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The Chechen Channel

This week's terrorist arrests in Europe might open an unsettling new front in the war on terrorism.

12:00 AM, Dec 19, 2002 • By CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL
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ENOUGH TERRORISTS have been arrested in Europe in recent days--three in Edinburgh, four in London, four in Paris--to make this one of the bigger police weeks since September 11. The French arrests, which took place in the north Paris suburb of La Courneuve, are particularly unsettling for two reasons:

First, because early indications are that the group there was at an advanced stage of carrying out a chemical-weapons attack. The terrorists--three Algerians and a Moroccan (one of whom may be a French citizen)--were found in possession of Islamist literature; counterfeit passports; $25,000 in U.S. and European currencies; two empty 13-kilo gas containers; two vials of chemicals, one including a versatile iron-chloride compound that is useful in manufacturing both potent explosives and deadly airborne poisons (the other vial is still being assayed as we go to press); lists of chemical formulas; and a French military-issue jumpsuit designed for those who handle nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons. The ringleader of the group, the 29-year-old Algerian Mirouane Ben Ahmed, had been sought in connection with the Algerian Rabah "Toufik" Kadri, who was arrested in London on November 5 on suspicion of plotting a gas attack in the London underground. (At the time of his arrest, Kadri was shopping for black-market cyanide.) Both Ben Ahmed and Kadri appear to have links to a certain "Salafist Preaching and Combat Group" (GSPC), a terrorist unit inspired (at the very least) by the official Wahhabite ideology of Saudi Arabia.

A second worry is that the arrests open up a new front in the anti-terrorism battle, for the suspects are part of a "Chechen channel" that French authorities have been investigating since November. Ben Ahmed had trained in Afghanistan, like many of Europe's Muslim terrorists. He had been linked to hard-line preachers in London and to the German-based "Frankfurt group," which planned to blow up the main synagogue in the French city of Strasbourg last year. (Incredibly, videos shown in German court proceedings this past April indicated that the group's logistical preparations were for blowing up the Strasbourg cathedral, which they had mistaken for the synagogue.)

But Ben Ahmed's "base," since 2001 at least, appears to have been Chechnya. In Russia, Vladimir Putin's top adviser on Chechnya reacted with ill-concealed relief. "What happened in France is very important for us," he said. "Ben Ahmed was trained at a terrorist base in Chechnya."

The recent arrests create a logic that hardens the anti-terror war somewhat along civilizational lines. For new information on the "Chechen channel" is likely to give Russia more excuse to claim carte blanche in their Chechen war--and the Western powers more reason to grant it.

Christopher Caldwell is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.