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Norm Dixon: How Willie Brigitte Became A Terrorist

How Willie Brigitte Became A 'Terrorist'

By Norm Dixon
The Green Left Weekly

''What was Willie Brigitte doing in Australia for five months'' and ''Why did the federal government not take action against him sooner'' are the questions that the corporate media has repeatedly asked since news of the 35-year-old French citizen's arrest and deportation to France broke on October 27.

Not content with the obvious answers -- that Brigitte was leading an ordinary life and had done nothing wrong, other than accept employment while on a tourist visa -- the media, the federal Coalition and NSW Labor governments, and their police and spy agencies, seized on the Brigitte case to whip up a ?terrorist? scare based on little more than accusations, assertions, rumours and exaggerations.

Despite the enormous resources available to them, to date the media moguls' finest exponents of ``chequebook journalism'' have been unable to find anything controversial about Brigitte's stay in Australia.

Sometime in May, Brigitte arrived in Sydney, travelling on his French passport. He made no attempt to hide his identity. He lived in the suburbs of Belmore and Lakemba, in the city's south-west. A convert to Islam, he occasionally visited a small local prayer room and worked in a nearby restaurant. An avid basketball and boxing fan, he joined a Redfern gym in June and attended Anthony Mundine's world title fight in Sydney on September 3. In August, Brigitte married an Australian woman, who was a former army reserve member.

France's top ?anti-terrorist? magistrate, Jean-Louis Bruguiere, reportedly alerted the Australian government on September 22 that Brigitte was in the country and had once visited Pakistan for six months, staying at ``training camps'' operated by an Islamic group, the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LET). Brigitte was detained on October 9 after Canberra was told on October 7 that Paris believed the French rugby team could be attacked while in Australia.

However, Brigitte was not detained in relation to such a plot, only for his visa violation. In fact, both the Australian and NSW governments have since stated there was no attack being planned. After routine questioning, Brigitte was quietly deported to France on October 17.


Had the federal government even remotely suspected Brigitte of being a ``sleeper agent'', creating ``terror cells'' or recruiting for terrorist groups, as is now being claimed, it would have immediately invoked the tough detention and interrogation powers of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO), which are contained in the draconian ``anti-terrorism'' laws passed earlier this year. Brigitte's arrest and deportation would probably have gone unnoticed had French Radio Europe 1 reporter Alain Acco not broken the story, which was then reported by the French daily Le Monde, over the October 25-26 weekend. The Australian media picked up the story on October 27.

Acco's radio report, virtually the sole source of the subsequently sensationalised and embroidered accusations made against Brigitte by Australian governments and media (attorney-general Philip Ruddock admitted as much to ABC TV's Lateline on October 27), was largely based on the assertions of a ``Parisian anti-terrorist magistrate'' who is investigating Brigitte and on what French security police claim Brigitte has told them under interrogation since arriving back in France.

A version of Acco's report was published in the October 30 Australian. According to Acco and his informants, Brigitte was a social worker in Paris' poor neighbourhoods when he converted to Islam in 1998. He attended a mosque in which members of a ``radical Sunni organisation, the Salafist Group for Call and Combat'' were active. The group supported terrorists fighting for an Islamic government in Algeria.

``While considered a bit player'', Acco reported, ``on May 26, 1998, Brigitte narrowly escaped arrest during a French police sweep of militants on the eve of the soccer World Cup.''

Acco and his informants claim that just after the 9/11 attacks, Brigitte travelled to Pakistan, in the hope of reaching Afghanistan. However, prevented from crossing the border, he returned to Lahore, where he ``was taken in hand'' by the LET and spent six months in the group's ``training camps''. Acco's secret police informants claim that Brigitte admitted he ``was taught how to handle light weapons, but swears he was never taught how to make explosives''.

Brigitte returned to France in January 2002.

According to ABC Radio's AM on October 27, Acco's ?Parisian anti-terrorist magistrate? is none other than France's flamboyant and eccentric Jean-Louis Bruguiere, whose disregard for civil liberties and leaks to the media have been criticised by French human rights organisations.

Bruguiere has carefully cultivated a ``Dirty Harry'' image (he at one time even openly toted a .357 Magnum). He heads a panel of specialist ``anti-terrorist'' judges who have enormous powers. Suspects can be questioned for four days without a lawyer and detained for up to four years without a trial, including on a vague charge of ?criminal association relating to a terrorist enterprise?.

