Skip to comments.A Glimpse Behind the Plot Against the American Embassy in Paris
Posted on 10/27/2001 5:40:41 PM PDT by Pokey78
The chemicals were stored in vats in the basement of an Egyptian restaurant in downtown Brussels. The suicide bomber, a former soccer player who had fallen into drug use and petty crime, had been selected. The target, the American Embassy in Paris, had been scouted.
All that remained was the signal from Osama bin Laden's operatives in Afghanistan to strike. The nod was to come from a Frenchman of Algerian origin who was on his way back from training in Afghanistan.
But he was arrested in transit, and he talked, spilling to French interrogators details of what could have been one of the deadliest terrorist attacks in France in more than a decade.
The police in Belgium, France, the Netherlands and Spain, acting on tips from his confession and being extra active after the terror attacks on Sept. 11, set up surveillance. A large manhunt from working- class immigrant neighborhoods that ring French cities through mosques in London that were apparently clearinghouses all the way to Afghanistan was under way.
After a leak late last month to the French press produced unwanted publicity, however, alleged militants apparently scrambled to escape the expected sting. There was a series of hasty arrests.
But the chance to observe over the long term a militant Islamic network as it planned attacks on American interests and to make perhaps dozens of arrests was lost.
Nonetheless, law enforcement officials across Europe said the embassy plot gave them a glimpse of how Mr. bin Laden has operated in their midst and offered clues about Sept. 11, as well as how future plots might unfold. The plotters, the officials said, were students, fathers and delinquents. Some came from middle-class households that embraced modernity. Many grew up in Europe and did not even speak Arabic.
There were converts to Islam, called "white moors." Others came from the underclass in the Middle East that found its solace in militant Islam. The leaders were often veterans of wars in Afghanistan, Bosnia and Chechnya. All were inconspicuous in the West, making it hard to identify them as potential terrorists. Some had completed university studies. Two had municipal jobs, and one was a community organizer.
At the center of the plot was Jamal Beghal, 36, a Frenchman of Algerian origin. Those who have known him speak of his exceptionally clear green eyes, his charisma and his lovely French wife, Sylvie. A home movie of Mr. Beghal from a few years ago shows him, bearded, in his small living room in a housing project outside Paris. He holds his small daughter in his arms, plays with her and makes her say, "Allah akbar," "God is great," for the camera.
"I spoke often with his wife, a petite blonde-haired woman," said Mr. Beghal's neighbor, Lydia Sassier, 43, a mother of four. "I spoke with him. They were very quiet people, very reserved. You would have never imagined. His wife was so nice, so kind. She had a Ford Sierra, gray metallic. It was always breaking down. She had a job. We do not know what Beghal did. But he was handsome, with bright eyes. He let his beard grow at the end. But he always wore Western clothes. And then one night four years ago, they all disappeared."
Ms. Sassier spoke at home in the drab l'Ermitage project in suburban Corbeil-Essones, an environment that French intelligence officials say has provided fodder for other terrorists.
Mr. Beghal, born in Bordj Bou Arreridj, Algeria, arrived in l'Ermitage as a child. He grew up surrounded by the five huge seven-story blocks with other North African immigrants. His three-room apartment on the first floor, C-5, still has his name on the mailbox.
But the French authorities say another conspirator, Kamel Daoudi, 27, lived in Mr. Beghal's apartment after he left. Mr. Daoudi was said to be in charge of communications, and when news of Mr. Beghal's arrest was broadcast, he managed to travel as far as England before being picked up and returned to France.
Mr. Beghal first came to the attention of the French police in 1994 in a wave of arrests of suspected members of a group of armed Algerians. He was jailed for three months and released. On his release, Mr. Beghal left for England and fell into a circle of radical clerics based in mosques and prayer centers in London and Leicester that French officials see as central to Mr. bin Laden's movement. "They are Osama bin Laden's representatives in Europe," an official of the Interior Ministry said.
The British police have closely observed the clerics, one reason that they were able to detain Mr. Beghal so swiftly. The police say the clerics themselves have broken no laws.
