An Al Qaeda 'Chemist' and the Quest for Ricin
For would-be terrorists, however, ricin is appealing for a single reason: accessibility.
"The technology for making it is low enough that literally any crank working in his basement can create a ricin preparation of some sort," said Jonathan Tucker, a biological weapons expert with the Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. "You can't do that as easily with anthrax."
The raw materials for ricin are cheap. The toxin naturally exists in castor beans, which grow wild in many parts of the world, including the United States, where the plants are prized by gardeners and landscapers as an ornamental shrub. Brazil, China and India grow industrial quantities of the colorful, plump beans to make castor oil, which is used in products ranging from laxatives and shampoos to lubricating oils. A single castor bean, if chewed, contains enough ricin to kill a child. Al Qaeda's interest in ricin dates to at least the late 1990s. Two terrorism manuals seized from al Qaeda operatives in several locations contain detailed instructions on making and using the toxin. One was found by British journalists in November 2001 at a deserted al Qaeda safe house in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan. Another was titled, "The Encyclopedia of Jihad," and commends ricin as one of the "poisons that the holy warrior can prepare and use without endangering his health."
Training From Al Qaeda
Many of the details of Benchellali's ricin experiments -- including how much he made and how he intended to use it -- remain unknown. But after a year-long probe, French investigators have pieced together a chronology of his activities. This account is based on interviews with investigators, a family member, neighbors and French journalists, and the transcripts of police interrogations of Benchellali.
The son of an Algerian-born Muslim cleric, Benchellali grew up in a gritty Lyon suburb, Les Minguettes, notable for its thickets of towering public housing complexes and 30-percent unemployment rate. As a boy, he witnessed his father's confrontations with the French government over laws banning Islamic head coverings for school girls. Although he developed a fondness for nice cars and clothes, he saw few opportunities for obtaining them, or for gaining full acceptance as a Muslim and Arab in France, according to family acquaintances.
"As an Arab living here, the only area of society where you are truly accepted is religion," said Mustapha Kessous, a Lyon journalist and radio talk-show host who has written extensively about the Benchellali family and Lyon's immigrant community. "To anyone meeting you on the street, you are a Muslim and an Arab first, not a Frenchman."
Police are uncertain how Benchellali first connected with al Qaeda. In the late 1990s, according to U.S. and French intelligence officials, he traveled to Afghanistan to train in one of several camps that the group established for foreign recruits. On one of his later trips he was accompanied by his younger brother Mourad, who eventually was captured by U.S. forces in Afghanistan and is now being held at the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
U.S. officials believe Menad Benchellali may have received advanced training at al Qaeda's Derunta camp, near the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad. The camp housed one of al Qaeda's labs and a school for a select group of recruits who studied the use of toxic chemicals and biological toxins, including ricin, U.S. intelligence sources say.
The instructors included at least two scientists: Yazid Sufaat, a U.S.-trained biochemist who is now in custody in Malaysia, and a Pakistani microbiologist who U.S. officials have declined to name. At Derunta, U.S. forces discovered castor oil and equipment for making ricin. "There is a lot of evidence of crude attempts to produce ricin," at Derunta, said a U.S. intelligence official who spoke on condition he not be identified by name.
After al Qaeda lost Afghan camps to invading U.S. forces in late 2001, Benchellali's chemical training shifted to the Pankisi Gorge, a lawless area in Georgia that borders Chechnya, the separatist republic in southern Russia, French authorities say. The existence of makeshift laboratories and training camps in the mountainous region has been documented by the Georgian government, which moved to close the camps early last year. Benchellali told police he had planned to join the Chechen rebels but was thwarted in his attempts to cross into Russia. He decided instead to return to France, taking with him new skills and a network of contacts spanning most of Western Europe.
Lab in a Spare Room
The apartment in suburban Lyon to which Benchellali returned two years ago is small but tidy, its thin green carpet and modest furnishings showing meticulous care. The dominant feature is a wall-length bookshelf filled with handsome brown leather volumes with titles in gold Arabic script. A young girl who answered the door recently explained that the dwelling had been nearly empty for weeks: Since early January, three members of the family -- both parents and a brother -- have been jailed pending trial on charges they aided Menad Benchellali's attempts to make ricin.
The lab was located in a spare bedroom that doubled by day as a sewing room. French police say Benchellali, fresh from training camp in the Pankisi Gorge, would lock himself in the room and work through the night on his mysterious projects, the nature of which he kept to himself. In fact, French police say, he was experimenting with a variation of one of the recipes he learned abroad: a ricin concoction laced with the toxin that causes botulism. While extremely toxic, ricin can be extracted using rudimentary kitchen equipment and can be handled without danger if a person takes basic precautions.
Family members acknowledged to police that they sometimes ran errands for Benchellali, picking up lab equipment and bottles of acetone from a local market. Acetone is used in the processing of the castor beans. "Menad would tell me what he needed, and I would make a list," one of his sisters told police, according to a transcript of her interrogation, which was relayed by a French investigator.
Benchellali's mother, Hafsa, told police she became concerned after finding strange potions and liquids scattered around her sewing room following one of her son's all-night sessions. But when she confronted her son, he warned her to stay away. "He said it was dangerous," the woman said, according to the transcript, "and it was better if I didn't know what he was doing."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Police officers walk past worshipers after a raid on the Finsbury Park mosque in north London in January 2003, when police found castor beans, traces of ricin and equipment for making the toxin in an apartment.
(Toby Melville -- Reuters)