PARIS — French officials claim they foiled a campaign of chemical and biological terrorist attacks in Western Europe by militants trained in the Caucasus region.
The arrest of several Arab Muslim activists in central France in late December has provided investigators with clues about the goals of a so-called “Chechen” terrorist network that was initially targeted a year ago in a first round of arrests near Paris. While authorities then said the network was aiming to strike the Russian embassy in Paris to avenge Moscow’s war in Chechnya, they now believe it was in fact preparing to use toxic gases against a variety of targets in Europe. In total, some 20 individuals have been detained, and some of those indicted. No one has been tried yet.
The investigation casts light on the ever-changing nature of radical Islamic networks. The suspects honed their skills in Chechnya and in a lawless region of neighboring Georgia rather than in the traditional Afghanistan training camps. French officials claim the would-be terrorists underwent sophisticated training that included fabricating deadly chemical and biological substances.
Western government officials and counterterrorism agents have repeatedly expressed concern that militant groups, especially Al Qaeda, were looking to use chemical and biological weapons.
Even though U.S. troops and reporters searching Al Qaeda warehouses in Afghanistan found some documents indicating an interest in such weapons, no clear evidence has emerged that the group has acquired them.
In May 2002, U.S. authorities arrested Jose Padilla, a former gang leader who converted to Islam, and accused him of planning a “dirty bomb” attack. He is being held in a military brig without access to a court or a lawyer.
In December of that year, acting on intelligence, French investigative judges Jean-Louis Bruguiere and Jean-Francois Ricard ordered the detention of a group of Arabs near Paris. According to a person closely involved in the case, the police discovered a “mini chemical laboratory”: substances used in the fabrication of explosives and toxic gases, a handwritten list of products that can be used to manufacture deadly chemical substances, and part of high-tech military protective gear.
Even though authorities did not find actual chemical or biological substances, they alleged that the group was plotting an attack. One of the suspects allegedly admitted that one target was the Russian embassy.
A few days later, British investigators found traces of ricin, a highly toxic substance, in a London apartment. Officials then said militants may have been planning to spread the substance on door handles in public spaces.
After months of investigation, the French conducted another raid, in the Lyon region, in late December and said they discovered that one suspect was indeed planning to manufacture ricin and botulism toxins in his home and had told acquaintances he was ready to use them.
Once again, though no lethal substances were actually found, investigators believe an attack was in the operational stage. And they now believe that the group intended to target several European countries using chemical and biological weapons.
The authorities have said that, while some of the suspects went to Afghanistan for training, others then traveled to the Pankissi region in Georgia close to the Chechen border, where they made contact with senior Al Qaeda officials who specialized in chemical weapons. Washington has dispatched U.S. troops to work alongside Georgian soldiers in the region in a bid to flesh out any Al Qaeda presence.
An October 2002 report by French counterintelligence officials, cited by the French media, concluded that 20 Muslims from Western Europe had returned from Chechnya and the Pankissi region in late 2001. The French media also said intelligence officials believe that some of these militants met with two Al Qaeda chiefs — one of them a Jordanian named Adnan Muhamad Sadik, also known as Abu Atiya, who is said to be a toxic gas expert.
Next, the suspected militants allegedly traveled to Western Europe through Turkey.
“The training they had undergone over there was much harder than in Afghanistan,” said one source close to the investigation. “They had acquired much higher technological skills, in terms of the weapons used — they trained on chemical and toxic weapons and sophisticated explosive systems.”
The source held out the possibility that some militants might have acquired their chemical and biological know-how while fighting with Soviet forces before the collapse of the USSR.
“Some Islamic networks have come under the control of Al Qaeda,” said the source, citing Chechen rebel leader Chamil Bassaev as the main example. “It is not popular to say this in France because people see the war as a national freedom fight. But only seeing the brutal Russian repression and denying the threat is wrong and irresponsible in terms of security.”