A French Muslim convert accused of plotting to attack a Sydney nuclear reactor and strategic targets across Australia was to go on trial yesterday in Paris on charges of terrorist conspiracy.
Willie Brigitte, a 38-year-old from the French Caribbean island of Guadeloupe, was arrested in Australia in 2003 following a tip-off from the French intelligence services, and deported for immigration offenses.
In French custody since his return, Brigitte faces up to 10 years' imprisonment on charges of "criminal conspiracy in relation with a terrorist enterprise," at the outcome of the three-day trial.
Brigitte has been portrayed in Australia as the country's most dangerous al-Qaeda link, sus-pected of plotting destruction on the scale of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the US.
France's top anti-terrorism judge, Jean-Louis Bruguiere, who investigated the case, suspects him of setting up a terror cell in Australia on the orders of the Pakistani Islamic extremist group Lashkar-e-Taiba.
Its alleged targets included the Pine Gap US electronic intelligence outpost in central Australia, the Lucas Heights nuclear reactor in Sydney, and military bases across the country.
A former head of France's DGSE foreign intelligence agency, Alain Chouet, has cast doubt on the prosecution's case.
"Objectively, there isn't very much against him. If the Australians had concrete, converging evidence, why didn't they prosecute him themselves?" he said.
But Louis Caprioli, who was head of the DST domestic intelligence agency at the time of Brigitte's arrest, said the evidence against him was solid.
"One thing is certain, he wasn't in Australia for a holiday in the sun. It was an operational trip, aimed at setting up a cell with a view to carrying out attacks," he said.
Brigitte was first spotted by French DST agents in 1998, after he converted to Islam and traveled to Yemen to attend a Koranic school seen as linked to al-Qaeda.
Back in Paris, he started attending a radical Islamist mosque, rubbing shoulders with members of the armed Algerian Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat.
He allegedly went on to run forest training camps in France to toughen up would-be Islamist fighters, and was linked to a group that abetted the murder of the anti-Taliban Afghan war chief Ahmad Shah Massood, killed two days before Sept. 11.
After Sept. 11, Brigitte is thought to undergone combat training in Pakistan, and, after a period back in France, to have been summoned to Australia by a Lashkar-e-Taiba operative.
Moving under the wing of Faheem Khalid Lodhi, a Pakistani-born architect sentenced to 20 years in jail last year for planning to blow up Sydney's power grid, he settled in a southwest suburb of Sydney.
There he spent five months working in a kebab shop, married an Australian Muslim convert and former army signaller, and allegedly drew up plans for his own attack.
His French lawyer Jean-Claude Durimel insists his client went to Australia "for a change of life" and says there is "no material evidence" against him.