores of al-Qaida fighters.
In a Feb. 5 speech to the U.N. Security Council, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell showed a satellite photo of the Sargat camp and described Ansar al-Islam as “teaching its operatives how to produce ricin and other poisons.” U.S. officials have repeated the allegations in recent weeks.
In an operation timed to coincide with the war on Iraq, U.S. special operations forces have targeted Ansar al-Islam’s militants in northern Iraq. Hundreds of Islamists, including al-Qaida fighters who took refuge in northern Iraq after the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan, have been killed.
Although U.S. officials for months have leveled charges that the Ansar al-Islam and al-Qaida militants were producing poisons in northern Iraq, it wasn’t until this week that specialist U.S. teams were able to gain access to the Sargat camp to test for traces of biological and chemical weapons.
Experts believe the Islamic group was producing the substances in the camp. Both toxins can be created from everyday products and simple procedures.
TERRORISTS TEMPTED BY TOXINS
MSNBC.com’s samples of ricin and botulinum, two deadly biological agents, were taken from the soles of a boot and a shoe recovered from the Sargat camp. The facility has been flattened by several Tomahawk cruise missiles, fired as part of the U.S. campaign against Ansar al-Islam.
The thick rubber boot twice tested positive for ricin, a toxin derived from castor beans. Ingesting a pinch of ricin, which causes shock and respiratory failure, can kill a human being within 72 hours. There is no cure.
A black running shoe, shredded by the U.S. bombing, tested positive for botulinum. U.S. officials say terrorists have a particular interest in botulinum and ricin toxins, which may be delivered through release in food and water. Botulism, the illness resulting from botulinum ingestion, is a muscle-paralyzing disease that can cause a person to stop breathing and die, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.
Since Sept. 11, 2001, law enforcement officials have seen an increase in attempts to produce deadly toxins like ricin and botulinum.
In Britain, anti-terrorism authorities in January charged four men with producing deadly agents after they found traces of ricin in a north London apartment. More than a dozen arrests have been made in the investigation.
InsertArt(1852622)On Thursday, the FBI issued a warning to Americans that deadly agents such as ricin and botulinum could be used to contaminate the nation’s water or food supply.
And in France, police are on alert after recently finding traces of ricin in flasks in a train station locker in Paris.
The territory of northern Iraq where the traces of ricin were detected is not under the control of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.
Baghdad admitted to U.N. weapons inspectors in the 1990s that it had successfully weaponized ricin, botulinum and anthrax. There is no immediate evidence that suggests Saddam’s regime provided the easily produced toxins to Ansar al-Islam or al-Qaida.
A test for anthrax at the Sargat camp gave a negative result.
WIDELY USED TEST
The Osborne tests are widely admired by experts, according to Dr. Sue Bailey, an NBC News analyst and former assistant secretary of defense for health issues during the Clinton administration. Known as “BioWarfare Agent Detection Devices,” they were used by U.N. weapons inspectors in Iraq before their departure ahead of the U.S.-led war against Saddam.
Dr. Robert Bohannon, the inventor of the test, said in a telephone interview that numerous U.S. federal agencies employ the tests in the field. He said the tests were developed to give a rapid “yes-no” result in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington, when several U.S. federal agencies realized they required effective and rapid field tests to detect chemical and biological agents possibly used by terrorists.
“To swab a boot is perfectly acceptable,” Bohannon said. The Osborn Scientific Group’s test is widely used by federal agencies as a first step in the “evidentiary chain,” Bohannon said. “It will tell you very, very fast if it’s got a credible amount of material.”
Bohannon, a former U.S. military scientist at the Dugway Proving Ground in Utah, said government experts would likely also subject their samples to a gas chromatography mass spectrometer, an apparatus that gives a breakdown of the elements and composition of the sample. The GCMS is also used to analyze urine samples for the presence of drugs.
In recent days, specialist chemical-biological survey teams have collected samples from camps used by Islamic militants in northern Iraq. At least two teams visited the Sargat camp, taking similar rapid field tests and collecting samples to be sent to the United States for further analysis, according to U.S. special operations forces officers speaking on condition of anonymity in northern Iraq.
U.S. special operations forces officials said this week they had found recipes for ricin and other toxins at camps in northern Iraq.
In several visits to the Sargat camp, MSNBC.com uncovered material that could be used for terrorist purposes, including a list of chemical elements frequently found in explosives.
The list, written in Arabic, also includes notations on where chemicals such as nitric acid, which can be used to make components of the explosive Semtex, can commonly be found.
(MSNBC.com’s Preston Mendenhall is on assignment in northern Iraq. Greg Mathieson contributed to this report.)