The 2023 Castrop-Rauxel Plot and Continued Threat of Chemical and Biological Terrorism
On 8 January 2023, German police arrested two Iranians in the town of Castrop-Rauxel in North-Rhine Westphalia on suspicion of plotting a terrorist attack using ricin and cyanide. This is the second plot in Germany in five years that involved the alleged intent to use ricin after the 2018 Cologne ricin plot. Ricin is a plant-based toxin extracted from castor oil beans. It is categorized as a bioweapon that is deadly even in small quantities if injected, inhaled, swallowed, or spread on the skin. Cyanide is a chemical agent that is particularly lethal if inhaled or ingested in minute doses.
Although conventional methods of attacks using explosives and firearms remain the primary choice by lone-wolf actors and terror groups alike, the Castrop-Rauxel plot highlights a continued interest by terrorists in biological and chemical agents.
The main suspect in the case was a 32-year-old individual by the name of Monir J., who was arrested along with his brother (name unreported). Monir arrived in Germany in 2015 and attained a residence permit in the country. He allegedly posed as a Christian who was persecuted in Iran. His brother was reported to have been incarcerated for attempted murder and was apparently on weekend furlough at the time of the arrest.
The German security services were reportedly alerted to the plot by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in December 2022. The FBI had infiltrated a Telegram chat group where the brothers, believed to be Islamic State (IS) sympathizers, had enquired about the use of ricin and cyanide in terror attacks. They allegedly intended to strike around New Year’s Eve. However, German security services believed that they failed to acquire the precursors for the production of ricin, which delayed the attack. Traces of neither ricin nor cyanide were found at Monir J.’s residence during a search conducted by the security services.
Comparison with 2018 Cologne Ricin Plot
In 2018, a Tunisian national by the name of Sief Allah H. was arrested in an apartment in Cologne for plotting a bomb attack involving the use of ricin. Sief was married to a German national in Tunisia and moved to Germany in 2016. He had attempted to travel to Syria twice in 2017 (probably to join IS) but failed.
Sief was believed to have been in contact with at least two suspected individuals based in North Africa or Syria who provided him with information relating to ricin production and explosives via Telegram. Both individuals whom he was in contact with were linked to IS. Sief then procured castor oil beans online and produced more than 80 milligrams of ricin. His online purchases were detected by a British intelligence agency that subsequently alerted their German counterparts.
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Several similarities can be drawn from the above two cases. Both cases involved immigrants who had migrated to Germany and who were suspected of indirect links to IS. The use of encrypted online messaging applications such as Telegram as a means to share information and connect with other IS affiliates is also a common factor.
Ricin was the agent of choice in both the Cologne and Castrop-Rauxel case, and in both instances, it might have been chosen due to the relative ease with which one is able to acquire castor oil beans. Being a plant-based substance, it is widely available for purchase on the internet and has several other uses, namely as a treatment for hair and skin problems, among others. Cyanide, on the other hand, is a little more challenging to produce at home as compared to a lab as it involves the use of several lab-based chemicals as its precursors. However, several jihadi manuals are known to have elaborated on methods of producing cyanide from apple seeds. Both plots highlight the importance of efficient intelligence monitoring of online sites and social media groups, as well as that of intelligence-sharing between governments, which led to the interdiction of both plots.
The success of any terror plot involving chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear (CBRN) weapons is contingent upon three factors, i.e., the leadership of the group at the strategic level, acquisition of materials at the operational level, and technical capabilities at the tactical level. In the case of lone-wolf actors who are inspired rather than directed, the leadership factor may be discounted. However, without the support of technically sound individuals and the advantages of a lab-based environment, the ability to manufacture these weapons to a lethal grade is highly challenging.
Currently, it is unlikely that groups such as Al-Qaeda and IS have the political will, means, and technical capabilities to carry out a large-scale terror attack involving chemical and biological weapons. At present, the biggest threat in the chem-bio terror sphere is likely to stem from lone actors or cells that are inspired, as opposed to directed, low casualty plots/attacks involving the use of crude bio-agents or dual-use chemicals that are easily available commercially as shown by the Castrop-Rauxel plot.
Although the prevalence of chemical and biological terror plots has greatly reduced since Al-Qaeda’s failed attempts to develop these weapons in the early 2000s and more recently, after the downfall of IS in Iraq and Syria, the Castrop-Rauxel plot highlights the continued threat posed by individuals who are inspired by these groups’ ideologies and who have an interest in unconventional weapons. This together with the prevalence of encrypted messaging platforms and crevices within the online space where information and manuals are abundant is something that governments and their security services need to monitor. Without continued vigilance and monitoring, it is likely that someone at some point will succeed given the difficulties in detecting and preventing these plots.