Abu Hamza and his masked bodyguard. The Finsbury Park Mosque which was once his headquarters was raided in January 2003 after police found castor beans, traces of ricin and equipment for making the toxin in an apartment (AP)
Where is the ricin this man produced? From the Washington Post, :
LYON, France — Menad Benchellali, thin and bearded, was known among his Arab friends as “the chemist” because of the special skills he learned at al Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan. When he returned to his native France in 2001, according to investigators, he set up a laboratory in his parents’ spare bedroom and began to manufacture ricin, one of the deadliest known substances.
Working at night with windows open to dissipate fumes from the process, he blended ingredients in a coffee decanter and spooned the doughy mixture onto newspapers to dry. The final product was a white power that Benchellali stored in small glass flasks and old jars of Nivea skin cream — to be used, as he later told police, “in the event I became involved in the jihad.”
Today, exactly how many jars of ricin the 29-year-old Benchellali may have produced — and their whereabouts — is an urgent question for European governments facing a wave of terrorist attacks and threats. Last year, investigators say, similar containers turned up in Britain, in the possession of North Africans who were allegedly planning an attack. At least one other jar is known to be missing, and French investigators suspect that still others exist.
The story of Benchellali’s laboratory offers a glimpse into a secret world of suspected terrorists and their quest for biological and chemical weapons. According to European investigators, a string of incidents in recent months points to a particular interest in ricin, the highly lethal toxin that comes from castor beans. Other powerful poisons that also are relatively easy to obtain and use — botulinum toxin and industrial chemicals such as potassium cyanide and osmium tetroxide — have also been sought by suspected terrorists. In April, police in Jordan foiled what government officials said was a plot to use chemical bombs and poison gas in a series of attacks on embassies and government buildings in Amman, the capital. …
Al Qaeda’s interest in biological and chemical arms is well documented, although the group’s ability to produce such weapons is believed to have been crippled by the loss of its sanctuary in Afghanistan. Invading U.S. forces in 2001 discovered and destroyed two production centers that were preparing to manufacture cyanide and the botulinum and salmonella toxins, and possibly anthrax.
Since then, investigators believe al Qaeda has become more diffuse, transforming itself into a loose-knit collection of underground cells. They say that Benchellali, who has been in prison in France since December 2002, may be one of hundreds of specially trained graduates of al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan who have shared their skills with a new generation of recruits. …
In the past 21/2 years, ricin-making equipment or traces of the toxin have been discovered during police raids on al Qaeda-affiliated cells in Britain, France, Spain, Russia, Georgia and Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq. In each case, police also found manuals or papers containing detailed instructions for making and using ricin. …
Deadlier by far than cobra venom, a speck of pure ricin the size of a pinhead will kill an adult if injected into the bloodstream. A slightly larger dose — roughly a pinch — is fatal if swallowed or inhaled. Ricin is water-soluble and virtually odorless, so it can be used to contaminate water or food supplies on a small scale. Victims may be unaware of their exposure until hours afterward, when the toxin begins to attack living cells and disrupts their ability to make essential proteins. The result is respiratory distress, internal bleeding and organ failure. Death can occur in as little as 36 hours, and there is no antidote or cure. …
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.” …
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. …
Cue the standard protestations of innocence:
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.”