Boualem Bensaïd was standing just meters away from people whose lives he is accused of tearing asunder in a 1995 bombing campaign in the Paris Métro. He showed no feeling save contempt. The alleged Islamist terrorist from Algeria on trial last week with co-defendant Smaïn Aït Ali Belkacem for three blasts in which eight people died and more than 200 were injured dismissed both the charges against him and those in court who "claim to be victims of an attack." Insisting that "We are not the extremists here," Bensaïd, 35, refused to explain his illegal entry to France just before the bombing spree began. "That's none of your business," he told the court. "I do as I please."
Bensaïd no longer does as he pleases. He and Belkacem were convicted in 1999 on lesser charges related to the same French terror campaign conducted by the Algerian Armed Islamic Group (G.I.A.), an Islamist organization with reputed al-Qaeda-links that has waged war against the Algerian government since 1992. Both have admitted G.I.A. membership; Belkacem is serving a 10-year sentence, and Bensaïd 10- and 30-year terms. But the men provide more than an example of callous disregard for life. They offer a glimpse of what the next wave of al-Qaeda attacks might look like.
Investigators say the organizational methods used in these bombings the first sustained effort by Islamic extremists to export terror to the West is proving a useful guide to the future. "Because no one fully understood the origins of the initial strike on the World Trade Center in 1993, the Paris bombings were our first confrontation with Islamic terror," says one French justice official. "So this case is important historically, but it also educated us fast."
What investigators learned is that the success of the G.I.A. in exporting to France its jihad against the Algerian regime made the organization a logical partner for Osama bin Laden. Since 1995 al-Qaeda cells seem to have imitated the G.I.A.'s tactics: using car theft, credit-card fraud and document forgery to fund terror plots; recruiting and indoctrinating alienated youths and petty crooks from Arab communities, then using their larceny to fund jihad. Police arresting cell members for crimes like these often never make the link between the offense and the cause it serves.
In the Paris Métro case, prosecutors say Bensaïd, Belkacem and a group of helpers mounted the series of attacks between July and October, 1995. The four-hour list of terror and murder charges read at the trial's opening will be followed up by detailed confessions both men gave of having organized the campaign and planted homemade bombs in Paris subway trains. Though the pair have recently recanted those avowals as coerced, prosecutors also have Bensaïd's fingerprints on bombing material at one site and on an unexploded bomb discovered on the Paris-Lyon TGV train line. Electronic dating of a Métro ticket found in Belkacem's home also place him exiting a subway station just minutes ahead of a blast. Police phone taps recorded him and Bensaïd planning an additional attack in Lille, which precipitated their arrest.
French investigators say London-based Islamist leaders including suspected al-Qaeda chieftains like Abu Qatada and Abu Doha encouraged Algerian factions seeking to speed the internationalization of their jihad to break from the G.I.A. and form the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (SGPC), an Algerian organization seeking to spread Islam worldwide through terror. Thanks to SGPC recruiting and cooperation, Algerians were among the most numerous militants in al-Qaeda's Afghan training camps. They move easily in the large North African communities of Europe, particularly in France.