This is the charge that Brigitte is presently being held on in a Paris jail. One of Bruguiere's favourite tactics is to indiscriminately round up and detain hundreds of people in the slim hope of catching a few genuine terrorists in the net. He did this in June, to 160 people alleged to be members of the Iranian Peoples Mujaheddin. Most were released after four days of intense interrogation, while 17 were placed under ``judicial investigation''. As Jean-Pierre Dubois of the French Human Rights League has explained: ``[Bruguiere's magistrates] just accept that there will be lots of undue imprisonment.''

It was Bruguiere who ordered the 1998 round-up of 138 people accused of aiding Algerian Islamists referred to in Acco's report. Acco quotes his ``Parisian anti-terrorist magistrate'' as saying, ``We are often criticised for this round-up, but we were spot on. A real hornet's nest.'' What Acco didn't report was 70 of the defendants, some of whom spent up to two years in ``preventative detention'', were found not guilty; most of the remaining detainees received suspended sentences.

Despite his biased sources, Acco's account contradicts a key accusation being made against Brigitte by the Australian media and governments. Acco reports that Brigitte insisted to interrogators that before he decided to visit Australia he had refused a request from a Pakistan-based extremist cleric ``to house an explosives expert from Pakistan, as he did not want to have anything to do, directly or indirectly, with an attack on Australian soil. He claims he led a quiet life in Sydney.''

Media distortions

Yet, this denial was transformed in Australian news reports to its opposite: ``[Brigitte] is accused of being sent to Australia to shelter an explosives expert'' (the Australian, October 29); ``Brigitte had been ordered to go to Australia to shelter another man who was an expert in explosives'' (Sydney Morning Herald, October 29).

The SMH on October 30 twisted Brigitte's denial further by stating: ``The terrorist suspect ... is believed to have revealed that his instructions to link with an explosives expert while in Sydney came from a contact in Pakistan, where is alleged to have received al Qaeda training... Information from Brigitte's French interrogation and the weekend raids has hardened the Howard government's belief that at least two other men, and probably more, were part of a network he was putting together.''

In another remarkable evolution, the November 1 Age reported that ``Gilles LeClair, France's top anti-terrorism official, said [that] authorities `are 90% sure [Brigitte] wasn't in Australia as a tourist'''. However, Australian Associated Press on November 2 converted this to: ``Authorities in France said they were `90% sure' that French terror suspect recently deported from Australia was planning an attack here, a newspaper reported yesterday.''

The SMH on November 2 went further, interpreting LeClair's comment as meaning: ``The strength of Brigitte's terrorist connections and activities have now been confirmed by Australian and French sources, who have pointed to strong evidence that the one-time Aussie tourist had been planning an attack on Sydney.''

The November 3 Australian ran with the ball: ``A fortnight after Brigitte's detention by French authorities, and a week after a series of raids in Sydney, investigators now believe Brigitte was going to either lead or coordinate an al Qaeda attack on Australian soil.'' And the Age on November 3 highlighted how the media-government misinformation tag team works: ``Mr Ruddock has said Brigitte was probably in Australia to commit a terrorist act, but his spokesperson said yesterday that this information had mostly come from the French interrogators.''

Media lies

Since the Radio Europe 1 report, sources close to Bruguiere and the security people have continued to leak claims to the press -- widely and prominently repeated in the Australian press -- that Brigitte was ?suspected of operating survival training camps for al Qaeda sympathisers? near Paris and that he was ?linked? to the supply of false passports to the assassins who killed Afghan warlord Ahmed Shah Massoud in September 2001.

However, the Age's Paris correspondent Peter Fray reported on October 31 that evidence presented to Brigitte's secret court hearing contained ``nothing to support that he was a player of any importance'' in the al Qaeda network or the Massoud assassination. ``There's no decisive evidence against him at the moment'', a ``legal source'' close to the case told Fray. Brigitte's ``link'' to the Massoud killing is reason he has been detained.

Brigitte's wife hit out at the media and government frame-up of her husband on November 5. In an email sent to the SMH, she wrote: ``With Sydney crime gangs shooting each other, issues of increased ASIO powers, Iraq war and Australian Idol, you still managed to find space to tell Sydney that my husband went to the gym, and then he mysteriously stopped going, leaving the readers to speculate that he was off planning terror. Perhaps he just wanted to spend more time with his wife!''

In relation to Brigitte's ties to the Lakemba prayer hall, his wife pointed out that, ``In fact my husband rarely went there; he preferred to pray elsewhere. It is possible that many of the Lakemba prayer hall members raided by ASIO for having an association with my husband had in fact never met him or heard of him... Did ASIO use my husband's case as a reason or an excuse to gain access to prayer hall regulars, stir trouble and create divisions within the Muslim community''

From Green Left Weekly, November 12, 2003. Visit the Green Left Weekly home page.

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