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France Uncovers al-Qaeda Bombers

Posted Jan. 8, 2003

By Kenneth R. Timmerman in Paris

(Jan. 31-Feb. 14, 2003 issue)


Despite the arrests, French antiterrorist judge Bruguière says the threat remains 'very, very high.'

The French police struck just in time, penetrating deep into a housing project in the Paris suburbs on Dec. 16 where for years Islamic radicals have made their nest, hiding among the predominantly Muslim immigrant population. More than 100 police and a 30-member SWAT team stormed the "Cité des 4000" in La Courneuve, carrying assault rifles with laser sights. When they picked up Marwan Ben-Ahmed, 29, a French-Algerian dual national, he had collected all the ingredients for a large bomb and was planning to strike during the Christmas holidays, possibly against the U.S. or Russian embassies in Paris.

In his apartment, police found packages of iron perchlorate and other chemicals which, when mixed together, can make a powerful explosive. They also seized two empty propane canisters, $5,000 in cash, fake passports and a computer with coded instructions. During a second search two days later, they found timers and detonators hidden in a washing machine. Police also arrested Ben-Ahmed's wife and two accomplices, identified as Mohamed Merbah and Ahmed Belhoud.

But it was the discovery of a military-issue nuclear-biological-chemical (NBC) protection suit and bottles of toxic chemicals that most alarmed investigators, leading to speculation that Ben-Ahmed and his network were planning a chemical attack or had gained access to nuclear waste and were hoping to make a "dirty bomb" that would irradiate the greater-Paris area. Fears that al-Qaeda terrorists were planning to detonate a dirty bomb in the Washington area kept NEST (Nuclear Emergency Search Team) busy for months, as Insight revealed last year [see "A State of High Alert," Nov. 26, 2001], a problem that remains current [see "Searching for 'Dirty Bombs'" in this issue]. Although most experts agree that a single "dirty nuke" would cause little actual damage beyond that of the conventional explosive used to detonate it, the psychological impact of a radioactive cloud rising above a major city could create panic, making it a terrorist's weapon of choice.

Osama bin Laden has spoken repeatedly of his desire to acquire weapons of mass destruction and to use them against the West. Two years before Sept. 11, 2001, the Arab press was ripe with speculation that he had gained access to 20 nuclear "suitcase bombs" that were feared to have gone missing from the stockpiles of the former Soviet Union. Bin Laden's intentions never have been in doubt -- only his capabilities. So when the French discovered the NBC suit in Ben-Ahmed's tiny apartment in La Courneuve, they feared the worst and immediately ordered a thorough chemical analysis of every ingredient seized at the site.

In testimony the day after the arrests, French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy told members of parliament that Ben-Ahmed and his cell were in contact with another al-Qaeda operative named Rabah Kadri, arrested in London on Nov. 5 "on suspicion of planning a chemical attack" on the London subway system. Kadri eventually led them to Ben-Ahmed and his network in France. The French counterterrorist police arrested "19 persons in November alone who were working with terrorist services," Sarkozy revealed. Because of the risk of a chemical attack, "it was better to arrest them sooner rather than later," he added.

On Christmas Eve, the French suspicions were confirmed when police raided the Minguettes housing project outside the central French city of Lyons, where they found four more alleged al-Qaeda operatives along with lists of chemicals needed to make cyanide, the same chemical agent al-Qaeda networks were planning to use in London. They now believe Ben-Ahmed was planning to fill the propane canisters with a deadly poison gas in hopes of killing hundreds if not thousands of people and was coordinating his efforts with al-Qaeda cells in Britain and elsewhere.

"Marwan Ben-Ahmed is a big fish," a source close to the investigation tells Insight. Trained in bomb-making techniques at bin Laden camps in Afghanistan, the French have linked him to multiple al-Qaeda bomb plots. They now believe he was one of several bomb-makers involved in a narrowly averted attack on the Christmas street market in Strasbourg, France, in December 2000. Police in Italy have tied him to an extensive al-Qaeda network in Milan that they have been dismantling piece by piece during the last 18 months. Thanks to information found on Ben-Ahmed's computer and other material evidence seized at his apartment, Scottish police arrested three North African men in Edinburgh and asked their English colleagues to arrest four others in London. Commenting on those arrests, Prime Minister Tony Blair said the al-Qaeda terrorist threat against Britain was "serious" and "real."

