Always looking for the latest implausible terrorist attack method, US officials are citing “classified intelligence reports” claiming that al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has been trying to buy large quantities of castor beans, which they assume means they are going to try a poisonous attack.
Castor beans are used to create castor oil, a common food additive and industrial lubricant. The beans also contain the toxin ricin, an extremely poisonous protein popularly linked to a large number of fruitless terrorist attacks.
Recently retired Obama aide Michael Leiter noted that it is not hard to develop ricin and that its use in an attack “would have a significant psychological impact.” At the same time, officials say, there are no indication that such an attack is imminent.
Indeed, though the production is trivial its utility is minimal, and the US abandoned efforts to weaponize ricin decades ago after toying with the idea of ricin cluster bomblets. The fact that the protein breaks down in dry, sunny conditions also makes it an extremely bad choice for production in the Yemeni desert.
In fact, it seems the “significant psychological impact” of such an attack is as high if not higher without the actual attack, so it seems entirely possible that the whole plot amounted to buying a lot of castor beans under the assumption that it would fuel speculation about an extremely unrealistic threat.