Published on Monday, July 5, 2004 by the Agence France Presse
Iraq a 'Black Hole' for Islamist Recruiting, Top Anti-Terror Judge Tells AFP
The US-led occupation of Iraq has boosted recruitment to Islamist groups in Europe and is a "black hole" pulling in militants from across the Middle East, France's top anti-terrorist judge Jean-Louis Bruguiere told AFP in an exclusive interview.
There is so far no evidence of an organized network in Europe smuggling militants into Iraq to fight US forces there, Bruguiere said, but he warned that groups linked to Al-Qaeda were making full use of the instability as a propaganda tool.
"Jihad is above all about taking up arms and fighting the infidel, and Iraq is getting to the point where it can play this role. Increasingly it will wield a power of attraction for groups in the region ... It is a kind of black hole, drawing them in," he said.
At 61, Bruguiere is France's most experienced man in the fight against terrorism, with a 20-year track record as investigating magistrate that includes judicial triumphs over the far-left, the IRA, Carlos the Jackal, Libya and -- in the mid 1990s -- the first manifestations of Islamic militancy.
In constant touch with counter-terrorism agencies around the world, he has played a key role in coordinating the international response to Al-Qaeda in the wake of the September 11 attacks -- and nearly three years later expresses a "measured optimism" at the way the democratic world has girded itself for the challenge.
"We are not at the end of the tunnel. The threat still lies before us ... But if I used to be more of a pessimist it was because I felt our appreciation of the threat was not shared. Some players were not willing to implement a strategy against a threat they thought was non-existent. That is no longer the case," he said.
The level of international cooperation has improved dramatically, with even Saudi Arabia showing a abrupt change of approach in recent months following a spate of terror attacks, according to Bruguiere.
In Europe judges from different countries communicate directly, rather than via ministries, and the first cross-border investigation teams have been set up between France and Spain.
However Bruguiere conceded that legal disparities and variable threat assessments often hamper progress on a case, and he urged other countries to emulate French levels of "analysis, reaction, and means for riposte."
"Cultures are very different. Methods are not the same. We need to develop a network of relations and improve our structures of coordination in order to gain reaction time. Because time is essential in a state of war. If you have to wait too long ... you can lose the fight," he said.
Bruguiere described radical Islamism as built on three circles: an inner core that is Al-Qaeda proper; a tier of radical groups with regional agendas that moved into Al-Qaeda's orbit after September 11; and a loose outer ring of "shifting, polymorphous movements, pursuing their own goals and with their own memberships."
"When you have a three-level structure like this, the almost random interaction between them makes it extremely hard to draw up a precise model of the threat. No one can draw up a clear analytical picture. It is too complex," he said.
"But what we see today is that (Islamists) are refining their strategy, notably in their choice of targets. They are increasingly aware of their effect on the world economy and on markets. They are acting on specific agendas," he said, pointing to this year's attacks in Spain and Turkey.
When asked about a possible threat to the Summer Olympic Games, due to take place August 13-29 in Athens, the judge replied: "Under the current circumstances, every large concentration of people... presents an important window of opportunity for the networks, whose goal is to spread the message of terror as quickly and forcefully as possible."
Bruguiere drew attention to the growing influence of Islamist groups in the Sahel belt of sub-Saharan Africa -- notably the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, known as GSPC -- and voiced concern about the vulnerability of southeast Asian countries such as Singapore, Indonesia and Japan.
As for Europe, he said the Madrid bombings on March 11 had shown that no country was immune to the risk of attack.
"Europe is a zone where Islamists are on the defensive. It will be hard to carry out an attack, but that does not mean there will not be one. We all have to be vigilant. Terrorism is the concern of all -- not just the specialists," he said.
© 2004 AFP