After Ben-Ahmed's initial interrogation, a spokesman for the French Interior Minister told reporters that although Ben-Ahmed "never admitted he was preparing an attack, there can be no doubt, given the evidence we found, that one or several terrorist acts was being prepared." Despite these latest arrests, "the threat level remains very, very high against European and against American targets," French investigative magistrate Jean-Louis Bruguière tells Insight in Paris.

Bruguière and his colleague Jean-François Ricard stumbled on Ben-Ahmed as they were investigating al-Qaeda's "Chechen connection." For the last 18 months La Direction de la Surveillance du Territoire, the French counterespionage service, has been tracking a group of North African extremists who were trained in the Pankisi Gorge region of Georgia and in neighboring Chechnya by two known al-Qaeda bomb-makers, a Saudi and a Jordanian national. Now they believe that top al-Qaeda leaders may have moved to Chechnya and are planning to attack Russian interests in Europe in cooperation with Chechen separatists. On Dec. 27, two trucks loaded with explosives and driven by suicide bombers destroyed the government-headquarters building in Grozna, Chechnya's capital.

French investigators discovered key information about the al-Qaeda network operating in France while interrogating two French citizens of Algerian origin who turned up among the Taliban prisoners taken to Guantanamo, Cuba. Murad Ben-Chelalli, 23, and a friend named Nizar Sassi left France for bin Laden camps in Afghanistan in June 2001 before they were captured by allied forces. Ben-Chelalli's 28-year-old brother, Menad, was arrested on Dec. 24 outside of Lyons. Their father became the imam of the local mosque and fought in Bosnia in 1994 before sending his sons to Afghanistan and Chechnya.

Until last spring, Islamic radicals operated without fear in the housing projects on the outskirts of Paris and Lyons. They bought guns, mixed explosives, sold drugs and used the phones. They recruited at local mosques. In many cases, police feared to enter the Muslim-dominated areas. Lawlessness was so rampant that it became the major campaign issue during the April 2002 presidential elections in France.

"Since then, we have a new doctrine," a French justice-ministry official tells Insight. "No place is off-limits. We are on the front lines of this war and we intend to fight it with all our resources. There are no more gray zones."

Just hours after he was appointed last April, Interior Minister Sarkozy donned a bulletproof vest and toured local mosques and housing projects in the Paris suburbs, putting community leaders on notice that the new center-right government no longer would tolerate lawlessness.

In a recent television debate, Sarkozy acknowledged that Islam has become the "second religion of France," and that French Muslims are "French 100 percent." He said he would help the Muslim community build a representative institution that more effectively could defend the interests of French Muslims. The estimated 5 million to 6 million French Muslims, mainly from North Africa, account for roughly 10 percent of the French population.

But Sarkozy also said he told French Muslim leaders that "no foreign money" would be allowed or tolerated in France as long as he was in charge of the French police. In exchange, he pledged French taxpayer money to build mosques. Until now, the governments of Saudi Arabia, Algeria and Morocco have built mosques and Islamic schools in France and subsidized their operating expenses.

U.S. diplomats in France said they are being "briefed regularly" by the French on threats to the U.S. Embassy in Paris and other high-profile American targets. They described U.S.-French cooperation on terrorism cases as "excellent," despite high-profile threats by President Jacques Chirac to suspend cooperation until the United States formally pledges not to seek the death penalty against Zacarias Moussaoui, a dual French-Moroccan citizen facing federal charges in Virginia for his alleged involvement in the Sept. 11 plot.

Kenneth R. Timmerman is a senior writer for Insight magazine.

Copyright © 2002 News World Communications, Inc.