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Tuesday, January 13, 2004

Al Qaeda Terror Plot foiled in France

The Guardian (UK): The French police are convinced that their country has escaped a planned chemical or biological attack by an Islamist cell linked to al-Qaida. An interior ministry official said evidence from Islamist militants arrested in the Lyon area last week made it "very plain" that an attack with the deadly botulism or ricin toxins was being actively prepared.

The eight suspects arrested on Tuesday were mainly relatives of Menad Benchellali, the son of a radical imam in the Lyon suburb of Venisseux, who has been in jail since December 2002, when he was arrested during a police investigation of French Islamists' efforts to send young Muslim volunteers to fight the Russian forces in Chechnya.

The ministry official, who asked not to be named, confirmed a report in Le Monde that the suspects admitted to the police that Mr Benchellali was a chemicals expert who had been trained in poison-making in al-Qaida camps in Afghanistan and was actively trying to produce a botulism toxin and ricin.

He had tested his chemicals on animals, they said.

Mr Benchellali's arrest was said at the time to have thwarted suicide bomb attacks on Russian targets in Paris, including the embassy.

But Tuesday's arrests have proved a "goldmine" of further "unexpected but unsettling" evidence, the official said.

"After last year's arrests we thought we were dealing with a group planning bomb attacks on Russian interests, and possibly supplying false papers, money and lodgings to Chechens," an investigator said. "It now seems a cell around the Benchellali family was trying to manufacture chemical and biological weapons for attacks around Europe."

Those arrested last week included Mr Benchellali's father, Chellali, a well-known and controversial radical imam; his mother; his brother Hafed; and his sister Anissa. Another of his brothers, Mourad, is among six French nationals suspected of having ties to al-Qaida held by the US authorities at Guantanamo Bay.

Two women were released on Saturday, their lawyer, Jacques Debray, said, but six others were expected to be brought before the anti-terrorist magistrate, Jean-Louis Bruguiere, in Paris today.

About 150 Muslims in Venisseux protested against the arrests on Saturday. Muslim organisations asked people to gather in the market square and read a statement calling the arrests "a message to intimidate all France's Muslims".

Le Monde said the imam had admitted that he was aware of his son's chemical experiments, the products of which were stored in Nivea face cream jars and 70cl flasks and later given to a local chemist, identified only as Mourad M, for safekeeping. Several relatives had helped buy 9-10kg of ingredients.

As little as one drop of the botulism toxin released into a building's ventilation system can be fatal. Ricin is one of the deadliest poisons to occur naturally, many times deadlier than cyanide and capable of being given in food and drink without affecting the taste.

The police are investigating whether the Lyon discovery is related to the British anti-terrorism police's seizure of ricin in a flat above a chemist's shop in north London in January last year. At the time Scotland Yard said it might have been part of an untraced wider shipment. Tiny traces were found in a left-luggage locker at the Gare de Lyon in Paris in March.
Testing on animals? Wait til PETA hears about this!