Mr. Beghal began to disseminate videocassettes and propaganda on the war in Chechnya. He came under the sway of a militant cleric, Abu Qatada, a Palestinian refugee in London since 1994 and a former fighter in Afghanistan. Mr. Beghal raised money for Muslim fighters in Chechnya and spoke to groups around Europe about militant Islam, French intelligence officials said.
In November 2000, Mr. Beghal left to train in a camp in Afghanistan. He took his family with him. Mrs. Beghal, now wearing traditional Muslim clothing, gave birth to their third child while they were there. In July, after passing through Pakistan, he was arrested in Dubai on his way to Morocco. Mrs. Beghal and the children remained in Pakistan.
Before leaving Afghanistan, he later told French intelligence officials, he had a meeting in the house of an associate of Mr. bin Laden, Abu Zoubeida. He was told to plan the embassy attack for the end of the year or early next year.
Mr. Beghal told the intelligence officials that he was to declare his passport lost in Morocco to wipe out a record of his travels; pick up 300,000 francs, $60,000; head to Spain and then back to France.
The plotters, he said, were instructed to buy a minivan at a car fair in Paris. Under the plan, the van would eventually be packed full of explosives and driven into the embassy gates by a former soccer player, Nizar Trabelsi, who may have met the suspected hijacking ringleader, Mohamed Atta, in Spain in the summer. All communication was to be made through the Internet with coded messages.
The designated suicide bomber, Mr. Trabelsi, had a disappointing career as a professional soccer player in Germany, often not training and squandering his chances. He stopped playing soccer in 1995, drank heavily, used cocaine and was a small-time drug dealer, the Belgian police said. He served prison time in 1994 in Düsseldorf for trafficking in cocaine.
Out of work and divorced, he fell in with Islamic militants. Eventually he went to train in Afghanistan.
When the Belgian police raided Mr. Trabelsi's apartment in a middle-class suburb of Brussels, Uccle, on Sept. 13, they found an Uzi and a list of chemical products to make explosives. The police soon found 220 pounds of sulfur and 16 gallons of acetone in the basement of the Nile, a small coffee shop in Brussels.
The Belgians and the French say the Brussels cell was sloppy. The police knew most of its moves and had watched the group for months.
"These plotters were not very clever," an official of the Interior Ministry said. "They bought all their chemicals at the same place. They might as well have left a calling card for our intelligence service."
The plotters resembled the hijackers in the United States in failing to fit the profile of past terrorists. The police in Europe harbor little doubt that some cells have escaped the current dragnet.
"These people are pulled from our midst," said a French official in the Interior Ministry. "They were educated in France. Many have jobs. They are almost impossible to detect. If they get a little more sophistication and training, we could all be in more trouble."
Why are they still being "observed", instead of raided, arrested, and bulldozed? Are we serious about winning this "war" (sic) on terrorism or not?
"Think globally, act locally."
To the last question: No. I'm still waiting for a raid on CAIR.
Nothing will happen until after another 9-11 level event, after which "students" and others on visas may be subject to review under Rule 308.
My "optimistic" (very ironic, that) answer is that through surveilance we hope to locate the WMDs that are already here.
Not that my optimism puts me at any ease.
Another article in tomorrow's NY Times, Jubilant Calls on Sept. 11 Led to F.B.I. Arrests , says that bin Laden no longer phones people so that he cannot be tracked, but uses messengers instead. Somebody presumably gave Atta the go-ahead during his last trip to Europe, in July of this year. I wonder if we will ever learn who the messenger was.
These guys seem to have had particularly bad opsec. Not that Atta's bunch, from what we hear, had much better. The European authorities could pick their bad actors up, our authorities did not. Of course, I suspect that's because Atta's bunch had protection, from the CIA or some such.
Key word: "reasonably"
I say we put them on the first Blackbird to Turkey, and let our NATO ally subject them to some down-home Islamic interrogation.
If they are dispersed to a dozen agents with no contact with each other, I can't see a solution.
The next and major anthrax attacks could already be in the mail, or could go down the subway tracks tomorrow.
As far as keeping 100 kilos of antrax spores out of the USA, how successful are we with cocaine interdiction?