Djamel Beghal was persuaded to kill in the name of Islam, but he was also persuaded to confess in the name of Islam.
The 37-year-old Franco-Algerian – deported from Dubai to Paris on Sunday – allegedly told French investigators that, when he visited Osama bin Laden's camp in Afghanistan last March, he was ordered to blow up American buildings in the heart of Paris. This is the first direct link established between planned terrorist attacks in Europe and Mr bin Laden.
Mr Beghal also told the French that he had recruited several militants at mosques in Britain. He spent more than a year living in London, between 1998 and 1999, and worshipped at the Finsbury Park mosque which preaches a fundamentalist and anti-Western interpretation of Islam.
The attacks are believed to have been intended as the second wave of the terror campaign which began with the suicide assaults on Washington and New York. But the European part of the plot was uncovered before the hijacked planes hit the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon.
Mr Beghal, described by former neighbours in France as a charming man with startling blue eyes, was persuaded to confess by police in Dubai after he was arrested there in July. Islamic teachers sent to his cell set out to convince him that terrorism and murder were forbidden by the Koran.
Yesterday, Mr Beghal's lawyers said he was withdrawing some of his statements, in particular that he received orders from Mr bin Laden.
Nevertheless he has emerged as a key element – perhaps the key element – in the multinational investigation into Mr bin Laden's methods and connections.
Mr Beghal eventually cracked in August and gave the Dubai and French authorities a list of names of his associates in France, the Benelux countries and Spain. This network had already been placed under surveillance before the attacks on the United States.
Since being extradited to France, Mr Beghal has given French magistrates specialising in anti-terrorist investigations further details of the terror campaign planned by his organisation.
According to French judicial sources, he told investigating magistrates during an 11-hour interrogation on Monday that he was acting on the direct orders of Abu Zubeida, considered to be the principal assistant to Mr bin Laden and who is now the target of an Interpol arrest warrant. Mr Beghal said he met Mr Zubeida, an Egyptian, in a terrorist training camp in Afghanistan in March.
Although he did not meet Mr bin Laden personally, he said he was given three presents, which Mr Zubeida said came directly from the Saudi millionaire. Details of the presents have not been revealed, but one is believed to have been a copy of the Koran.
It appears that attacks on US targets in Paris were to follow, rather than coincide with, the assaults in America, in which Mr Beghal was not involved. Mr Beghal told the French investigators that he had been ordered to carry out the attacks before spring next year "at the latest".
Contrary to earlier reports, there was no plan to attack the US embassy, just off the Champs-Elysées in Paris, with a helicopter.
Mr Beghal told the French authorities that one of his associates arrested in Europe10 days ago was to enter the US embassy with explosives hidden around his waist and then blow himself up.
There was also to be a suicide attack on the American Centre in Paris – a cultural institution in the Place de la Madeleine, in the heart of the city – using a van packed with explosives.
Mr Beghal was travelling back from Afghanistan when he was arrested with a false passport in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates in July. French authorities, who had been attempting to trace him for months, revealed his true identity to officials in Dubai.
Originally, Mr Beghal refused to talk to the Dubai authorities. They sent a series of religious teachers to his cell to read the Koran with him and persuade him that murder – even in a religious or political cause – was contrary to Islamic law.
If he had not been arrested, Mr Beghal told French investigators, he would have travelled to Morocco, Spain and France to set the plans in motion for the attacks on American targets.
Mr Beghal and his French wife and two children disappeared from their council flat in the Paris suburb of Corbeil-Essonnes four years ago.
According to some French sources, it was in London that Mr Beghal became involved with Islamist extremist movements. According to other sources, he had already made the political and religious conversion before he left France.
His former neighbours in Corbeil-Essonnes, 20 miles south of Paris, described Mr Beghal and his wife, Sylvie, as "terribly discreet".
"They were good people, very polite and helpful but towards the end, it is true, they changed," said one elderly woman who lived in the same block of flats.
Another neighbour said: "At first, they were nice people, the kind you could talk to. He was very tall, very handsome with incredibly blue eyes ...
"She was much smaller, with long blonde hair. In the last months [before they left], she no longer smiled any more. All the people that came were dressed like religious Muslims. It wasn't like before."
After the Beghals left Corbeil, their apartment – in the Boulevard John Kennedy – was used by a number of young men, who are now believed to have been co-conspirators. Among them was Kamel Daoudi, 27, who was arrested in Leicester last week after a tip-off from the French police.Reuse content