VENISSIEUX, France — Clean and green, this well-kept Lyon suburb has for three years running won the national competition for “Flowered Cities of France.”
But Venissieux also has a macabre claim to fame. Long plagued by urban violence, it is emerging as a breeding ground for Islamic radicals, some implicated in an alleged terrorist network that authorities say was preparing a chemical attack against Russian targets.
Six residents of Venissieux were arrested Jan. 6 in connection with the planned 2002-2003 New Year’s celebrations attack, including a local imam, or prayer leader, Chellali Benchellali, his wife and son. Another son was arrested in 2002.
Two other men from this city of 56,000 are detainees at the U.S. base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, including Benchellali’s third son.
Venissieux, on the edge of the southeastern city of Lyon, epitomizes France’s troubled big city suburbs, teeming with high-rises, cursed with soaring unemployment and peopled mostly by Muslim immigrants from France’s former North African colonies. Generation after generation, they are unable to break out.
“It shouldn’t be hidden by the trees and parks. There is misery here,” said Zohra Hammia, 35, who runs a tutoring program for children.
Investigators contend that Menad Benchellali, 29, was preparing toxic potions in face cream containers at the family home with plans to attack Russian interests in France, including the embassy in Paris. The aim was to avenge deaths of Muslim rebels in the breakaway Russian province of Chechnya. The recipe involved deadly ricin poison and botulism bacteria.
Menad Benchellali, who allegedly trained in Georgia’s lawless Pankisi Gorge on the Chechen border, was arrested in December 2002 with eight others in two Paris suburbs. Lists of chemicals and equipment, including a protective suit, were found.
Menad’s brother, Mourad, is one of two residents held at Guantanamo. His neighborhood friend, Nizar Sassi, also is detained there. Menad, the alleged “chemist” in the Chechnya network, sent the two men off to Afghanistan in 2001, investigators have said.
Their father, a 59-year-old imam born in Algeria, reportedly made at least three trips to Bosnia to deliver humanitarian aid to Muslims. According to police, Chellali Benchellali then became involved in the cause of Chechen Muslims, showing films of Russians soldiers fighting Chechens at his mosque to collect funds for them.
A person familiar with the case, speaking on condition of anonymity, claimed the network moved in and out of France using passports from the faithful, who declared them lost.
Venissieux first gained national attention two decades ago when its residents headed a march of 100,000 mostly French Muslims to Paris in 1983 to demand equal rights and integration.
Today, despairing Muslims are increasingly turning to religion. A more radical brand of Islam took hold about five years ago, said deputy mayor Bayrem Braiki.
Muslim activists “have been stuffing the brains of our youth … explaining that the only way out is religion,” said Braiki, 28, a practicing Muslim who grew up in Les Minguettes, this town’s toughest neighborhood.
Les Minguettes has an unemployment rate of some 30 percent, and in the section known as Darnaise, where the Benchellalis live, it’s more than 50 percent.
Some residents seek comfort in the green-carpeted prayer room presided over by Chellali Benchellali — one of at least a dozen such makeshift mosques in the area.
“We were shocked by the imam’s arrest,” said a friend, Ounsi Hassine, adding that Benchellali was outspoken but not an extremist.
French intelligence started tracking Islamic activism in the suburbs in 1990. Lucienne Bui Trong, a retired intelligence officer and specialist in suburban violence, said private Muslim groups that receive public money for community work sometimes promote radicalism behind the scenes.
Venissieux Mayor Andre Gerin, a communist lawmaker, blames the state for refusing to fund mosques, allowing prayer rooms that encourage radicalism to flourish. Others blame the mayor.
“He opened the way to groups who have imposed their moral power on an entire section of the town,” Christian Delorme, who for years was the parish priest of the Minguettes neighborhood, told the weekly Lyoncapitale.
Others blame poverty and prejudice.
“A kid who looks for work and gets the door slammed in his face for a year sees religion as the only solution,” said Braiki, the deputy mayor. “If someone proposes paradise, who won’t accept paradise?”