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Published on 15 April 2015

French antiterrorism judge leads fight against jihadism

For Marc Trévidic, the terror attacks that killed 17 in Paris in January hit close to home.

As the antiterrorism judge who leads the fight in France against homegrown jihadism, his worst fear — an assault — had not only materialised but one of the victims was Franck Brinsolaro, his former bodyguard.

The security officer had spent five years as a member of Mr Trévidic’s 24-hour protection squad. In the morning of 7 January, Brinsolaro was looking after Stéphane Charbonnier, or Charb, the editor of weekly magazine Charlie Hebdo. Both were shot down by Chérif and Said Kouachi, as the two Islamist terrorists stormed the offices of the satirical publication with Kalashnikov guns. “We didn’t have time to think. We focused on catching them,” Mr Trévidic says.
The manhunt took three days and ended with the death of the attackers. Since then, the government has deployed 10,500 soldiers, announced legislation and 2,680 new jobs over three years to beef up intelligence services. But Mr Trévidic questions the logic of some of these moves. Deploying soldiers has never prevented a large terrorist attack, he says.
More importantly, increasing the number of intelligence personnel will not help unless police investigation units are beefed up too. “We can get all the intelligence we want, we need investigative police officers to build cases,” he says. “Today those investigators are swamped.”
Before the attacks on Charlie Hebdo, he and the other seven Paris investigative judges who form France’s antiterrorism division were struggling to cope with the surge in French fighters returning from Syria, base of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or Isis.
Three months after the attacks, he says they still are.
Over a beer at Au Deux Palais, a Belle Époque brasserie across from the Palais de Justice near Notre-Dame, the 49-year-old judge describes the swelling flow of jihadis, the diversity of backgrounds and ages, the exhaustion of the police officers who work with him and the ever-morphing terrorism threat. Mr Trévidic, who first dealt with Islamist terrorism as a prosecutor in 2000, says the pressure of a potential attack is constant, his two bodyguards a reminder of the risks to his own life.
The terror threat is changing. “We’re fighting against what is visible: when they leave for Syria and when they return, they boast about it on Facebook,” he says. “But when they start sending in commandos with forged [identity] papers, that will be difficult. They can get forged documents whenever they want, given their links with the Turkish mafia.”
Isis is likely to plot more structured, deadlier terrorist attacks in addition to encouraging “lone wolves”, such as Mohammed Merah, who in 2012 murdered seven people in Toulouse and Montauban, southern France. “We’re allowing a powerful terrorist organisation to develop,” he says. “They have a territory, they have an army.”

Making of a French jihadi
Since the Paris attacks, France’s jails are under pressure to find ways of tackling Islamist extremism
About two Syria returnees find their way to his office each week, typically after being kicked out of Turkey. The last one he interrogated, in his early twenties, claimed he had followed a friend. “His friend calls him from Syria, tells him to fly to Turkey and take the bus to Gaziantep,” Mr Trévidic recounts. “There, someone picks him up, he bribes a Turkish soldier at the border and finds himself in Raqqa.”
After two weeks of training, he received a Kalashnikov, and after two months, he was sent to Mosul, Iraq, before joining a Katiba, or battalion. He then made up the excuse of a fiancée to pick up in Turkey to get permission to leave the caliphate. Months of investigation may be needed to back up his version. In the meantime, he remains in custody with 140 others in a similar situation. The judges have another 150 under surveillance without their knowledge. Another 3,000 real and would-be jihadis are monitored by intelligence services.
Where once judges sent detainees to different locations to prevent radicalisation, now teenagers caught on their way to Syria and likely to get out within four years are put with Isis fighters who committed atrocities, he points out. “It’s like putting someone who stole candies with someone who robbed the central bank. Some may become the next Kouachis.”
This is just one sign of how the government response is not always well thought through, he says. Mr Trévidic questions the purpose of a bill that gives intelligence services more tools to spy on digital and mobile communications and install recording devices in homes, among other measures. The bill has already triggered opposition from civil rights groups because it applies to other areas such as corporate espionage. “The government should have focused on terrorism only, not try to sneak in things that intelligence services wanted for years but that have nothing to do with the January attacks,” he says.
Mr Trévidic built his reputation by solving desperate cases and there is no shortage of those. Last month, he issued extradition warrants against three suspects linked to the attacks on a Jewish restaurant on Rue des Rosiers in Paris in 1982, in which six people were killed, a case he took over in 2007. But the magistrate may not be there to interrogate them. The law requires a judge to leave his position after ten years, which means he has to move on by 2016. “It’s really bad timing,” he says. “It’s a bit like, we’re in the middle of the Alamo battle and Davy Crockett suddenly says: ‘Sorry, I’ve got to go!’ ”

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