French judge Jean Louis Bruguiere
France's former top anti-terrorism judge Jean Louis Bruguiere being interviewed in Paris June 3, 2010 Photo by AP
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Activists from pro-Islamic Turkish aid organization IHH aboard Gaza-bound aid ship Photo by AP

Jean-Louis Bruguière's official title is a bit convoluted: He was appointed by the European Union to overlook the Terrorist Finance Tracking Program at the U.S. Department of Treasury, but behind that dry and bureaucratic title hides one of the most important roles in the global fight against terror. The investigative magistrate's job is to "dry out" the financial sources that feed the world's terror organizations, specifically the al-Qaida-inspired global Jihad network.

While Bruguière visited Israel this week as the guest of the Foreign Ministry, and while that visit was classified "private," every one of the most important intelligence and Foreign Ministry officials dealing with terror funding rushed to meet him and learn from his rich experience in the field. Bruguière is a well known and well respected figure in France, where he served as an investigating magistrate in charge of counter-terrorism affairs until being appointed to his present role in 2008. Anyone seeking proof of his popularity could have seen how many of those present at the July 14 Bastille Day celebrations at the French ambassador's house this week knew him, with many rushing to greet him.

The main tool employed by Bruguière and his colleagues in the EU and in U.S. to track and intercept the transfer of funds used to finance terror groups is known as SWIFT [Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication]. It's an international association of more than 8,500 banks and financial institutions in Europe, the United States, Russia, China, far eastern and Middle Eastern countries, including Israel. After initial growing pains, - many of which were conducted in covert negotiations during the administration of former U.S. president George W. Bush - SWIFT finally agreed, within the restrictions of the law, to aid the intelligence community and the various law enforcement agencies to track the terror organizations' couriers and "finance ministers."

Bruguière is especially proud of France, where the administration has a zero-tolerance policy to any attempt to transfer funds to terror groups. French law forbids cash payments of more than 5,000 Euros, and sums greater than that require the bank or institution to report the transfer to authorities. At the same time, Bruguière laments the fact that Germany is less firm, in his opinion, regarding such transfers, or he suspects that the government there is more interested in protecting citizens' privacy and human rights.

'I'm not needed in Israel'

This week's visit marked Bruguière's first in Israel and he has mixed feelings about it: On one hand he troubled that he has not visited here until now, and on the other hand he is relieved that he hasn't had to. "I haven't had professional reasons to visit Israel," he stresses. "Most of my activity in recent years has focused on the financing of al-Qaida and its offshoots, and in this respect Israel can be pleased. Thus far, I have not found any operational or financial ties between Hamas an al-Qaida."

Despite this, a possible indirect link between the two organizations has been discovered recently via the Turkish group IHH, the organizers of the flotilla of aid ships that sailed to Gaza in late May, which resulted in an Israeli naval raid that left nine Turks dead. IHH has past ties to al-Qaida affiliates, and Bruguière says he is proud of the fact that – already in 1996 - he came to the conclusion that IHH "is a terror organization and not a charity group," he says. Bruguière was asked to investigate the Turkish group after French intelligence discovered that Canadian couriers were sending forged Moroccan passports to France for use by Islamic militants intent on carrying out attacks in France and other European countries.

"My investigation revealed a broad and global terror network that reached Bosnia and Afghanistan, whose center was at the Turkish IHH quarters," says Bruguière. "We had recordings of telephone conversations and documents from people who explicitly testified that this is a terror group. Turkish authorities raided the group's headquarters for good reason and discovered weapons, explosive materials and forged documents."

Bruguière does not rule out the possibility that the group continues its terror activities or aiding terror groups today. "I don't have updated information," he says, "but it is hard to believe they changed. In my opinion, they are continuing on the same track we uncovered a decade and a half ago."

Life under threat

Jean-Louis Bruguière is a clear product of the French administration and government, and he developed within France's complex legal system. He recalls how his first case as an investigating magistrate was to probe a 1982 terror attack at the Paris restaurant Goldenberg - a symbol of Jewish life in the Marais - which was carried out by Palestinian militants tied to Abu Nidal and which left six people dead. Since then, Bruguière has focused on investigating terror attacks and exposing terror organizations. He has been the target of death threats on more than one occasion and in 1997 police found and detonated a bomb near his house. The banned French revolutionary group Action Directe was apparently behind the attempted attack.

Bruguière also investigated Palestinian terror groups who plotted attacks on Jewish and Israeli targets in France. One of his most prominent investigations was into the 1982 murder of Israeli diplomat Ya'akov Barsimantov in a Paris parking lot. Barsimantov, an apparent Mossad agent responsible for security at Jewish institutions and an agency responsible for helping Jews from Arab and Muslim countries immigrate, was killed by a Lebanese woman recruited by a small terror group.

Bruguière's introduction to the Middle East continued with another case: His probe of arch-terrorist Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, a.k.a. Carlos the Jackal, who was extradited in 1994 from Sudan to France and who is currently serving a life sentence for the murder of two French counter-intelligence agents. In 2007, Bruguière ordered a new trial for Sánchez on charges relating to attacks in France in 1982 and 1983 that killed 11 and injured more than 100 people. Those attacks, on a Paris train, Marseille train station and the offices of two Arab newspapers, were meant to pressure authorities to release Sánchez's wife, also serving time on terror charges, from prison.

Bruguière could not speak in detail about the Sánchez case, but according to him, Sánchez is a classic mercenary who worked for the PLO, Libyan intelligence, Syria and Iraq. He was also sponsored by intelligence agencies in Hungary, the Czech Republic, and the former eastern Germany.

"He is a very complicated and intelligent man," Bruguière says of Sánchez. "However, he also tends to be a megalomaniac and spoke to me at length about how he is convinced of his important role in history. His problem is that he doesn’t understand the world has changed since the fall of communism and the end of the Cold War."