France’s Counter-Terrorism Ace Finds Himself Under Scrutiny

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Former anti-terrorist judge Jean-Louis Bruguiere walks upstairs on May 16, 2011 at Paris courthouse, for an inquest on a Karachi bombing in 2002. (Photo: Mehdi Fedouach- AFP - Getty Images)

For the past three decades he’s been known as “The Sheriff”, “The Admiral”, and more generally as the world-famous icon of French counter-terrorism. The pipe-smoking, Magnum-packing judge became counter-terrorism’s international celebrity through exploits that included (but were far from limited to) tracking down and arresting Carlos the Jackal in Sudan; commandeering a boat he sailed to travel-boycotted Libya to confront members of the Gaddafi regime with evidence of their ties to a terrorist bombing; and figuring out the threat and operative modes of international Islamist networks in the mid-1990s, far before anyone else in the West paid them any notice.

But now seminal jihadi foe Jean-Louis Bruguière has come under suspicion for having left vital evidence out of a pair of politically sensitive inquiries that may have allowed the wrong suspects to be designated as the authors of extreme violence against French citizens. As a result, the 68 year-old ex-magistrate finds himself being scrutinized by French legal officials—and the target of civil suits for “false testimony” and “obstruction of justice”—for allegedly failing to disclose and file evidence in cases that Bruguière says were correctly resolved.

The suspicions center on two Bruguière-led investigations: one into the 1996 beheading of seven French Trappist monks in Algeria officially blamed on jihadists battling that nation’s government (the back story of which inspired the award-winning film “Of Gods and Men”); the other into the 2002 bombing in Karachi, Pakistan that killed 11 French naval engineers, which Bruguière and Pakistani authorities concluded was the work of al-Qaeda operatives. Video testimony by repentant Algerian extremists discovered in a safe by Bruguière’s successor, Marc Trévidic, purportedly contains sworn assurances that the monks were in fact accidentally killed by the Algerian military during a raid on a jihadist camp. Trévidic has also established that a 2002 French forensic report undermining both the culpability of the accused Karachi bomber—and, indeed, the central presumption the attack was a suicide car strike—was never taken into account or entered as evidence by the al Qaeda-obsessed Bruguière. Bruguière insists the cases were closed conclusively in both instances.

Be that as it may, Trévidic—an investigator known for his honesty, determination, hostility to political meddling, and attentiveness to the victims as well as the perpetrators of terror—has dismissed the official Pakistani inquiry and conclusion (shared by Bruguière) attributing the Karachi attack to Islamists as a farce. He’s instead pursing a theory the strike may have been the work of Pakistan’s military and intelligence services  in retaliation to the decision by politicians in France to halt kickback payments promised in exchange for Paris obtaining a nearly $1 billion contract in 1994 selling submarines to Islamabad. Trévidic acknowledges much in the kickback-revenge theory remains to be substantiated by hard evidence, yet he calls it the most plausible hypothesis now that the official version has fallen to bits—an implosion exemplified in the 2009 acquittal by Pakistani courts of the only three suspects convicted for the bombing. Pakistan has dismissed such allegations as ludicrous, and stands by the official conclusion the attack was carried out by extremists.

Trévidic’s suspicions have also been dismissed by politicians and government officials in France. Yet they nevertheless continue to block his efforts to consult classified documents on the submarine sale in question that might clarify the terms of that transaction, and how French intelligence services initially reacted to the Karachi attack. That political resistance is perhaps understandable, given the potential stakes involved. Evidence suggests the kickbacks to Pakistan (which were legal at the time) were halted in 2000 by President Jacques Chirac after he learned a portion of those millions had been illicitly funneled back to France and used to finance the 1995 presidential campaign by a rival conservative candidate. The winner of the 1995 contest, Chirac allegedly ordered the kickback payments to Pakistani authorities halted to prevent any of those funds leaking back to France to be used by his vanquished foe to finance a future Elysée run. Current President Nicolas Sarkozy was a key member of that 1995 campaign against Chirac—as were a host of officials now backing Sarkozy, or serving in official posts under him. Which is why most view Trévidic and his theory—even if never fully proven—as a potential threat to their careers.

