(NYT) When Chellali Benchellali moved to France 41 years ago, his path seemed clear enough. Escaping the misery of his native Algeria, he hoped to get a job, marry, raise a family and blend into the French melting pot.
He got part way there. But for the last six months, Benchellali has been in a high-security French prison, along with his wife and two of his sons, all accused of helping to plot a Qaeda-style chemical attack in Europe. A third son has just been released from the U.S. detention center at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, one of four Frenchmen handed over to the French authorities last week.
The family’s journey from yearning immigrants to alleged Islamic militants – accused of harboring a makeshift laboratory in their suburban Lyon apartment where one son was said to have been trying to make biological and chemical bombs – is an extreme but still emblematic manifestation of a quiet crisis spreading through Europe’s growing Arab underclass.
Such dramatic deviations are rare, but they point to a dangerous ideological drift in many of the Continent’s immigrant neighborhoods, a drift that is stigmatizing Muslims, alarming antiterrorism officials and shaping government policies.
The story recounted here has been pieced together from transcripts of interrogations of family members and their associates, as well as interviews with the Benchellali daughters, lawyers and friends.
Benchellali, 59, arrived in France in 1963 and found a job as a window washer in the suburbs of Lyon. In 1972 he married a young Algerian woman named Hafsa. Together they had six children, all born French. The family was allotted an apartment in the Minguettes housing projects, built to accommodate the North Africans imported to work at the nearby chemical plant and other factories.
But as the 1960s economic boom ended and Benchellali’s finances faltered, his Muslim faith increased, neighbors say. He brought his wife, a nonpracticing Muslim, to religion.
Benchellali eventually lost his job because of a shoulder injury, and the family now lives on his disability payments of about E1,000, or $1,200, a month.
The same arc, only less acute, has been followed by millions of other North African immigrants in France. More than a third of the working-age adults in the Benchellalis’ town of Venissieux are unemployed, and the level of joblessness is even higher among those of Arab descent, who make up more than half the town.
In 1993, Benchellali began raising money and traveling to Bosnia to distribute food and clothing to besieged Muslims.
On his fifth trip there, Croatian soldiers seized him and two other men from Venissieux and held them in brutal conditions for five months. He returned with even stronger religious convictions and began preaching in the ground-floor activity room of his apartment block, which became known as the Abu Bakr mosque. His sermons took on an increasingly radical tone.
Menad, the oldest boy, received a certificate in electronics from a vocational high school in 1991. By all accounts he was dominated by his father and took a job washing windows for the same cleaning company. His father’s Bosnian ordeal and growing radicalization clearly had an effect on him, his mother and friends in the neighborhood said.
By the mid-1990s, with a civil war in full swing in Algeria, supporters of the violent Armed Islamic Group carried the battle to the Continent. The police say the Abu Bakr mosque became an occasional halfway house for members of the group passing through France.
Menad had quit his job by then and was dismissed from a string of others. In 1995, he left for Syria to study Arabic and the Koran. He spent several months in Sudan, where the Al Qaeda network was coalescing. He returned to Venissieux in 1996 a bearded fundamentalist.
After Menad’s return, his father took a second wife, illegal in France but permitted by Islam. The marriage caused a rift between Benchellali and his children, particularly Menad. Then Menad’s own marriage, to the daughter of one of the men with whom Benchellali had been imprisoned in Bosnia, fell apart.
“It was at this time that he became more radical,” Hafsa Benchellali told the police. Menad’s brother Hafed told investigators: “I think we need to educate people, and in that way we can install the Sharia,” speaking of the Islamic legal code. “But Menad believes it should be done by force.”
Soon the brothers had drifted into the fringe of an underground radical Islamic network, trading in false travel documents. Hafsa, the mother, Hafed and a close friend later implicated in his alleged terrorist schemes have all told investigators that Menad went in 1998 or 1999 to Afghanistan, where he spent a year or more in a Qaeda training camp.
According to the police, Menad persuaded his youngest brother, Mourad, a high school dropout, to go to Afghanistan for training in 2001. Menad left a few days later for Georgia, hoping to cross into Chechnya to fight on behalf of the Muslim rebellion there, but he was unable to get across the border. He has admitted to training in explosives and small arms while in Georgia.
Hafed sent a total of about $9,000 to Menad through Aslanbek Bagakhashvili, whom French officials identify as an associate of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, widely viewed as the top Qaeda operative in Iraq today. Menad says he lived with Bagakhashvili in Georgia.
Meanwhile, U.S. forces picked up Mourad, either in Afghanistan or Pakistan. The first information his family received was in a call from the International Committee of the Red Cross.
Menad left Georgia in December 2001 for Spain, where he bought a chemistry catalog, intending, he told investigators, to make toxic products “in case I became involved in jihad.” In the following months he shuttled between Venissieux and Paris, where investigators say a Chechen-trained terror cell was forming.
In Venissieux, he borrowed his mother’s coffee pot and kitchen scale to set up a makeshift laboratory in her sewing room. He rarely left the apartment, sending his sister Anissa to buy supplies, including glycerin, an ingredient for some explosives, and acetone.
It is not clear what he was mixing. “Menad told me of poisons mortal to the simple touch,” Hafed said.
Hafsa Benchellali, in her early interrogations, said, “I knew well that it was to make chemical bombs or something like that, but I didn’t know the details.”
Later, under advice from their lawyers, Hafsa and Hafed Benchellali retracted their statements. Menad denies having received any formal chemical or bacteriological training in Chechnya or Afghanistan and says he was working only on conventional explosives.