France Loses its One-Man War on Terror

  • Share
  • Read Later

Appearing as an expert witness against "Millennium Bomber" Ahmed Ressam in March 2001, France's trail-blazing counter-terrorism investigator Jean-Louis Bruguiere left at least one court official somewhat confused. The court official asked him to restate the last name of this "Al" person the Frenchman cited as being central to the global plot of which Ressam's planned attack on Los Angeles International Airport had been part. Bruguiere patiently explained that "al Qaeda" was an organization seeking a global federation of furtive extremists to wage jihad on the West. Less than seven months later, as the lessons of 9/11 became clear, Bruguiere ceased having to tutor his American colleagues on the dangers posed by Osama bin Laden and his minions.

Having spend two decades working to alert Western societies to the threat of surging jihadist movements, the 64 year-old investigating magistrate is about to end his job as chief of France's judicial counter-terrorism section, and prepare for "retirement" next year by taking up an advisory role. Earlier this year he took a leave of absence to campaign, unsuccessfully, for a seat in parliament. Facing obligatory retirement on his 65th birthday, sources close to Brugiere say he's looking to serve as a consultant either in France, or to an international body such as the U.N.

"What's certain is he isn't interested in returning to active case duty, and has indefinitely extended his leave" says one associate of Bruguiere, who has declined to comment on his withdrawal. "It's the end of an era."

Indeed, Bruguiere has over the years become a recognizable icon in the world of international counter-terrorism: the dapper, pipe-smoking, sleuth whose doggedness and efficiency hunting terror masterminds forced him to pack a Magnum to fend off attacks on his own life. (In recent years, he's swapped the gun for round-the-clock bodyguards, although the nickname it earned him, "The Sheriff," has stuck.) He was known as a hands-on investigator who would literally picked through wreckage of a downed airliner, or rent a boat to enter Libya to investigate the agents he accused of blowing it up. And in 1996, Bruguiere arranged the arrest and extradition of notorious terrorist "Carlos the Jackal" — author of a number of bombings in Paris in the 1980s — from Sudan, spirited away after he'd been sedated to undergo surgery on a varicose vein on his scrotum.

But Bruguiere's lasting legacy will doubtless be his recognition of the jihadist terror threat in the early 1990s, and his frequently controversial methods of battling it. After France became the first European nation targeted by jihadist attacks — a thwarted 1994 attempt to crash a fuel-filled airliner into central Paris; and a series of bombings in 1995-96, all orchestrated by Algeria's Armed Islamic Group — Bruguiere led French security services in identifying the nature, structure, and methods of jihadist terror networks, then moving to uproot and destroy them. "It was a very unique situation, because we were having to identify and learn about this deadly disease, and trying to cure it at the same time," Bruguiere previously told TIME.

Bruguiere's team relied on what were then frequently decried anti-terrorism laws that allowed the arrest, interrogation, and detention of large numbers of suspects for 72 hours prior to charges being filed. Attendant laws also allowed for the more aggressive pursuit of activities such as forging identity papers, illegal fundraising and people smuggling — apparently unrelated to violent activity, yet essential logistical support for terror networks. Bruguiere also developed a now widely used counter-terror strategy: the coup de pied dans le fourmillier (kicking the ant hill) that can both bag plotting radicals, and also destabilize the wider extremist milieu wondering if wider sweeps aren't in store.

Opponents and defense lawyers have long decried those laws, and Bruguiere's frequent use of them brazen infringement of civil liberties. Those complaints seem almost petty in a post-9/11 world. "The U.S., U.K., and other nations now all have anti-terrorism laws that go far beyond ours," notes independent terrorism expert Roland Jacquard. "Bruguiere's use of them also looks very responsible given what we've seen elsewhere — Guantanamo just for starters."

Bruguiere says it took years to persuade American and even European officials about the global danger presented by the jihadist movement the French were battling. "I long encountered the attitude 'You French guys have to get over your Algeria obsession. It's over; there is no threat'," Bruguiere previously told TIME. "In fact, it was around the time of the Ressam arrest in 1999 that the attitude really changed."

With Bruguiere leaving scene, France's counter-terrorism services will be losing a substantial piece of their institutional memory. "From Carlos to bin Laden, by way of state terrorism from Iran and Syria, Bruguiere has learned the histories, methods, and thinking of all kinds individuals and groups staging attacks," Jacquard says. "Beating these movements requires remembering everyone who has issued from them, and using that as your database in analyzing their evolutions and mutations. That's been Bruguiere, all in one man."