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Top Terrorist Hunter Follows Trail to Southland

Court: French prosecutor may testify that defendant in bomb conspiracy trial is part of global network.

April 02, 2001|JOSH MEYER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Swashbuckling French prosecutor Jean-Louis Bruguiere has spent the last seven years chasing a group of Algerian extremists around the globe as part of his mission to rout terrorism.

As early as today in Los Angeles, France's top terrorist hunter may take the stand as a key prosecution witness in the federal bomb conspiracy trial of Ahmed Ressam. If he does, Bruguiere is expected to lay out in detail what he believes are Ressam's long affiliations with those extremists, and his involvement in terrorist activities in his home country of Algeria and, later, in France and Canada, where he was living.

Bruguiere also would testify that when Ressam was arrested Dec. 14, 1999, with a car trunk full of explosive compounds at the U.S.-Canadian border, he was acting as part of a global network of terrorist cells with links to Islamic militant Osama bin Laden.

But first, prosecutors must persuade U.S. District Court Judge John Coughenour to allow Bruguiere to testify before the jury. And Ressam's defense lawyers have said they will vehemently oppose allowing Bruguiere to serve as an expert witness.

After hearing from Bruguiere without jurors present, Coughenour could allow him to testify without restriction, bar him from testifying or restrict Bruguiere's testimony to such topics as search warrants and wiretaps he has executed against the group.

Prosecutors say Bruguiere's testimony would be instrumental in helping convict Ressam of the main terrorism conspiracy charge, which could result in a life prison term.

They say Bruguiere's expertise, and his lengthy pursuit of Algerian extremists, give him specific knowledge of the structure and tactics of the Algerian terrorist network that prosecutors hope to link to Ressam.

That testimony, they say, could help explain to the jury Ressam's motives for engaging in an alleged plot to bomb millennium celebrations on or about New Year's Day 2000.

Prosecutors also hope to use Bruguiere to counter defense lawyers' contentions that Ressam was an unwitting courier in the alleged plot, who either didn't know that the explosives were in the trunk of his rental car, or didn't know their significance.

At a pretrial hearing in the Ressam case in January, Bruguiere testified that Islamic fundamentalist terrorists always act in a highly organized conspiracy.

A prosecutor asked Bruguiere if such groups "ever . . . use unwitting couriers?"

"No. Never unknowing," Bruguiere responded. "Because the role of the couriers is very important in the logistical sense. These missions are always entrusted to the people who belong to these movements and who share in their ideology."

Ressam's chief prosecutor, Assistant U.S. Atty. Jerry Diskin, has termed Bruguiere "an important witness. We want him very badly."

A Ressam defense lawyer has called Bruguiere an overzealous prosecutor--and not an unbiased expert witness--who would unfairly prejudice the jury with speculation about global terrorism.

Critics, including some French politicians, have called him a publicity hound who is too conspiracy minded, and who often makes accusations--and files criminal charges--without substantive evidence to make the case.

Bruguiere himself has been unavailable for comment.

If history is a guide, Bruguiere's testimony would be a dramatic highlight in a trial marked by tedious discussions about Ressam's credit-card purchases and the intricacies of making explosive compounds and bomb-timing devices.

Bruguiere, 56, is a colorful figure who is widely considered to be one of the world's foremost authorities on what he calls the "Radical Islamic Fundamentalist Movement."

He is nicknamed "the cowboy," for his swashbuckling ways, the .357 magnum he likes to carry for protection and his penchant for charging into foreign and often hostile countries in search of terrorists.

Bruguiere is actually an "investigating magistrate" or judge who, under French law, is granted wide-ranging authority to prosecute acts of terrorism against French targets around the globe.

As such, he can--and often does--marshal a small army of French police officers and intelligence officials to help him. In his home country, he can issue his own search warrants and wiretaps and can interrogate, arrest and charge suspects.

In his 20 years on the job, Bruguiere has built successful cases against some of the most notorious terrorists in the world, including Ilich Ramirez Sanchez--better known by his nom de guerre Carlos The Jackal--as well as radical Palestinian and Lebanese terror groups and the Irish Republican Army.

He won international acclaim when he was the first to make the Libyan connection in the terrorist sabotage of French and American airliners, including the December 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland.

Last year, Bruguiere filed criminal charges in France against Ressam and 23 other men, saying they were members of the Roubaix Gang, which is believed responsible for a series of deadly terrorist attacks in France and Belgium starting in 1994.

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