The reason? Any links—whether intentional or coincidental—to illegal “retro-commissions” that might have flowed back from Pakistan would not only carry a damning taint for any French politician tied to them; they’d also lend support to Trévidic’s suspicions the Karachi bombing was ordered by Pakistani authorities in reprisal for halted kickback payments. That in turn would suggest officials in France should have at least suspected a potential financial motive behind the Karachi bombing—yet failed to denounce what would have been the revenge killing of 11 French citizens in order to avoid calling attention to their own financial misdeeds.

But if Sarkozy himself has sneered at Trévidic’s inquiry as “ridiculous, grotesque”, the 45-year old is not alone in viewing the kickback revenge theory as plausible. The families of the 11 murdered naval engineers sent to Karachi under the submarine contract share Trévidic’s belief the official version of an al-Qaeda attack is a sham, and support his suppositions it has served to divert attention from the real story. It was that logic that led them to file suit last month against Bruguiére for “false testimony” and “obstruction of justice” on suspicions he intentionally failed to file the forensic study containing findings contrary to his conclusion as evidence. Trévidic has statements and written proof from forensic officials their report was delivered to Bruguière’s office in 2002. Under sworn questioning in May from his former subordinate Trévidic, Bruguière repeated previous statements he never received or saw the report. He also said that what he’d read in it since discovering its existence doesn’t invalidate the official conclusion the Karachi strike was carried out by a kamikaze car bomber sent by al Qaeda.

The discrepancies Trévidic has turned up in the terror cases he inherited don’t end there, however. Trévidic has also contacted former French and Algerian officials who have provided testimony that the seven French monks were indeed killed by the Algerian military. Others have revealed details that, at the very least, suggest extraordinary efforts were taken by authorities in Algeria and France to prevent information going public that would have cast doubt on the official conclusion jihadists were responsible for the monks’ massacre. That included allegations that the only reason the decapitated heads of the monks were returned for burial was because their bodies—which were never found—were riddled with bullets that could have been traced to Algerian soldiers, not Islamist extremists.

Why would Bruguière want to influence investigations in that way? Some observers note the former judge has never hid his proximity to conservative politicians. (Bruguière himself retired from investigative duty to stage a failed 2007 bid for a seat in parliament for Sarkozy’s ruling rightist party.) Under their view, Bruguière’s support of conclusions pinning blame on jihadists was designed to protect French conservatives–who would have been the most exposed if it were learned the responsibility of the Algerian army for the monks’ deaths had been covered up, or that dirty money was behind the Karachi strike. Others experts believe the Islamist theory was simply the most obvious and expedient one to pursue in both cases at the time, and as a result Bruguière only focused on evidence useful towards concluding inquiries determining extremists as culprits—knowing virtually anyone watching would defer to his international status as anti-jihadist expert.

But that reputation has now come under the cloud of suspicion and accusation. It’s still unclear how the allegations will color Bruguière’s legacy, or whether even they can significantly tarnish his mythical stature in fighting terror. Indeed, Bruguière was so far ahead of the curve that when he testified as an expert witness at the March 2001 U.S. trial of the so-called “Millennium Bomber”, the Frenchman had to explain to court officials that the “al-Qaeda” he kept referring to was Osama bin Laden’s jihadist organization, not someone whose first name was Al. He also broke molds by becoming a free-floating figure crossing the various disciplines of counter-terrorism, often building up personal relationships with intelligence officials of foreign countries that left Bruguière better informed than many of France’s top spies. Since retiring from the investigative judiciary, Bruguière has served as a European Union official interfacing with U.S. peers to combat fund-raising by terror groups, and continuing consultations with far-flung foreign intelligence contacts.

In the coming months, he’ll have to devote more time to fending off questions and accusations he cherry-picked evidence in these controversial cases, and pushed through questionable and politically convenient conclusions about the suspected perpetrators. As such, it will represent a rare moment when the renowned Bruguière himself is a suspect in a terror inquiry, rather than the lead investigator smoking out the guilty.