Al-Qaeda’s Yemen Branch Pursues Lethal Toxin: U.S.

Confidential U.S. intelligence assessments suggest the al-Qaeda branch in Yemen has for more than 12 months pursued bulk supplies of castor beans and other precursor materials to the lethal toxin ricin, the New York Times reported on Friday (see GSN, May 9).
Operatives for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula have been seeking to transfer the materials to a secret location in Yemen’s Shabwa Province, a difficult-to-access area outside the central government’s control, according to findings cited by intelligence officers. Indications suggest the group intends to lace compact bombs with quantities of the poison — a chalky, colorless substance that can be deadly in very small doses — and attempt to detonate the weapons in shopping centers, transit hubs or other crowded areas with limited ventilation, the officials said (see GSN, July 26).

President Obama and top national security officials have regularly received information since 2010 on the ricin operation, according to senior staffers. No indications have emerged of plans to carry out a strike with the toxin in the short term, high-level U.S. government sources said.

A number of analysts said the terrorist organization continues to grapple with a means of employing ricin for maximum harm. Ricin would persist poorly in Yemen’s hot, low-moisture climate, and the material cannot quickly reach the circulatory system through the body’s surface like other unconventional weapons, government sources added.

Still, the al-Qaeda branch’s history of following through on attack plans has prompted high-level U.S. government insiders to follow its ricin efforts seriously, those officials said (see GSN, July 29). The organization was behind a Nigerian man’s attempt to detonate explosives on a Detroit-bound airliner in late 2009 (see GSN, Jan. 26), as well as the concealment of bombs inside printer cartridges mailed to Chicago last year (see GSN, Nov. 3, 2010). Each of the attempted strikes was foiled in a late stage of execution.

An undisclosed official panel established following the bomb mailings has concentrated on the al-Qaeda branch’s ricin operation, and it has cooperated closely with Saudi intelligence officers and elements of Yemen’s tattered intelligence sector, high-level U.S. officials said. The group has tapped details obtained in the questioning of a senior Somali extremist, captured four months ago by Navy SEALs, who was linked to the Yemeni al-Qaeda affiliate, they said.

“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-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen, is very, very real,” former National Counterterrorism Center Director Michael Leiter said in July. “It’s not hard to develop ricin.”

Osama bin Laden’s demise more than three months ago, along with CIA strikes using unmanned aerial vehicles, have sapped the potential for al-Qaeda’s central administration in Pakistan to undertake a significant attack, according to various Obama administration officials. Other al-Qaeda groups have emerged as a more significant concern to the United States and its international stakes, and U.S. officials said al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula poses the most immediate danger.

“That line of threat has never abated,” one U.S. official said. “That’s been taken seriously by this government. What we know about [al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula] is that they do what they say.”

“Brothers with less experience in the fields of microbiology or chemistry, as long as they possess basic scientific knowledge, would be able to develop other poisons such as ricin or cyanide,” the organization said last year in its online English-language publication, Inspire, in the column, “Tips for Our Brothers in the United States of America” (Schmitt/Shanker, New York Times, Aug. 12).