An Al Qaeda 'Chemist' and the Quest for Ricin
The experiments ended abruptly in December 2002 when Benchellali was arrested along with three others in connection with an alleged plot to bomb the Russian Embassy in Paris with conventional explosives. Months passed before terrorism investigators became fully aware of the ricin experiments and the extent of Benchellali's possible ties with al Qaeda's biological and chemical programs abroad. On Jan. 10, 2004, police raided the family's apartment in a search for weapons and equipment, but by then any traces of ricin that might have existed had vanished, French officials said.
Relatives and neighbors contend that the government's claims about Benchellali are wildly exaggerated. Jacques Debray, a lawyer representing the Benchellali family, said he believed that France's arrest of the parents was partly a pressure tactic to extract confessions -- including possible new leads to assist the U.S. government in its prosecution of Mourad Benchellali, the son held prisoner at Guantanamo Bay. "Such information could clearly improve relations with the United States," Debray said.
French terrorism officials, however, are convinced that the arrests halted a terrorist attack and likely saved lives -- and not just in France. But the details of such plans for an attack are not known.
"Members of this group had training in chemical and biological weapons," said a senior French terrorism investigator who spoke on the condition he not be identified by name. "We know they wanted to develop poisons and use them to create panic. It was to be one tool among many."
Plots Across Europe
Menad Benchellali's arrest gave police a breakthrough that led to the unmasking of other plots and terror cells in Europe.
In January 2003, prompted by French discoveries in the Benchellali case, British police raided apartments in London, Bournemouth and Manchester and apprehended 13 North African men suspected of ties to al Qaeda and an affiliated terrorist group, Ansar al-Islam. In one of the London apartments authorities found castor beans, traces of ricin and equipment for making the toxin. Later that month, Spanish police arrested 16 North Africans and seized additional equipment, chemicals and false passports.
French officials believe the Spanish, British and French cells were communicating with one another and coordinating their activities, especially those related to obtaining toxins and poisons. Members of all three groups had spent time at the same Pankisi Gorge camp. Yet, more than a year after Benchellali's arrest, European and U.S. counterterrorism officials are not convinced that all members of the network have been identified.
The Bush administration has said it believes more than 100 militants were part of the same cluster of terrorist cells that allegedly included Benchellali. It also contends that members of the network took orders from Abu Musab Zarqawi, a Jordanian-born Palestinian terrorist believed to have organized recent suicide bombings in Iraq. While other governments are less certain about the command structure, there is wide agreement among counterterrorism officials that additional sleeper cells continue to operate in Europe, Asia and possibly North America.
"They are honing their skills and awaiting instructions," said Jacquard, the French terrorism expert. "They make what they want and they raise their own money. Some may not be sophisticated. But they communicate with more professional and trained individuals who are operating under the last orders they received from leaders of al Qaeda."
Terrorism experts say an attack with ricin probably would not cause massive casualties, though it could kill or sicken dozens or even hundreds under the right conditions. Even a small-scale attack could cause panic and disrupt commerce and government services, as was illustrated two months ago when the discovery of ricin traces on a mail-sorting machine shut down Senate office buildings for several days.
"These are toxins that, if released in a enclosed space, could cause extreme harm," said Jeffrey M. Bale, an expert on chemical and biological terrorism at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. "There's no doubt that the groups we're seeing today could carry out such an attack. What surprises me is that that they haven't already done so."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company