Leicester terrorist cell that laid seeds of Paris atrocity

Also from the Telegraph. It’s a long read but worthwhile doing so in total and not just my brief precis here.

Nobody ever suspected the two Algerian friends. Brahim Benmerzouga and Baghdad Meziane had slipped into Britain undetected in 1997, refugees from Algeria, a country bedevilled by civil war. The pair lived here illegally, largely unnoticed and largely under the radar.

Benmerzouga had a fondness for fashionable Western clothing; Meziane, the older of the two by seven years, was a quiet family man with a wife and two young children. They merged in well in the predominantly Muslim area of Leicester they chose as their new home.

Meziane, reckoned to be the ringleader, lived on a run-down street of Victorian red-brick terraces while Benmerzouga occupied a house just around the corner.

They would often be seen playing football or attending a local mosque. Neither aroused any suspicions among residents. Until, that is, at 7am on Sept 25 2001 – just 14 days after the al-Qaeda attacks on the Twin Towers and Pentagon – armed anti-terrorist officers kicked down their doors.

What they discovered behind the suburban exterior was an astonishing al-Qaeda support cell that had been funding jihadists around the world. . . 

Belaribi was jailed for four years while Benmerzouga, now 43, and Meziane, now aged 49, received 11 years each.

Their imprisonment was not the end of it. The Leicester cell would sow the seeds for the massacres in France more than 13 years later. 

The Leicester raids were no fluke. Eighteen days earlier on Sept 7 2001, Djamel Beghal, a close friend of Meziane and Benmerzouga and who too had lived in Leicester with his wife and four children, was detained at Dubai airport after being caught travelling on a false passport supplied by his friends. Beghal, another Algerian, and Meziane had known each other since the Nineties and both were followers of Abu Qatada, the Muslim cleric often described as Osama bin Laden’s spiritual ambassador in Europe.

Both men regarded Qatada as their spiritual mentor and attended his now infamous prayer meetings at the Four Feathers Social Club in Baker Street in central London. Meziane, it later transpired, was in daily contact by phone with Qatada. Beghal was also a regular at Finsbury Park mosque, run by Abu Hamza, the hook-handed, one-eyed cleric.

With Beghal detained in the United Arab Emirates, his accomplice in the planned suicide attack on the US embassy in Paris got spooked. Kamel Daoudi, 40, an Algerian with computer and engineering expertise, had been living in Paris but when news of his co-conspirator’s arrest filtered through, he fled.

His destination, significantly, was Leicester, where he moved in with Benmerzouga. The men had known each other for some years. According to Robin Simcox, research fellow at the Henry Jackson Society and co-author of Islamist Terrorism: The British Connections, Daoudi had been supplied by Benmerzouga and Meziane with a false passport to travel to Afghanistan to train at an al-Qaeda terror camp, where he learnt to handle explosives. The pair had even bought him plane tickets to get there through a Birmingham travel agents.

What Daoudi had not realised when he fled Paris was that – as a result of the information given by Beghal – he had been put under surveillance by French authorities. He was followed to the Midlands and his movements tracked. For days, anti-terrorism officers watched him in Leicester. On Sept 25, they moved in. Benmerzouga and Meziane were swept up in the operation and police were possibly surprised to discover the extent of their network.

Daoudi would be deported back to France where he stood trial alongside Beghal and four others. He was jailed for nine years, one less than Beghal. Their plot to blow up the US embassy had been foiled; but their imprisonment would have a direct impact on the three-day assault on Paris that began with the barbaric murder of staff at Charlie Hebdo magazine.

In 2005, the year they were jailed, Eliza Manningham Buller, then head of MI5, wrote a note – seen by The Sunday Telegraph – in which she disclosed that intelligence obtained from the Beghal plot was vital in a number of counter-terrorism operations in France and the UK. 

Beghal was sent to Fleury-Merogis prison, the largest in Europe, situated just outside Paris. In there, Chérif Kouachi, a young French Algerian, was also serving time.  . . Amedy Coulibaly was in the same jail . . . By 2010, the trio – Chérif Kouachi, Coulibaly and Beghal – were hatching a new plot. The latest plot was again uncovered, with Beghal sentenced to 12 years and Coulibaly returned to jail, while Kouachi escaped prosecution due to lack of evidence.

What happened next is now all too familiar and too tragic. Coulibaly was released from jail at some point in 2014 while surveillance of the Kouachi brothers was lifted six months ago because they were considered a low risk. The Kouachi brothers launched an attack on Charlie Hebdo magazine while Coulibaly targeted a kosher supermarket. In all they murdered 17 innocent people. 

  Read it all.