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Terror Witness Waiting to Speak Out

Jack Roche, convicted in a bomb plot, may have firsthand knowledge of Islamic extremists. But a battle over his sentence is preventing its use.

September 01, 2004|Richard C. Paddock | Times Staff Writer

PERTH, Australia — Convicted terrorist Jack Roche, whose offer to provide information about Osama bin Laden and other Al Qaeda leaders was ignored by authorities four years ago, wants to volunteer his help again.

From Hakea prison in suburban Perth, where he is serving nine years for plotting to blow up the Israeli Embassy in Canberra, Roche has offered to testify in the trials of top suspected terrorists in Europe and Asia, including Indonesian cleric Abu Bakar Bashir.

In exchange, he's angling for an early release from prison and placement in a witness-protection program. Instead, the Australian government has gone to court to try to add a decade to his sentence.

Roche, whose sentence has already been trimmed from 10 years on condition that he answer investigators' questions, has given police detailed statements intended for authorities in Indonesia, Germany and France. The European countries are interested in his knowledge of Christian Ganczarski, an alleged conspirator in the 2002 bombing of a Tunisian synagogue that killed 21 people, mostly German tourists. Ganczarski is being held in France.

The standoff over his sentence means Roche may never take the witness stand. He has refused to sign the statements he gave police as long as the threat of a longer term hangs over him.

The Australian government, arguing that his sentence is too lenient, has asked the appellate court for a term "approaching the maximum" of 25 years. A hearing is set for Sept. 9. "I don't think there would be much inclination to give him a get-out-of-jail-free card," said Steve Ingram, spokesman for Atty. Gen. Philip Ruddock. "His sentence was already reduced in the anticipation of future cooperation."

Roche's defenders contend that the government is more concerned about appearing tough on terrorism at home than helping foreign governments lock up suspects who pose a significant threat. According to sources familiar with the case, Roche believes he has more than fulfilled his promise to talk with the police.

The May verdict against Roche was the country's highest-profile terrorism conviction, but the government's handling of the case has been plagued by missteps.

Roche, a British-born convert to Islam, was recruited in the 1990s into the Jemaah Islamiah network -- which Bashir allegedly leads -- by Indonesian immigrants in Sydney.

As a naturalized Australian citizen who could travel freely in the West, Roche received special attention at the highest levels of Jemaah Islamiah and its umbrella organization, Al Qaeda.

Roche went to Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan and Afghanistan, meeting most of the top leaders of the two groups. In 2000, he briefly met Bin Laden at an Al Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan.

He came back to Australia with orders to organize a white Australian cell and begin surveillance on terrorism targets. But he returned with misgivings about his role.

Fearing he would be killed if he tried to back out, he decided to become a government informant. At the time, he had information on the whereabouts of Bin Laden; Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who had allegedly begun organizing the Sept. 11 attacks on the U.S.; and Hambali, the Jemaah military commander who was allegedly behind the 2002 Bali nightclub bombing that killed 202 people, including 88 Australians.

Roche telephoned the Australian Security Intelligence Organization three times in mid-2000 offering detailed information about Al Qaeda. Agents took notes on the conversations but never got back to him. He says he called the U.S. Embassy in Canberra to offer the same information, but the Americans also were uninterested.

Roche eventually distanced himself from Jemaah Islamiah but was arrested in 2002 during a crackdown on Islamic extremists after the Bali bombing.

Roche's knowledge of how Al Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiah work -- and the links between the groups -- could yet prove valuable to international investigators.

French authorities are interested in questioning him as part of investigations into the suicide bombing that killed French and German tourists at an ancient synagogue in Djerba, Tunisia, and into a French-based network that allegedly recruited jihadis and trained them in the forests near Fontainebleau.

Willie Brigitte, believed to be connected with the French group, allegedly plotted to carry out a terrorist attack in Australia before he was deported to France in 2003.

Judge Jean-Louis Bruguiere, France's leading anti-terrorism magistrate, told the Los Angeles Times that he sent Australian authorities a formal request to interrogate Roche and plans to come to Australia to interview him personally. "I am interested in questioning him about the Djerba case and about Willie Brigitte," Bruguiere said. "I will certainly go to Australia, but I do not know yet when I will go."

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