Modern France has a long history of dealing with terrorists, whether the bomb-throwing anarchists of the late 19th century or the more sophisticated Corsicans, Basques and Islamists of the late 20th century. As the republic enters the 21st century, it finds itself grappling with an Islamist threat that reflects the nation’s changing demographics. Five to six million residents of France are now Muslim—a full 10 percent of the population. Aside from a substantial number of Muslim West Africans, most French Muslims hail from former French provinces in North Africa. Algeria is home to many of France’s most radical Islamists, a country that has endured fifteen years of terrorist attacks, kidnappings, massacres and civil strife.
French authorities have adopted an aggressive campaign to pre-empt terrorist strikes. Expanded counter-terrorism measures have been matched with wide-scale roundups of French Muslims, who may now be held for six days without charges and up to four years without trial. Although nearly all France’s terrorism suspects are French-born or North African in origin, the republic’s leading investigator of terrorist cases suggests that the most dangerous threat to France and Europe comes from an elusive and mysterious source: “the Chechen Network.”
Terrorists on Trial
Twenty-seven North Africans were brought to trial in Paris on March 20, 2006, on suspicion of planning terrorist attacks on the Eiffel Tower and numerous other targets. Investigators allege that Russian institutions in France were also targeted by the Islamist militants as retaliation for the destruction of the Chechen terrorist unit at Moscow’s Nord-Ost Theater in October 2002. The actual charge against the defendants is “criminal conspiracy in relation to a terrorist network,” which carries a sentence of up to 10 years’ imprisonment on conviction. Several of the suspects are alleged to have served in the small corps of international mujahideen in Chechnya. Many appear to be former members of the GIA (Armed Islamic Group) or GSPC (Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat), militant Algerian Islamist organizations responsible for numerous atrocities. A French security service, La Direction de la Surveillance du Territoire, uncovered the so-called “Chechen Network” while investigating Islamist efforts to recruit French nationals for the fighting in Chechnya. Mass arrests of North Africans followed in the Paris suburbs of Courneuve and Romainville in December 2002.
The man behind the prosecutions is Judge Jean-Louis Bruguière. In France, judges may act as investigators, with those suspects recommended for prosecution sent before other judges for trial. Judge Bruguière began work in terrorism investigations in 1991, and is now responsible for the coordination of all judicial aspects in France’s battle against terrorism. Bruguière and others have aggressively used the generous powers provided to them by the new anti-terrorism legislation to cast wide nets in the Muslim community, collecting large numbers of suspects. Many of the accused have been acquitted after lengthy periods of detention.
The Case of Said Arif
Said Arif, 41, is a former officer in the Algerian army and one of the defendants in the “Chechen Network” case. After deserting the army he traveled to Afghanistan, where he is said to have attended al-Qaeda training camps. Mr. Arif and several other suspects are accused of taking additional training in the production of chemical and biological weapons in Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge, allegedly under the tutelage of Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi when the career criminal was still being described as a bio-chemical weapons expert (al-Zarawi is now leader of the al-Qaeda faction in Iraq). No evidence has been presented to substantiate the existence of such training facilities, and even the presence of al-Zarqawi in the Pankisi Gorge remains open to question. There was undoubtedly training available in the creation of more conventional explosive devices while Chechen warlord Ruslan Gelaev rebuilt his guerilla force in the Gorge in 2001-2002. Some 200 foreign mujahideen were present in Gelayev’s camps. Many were Turkish nationals, while the Arab contingent included a number of Algerians. It is these individuals that the prosecution charges with returning to France to carry out acts of terrorism.
Already suspected of involvement in the December 2000 plot to bomb the Strasbourg Christmas market, Arif escaped the December 2002 roundup of al-Qaeda suspects accused of preparing chemical attacks in France. In May 2003, Arif and his wife (a Swedish national) moved with their children to Syria. Two months later Arif was picked up on the street by Syrian intelligence services. His family was first detained then deported to Sweden. Arif alleges he was tortured in Syria before being extradited to Paris in June 2004. The procedure was unusual, in that Syria has no extradition treaty with France. The extradition may have been the result of a personal visit to Syria by Judge Bruguière.
France allowed members of Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) to question the suspects before trial, as part of a joint investigation between Russian and French security services. Mr. Arif has also attracted the attention of the Spanish secret services. Arif is said to have revealed to Spanish investigators a plan to carry out a chemical attack on the US naval base in Rota, Spain (Spanish Herald, May 4, 2005). Arif’s lawyer has called for the rejection of any evidence based on testimony elicited from his client under torture in Syria. A verdict in the trial is expected on May 12.
The ‘Chechen Threat’
The term “Chechen” figures in almost every reference to the current case. Judge Bruguière and others speak of “the Chechen Network,” while their detractors refer to it as “the Chechen Trace.” Judge Bruguière claims that Chechnya serves as the main training base for Islamist militants, having replaced Afghanistan in this regard. Bruguière describes the “Caucasian problem” as “a true international problem because the majority of the Chechen cause has been hijacked by al-Qaeda” (AP, December 9, 2004). According to the judge, Chechnya serves as “an aircraft carrier” for Islamists “to continue the fight against the West” (CNN, May 13, 2003). At times Bruguière ascribes to the Chechen rebels powers worthy of a James Bond villain; in 2004 he told the New Yorker magazine that Chechens were training Islamists how to hijack satellites, enabling them to shut down communications, power grids and Western defense networks (New Yorker, August 2, 2004).
Judge Bruguière’s emphasis on the Chechen aspect of the current trial has filtered down to the media. An Associated Press headline announced “Chechen Rebel Trial Opens in Paris” (March 21, 2006), even though not a single Chechen is among the accused. Olivier Dupuis, an outspoken member of the European Parliament, has questioned Judge Bruguière’s continued use of the term “Chechen network” in a case involving only EU citizens. The MP asks whether such “false information” might be “responsible for the growth among EU citizens of feelings of racial hatred, intolerance or even violence towards Chechen refugees living in member countries.”
There is no question that France faces a serious terrorism threat from North African extremists, but Judge Bruguière’s persistent obsession with Chechnya as an exporter of terrorism to Europe remains difficult to explain. Europe is now awash with Chechen refugees, yet none have been convicted of terrorist plots against their hosts. The Pankisi Gorge came under the control of US-trained Georgian security forces in October 2002. The Chechen separatist leadership is intent on expanding its rebellion to the rest of the Russian North Caucasus, but otherwise has expressed more interest in joining Europe than destroying it. Arab participation in the Chechen war is also at a low ebb, with jihadists from France and elsewhere being drawn to the far more accessible conflict in Iraq.
Short of new evidence being introduced at the trial, the actual Chechen content of France’s “Chechen Network” appears to be nil. A recent French security review described the greatest threats to national security as coming from young, alienated Muslim youth and converts to radical forms of Islam such as Lionel Dumont, a former French Catholic who became one of Europe’s most wanted terrorists before being sentenced to 30 years in prison by a French court in December 2005. With Algeria’s ruthless militants now identifying France as their main enemy, the continuing focus on a shadowy Chechen threat would appear to be a dangerous distraction for French security.