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French terror plot: 25 convicted

The investigation for this trial culminated in December 2002 when Parisian police stormed two houses, one in the La Courneuve and another in the Romainville districts of Paris, France . Thereafter, in January 2004, authorities dismantled a network in Venissieux. Police concluded that the cell was plotting attacks, possibly with chemical weapons, in Paris, as the Interior Minister said he had “no doubt ‘one or several terrorist attacks were being planned in the relatively short-term'” (source). While definitive targets were not identified, the Russian Embassy, a police station, Commercial Centre at Les Halles, and the Eiffel Tower may have been targets. In the French trial, five of the top defendants, all believed to be of Algerian origin, received between 8-10-year prison sentences for their involvement in plots against France. Two of the 25 were acquitted. Interestingly, 24 of the defendants were also accused of aiding the “globalization of the jihad movement” in Chechnya and Afghanistan , and they were convicted of criminal association to a “terrorist enterprise.” The 25th defendant was charged with using false documents. While prosecutors contended that the 25 were plotting to use chemical weapons, no substantiated evidence was brought forward, despite investigators having discovered electronic and chemical equipment?”gas canisters, fuses, chemicals and a suit to protect against chemical attacks”?cash, false documents, and ricin. This case centered primarily on one family: the Benchellalis. The group’s suspected chemical expert, Menad Benchellali, received the full 10-year sentence for suspected chemical and biological experimentation and was believed to have trained in Georgia , while his father Imam Chellali Benchellali received a 1.5-year sentence, despite being known by authorities to raise funds for Islamist rebels in Chechnya. Chellali’s wife, Hafsa, and son, Hafed, were also among the 24 convictions; they faced terrorist financing charges. Menad’s brother, Mourad, while not involved in this particular plot, trained in Afghan camps and was held at Guantanamo Bay in the aftermath of 9/11 and was extradited to France in 2004 to face terrorism charges?affiliation to al-Qaeda ?there (source). His involvement in the jihad should have alerted authorities to the possibility that his immediate family might, too, be involved. Others include: Maamar Ouazane, who turned state’s evidence; Merouane Benhamed, who is believed to have been the leader and was sentenced to 10-years as well; Nourredine Merabet, the group’s financier; and Said Arif, who was extradited from Syria . While the Benchellali family has been in a Les Minguettes, a dilapidated suburb of Lyon, for some time, Prosecutor Anne Kostomaroff contends that the cell came from Algeria in 1999. Some of the members were part of an amnesty plan offered to Islamist insurgents, namely the Armed Algerian Group (GIA, Group Profile), there. While insurgents dispersed throughout Europe (and elsewhere), a specific cell formed in Paris toward the end of 2000 in solidarity to their Islamist brethren in Chechnya. While little has yet been released, Menad Benchellali may have been “the chemist” who provided ricin to Abu Hamza, the Finsbury Park Mosque imam in London (source). After completing his training in Afghanistan, possibly in Derunta camp (notorious for chem/bio training), he traveled to Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge, which borders Chechnya. About that time, he told authorities he wished to join the Chechen Rebel movement, but could not cross the Russian border successfully (source), so he returned to Lyon in 2001 and began experimenting with ricin in his parents’ home. His experiments were concealed in glass flasks and Nivea cream jars. In 2003, 13 North Africans, believed to be members of Ansar al-Islam , in London were detained with similar containers. Raids in Britain , France, Spain , Russia, Georgia,

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