Le Monde diplomatique


Tainted evidence of Libyan terrorism

On 21 December 1988 a Pan Am Boeing 747 disintegrated over Lockerbie (Scotland) killing 259 people. On 19 September 1989 a UTA (French airlines) DC-10 exploded in mid-air killing 170. The trial in The Hague of two Libyans accused in the Lockerbie incident has just ended in a controversial verdict. One of the accused was released, the other sentenced to life imprisonment. With respect to the UTA incident, the French Supreme Court of Appeal is expected to issue a ruling on the request to bring proceedings against President Gadafy. However, at the beginning of the investigations into the two bombings, evidence initially pointed to various Palestinian groups, as well as to Syria and Iran. Scientific analysis of the UTA wreckage showed that the bomb technology matched that used by a Palestinian terrorist organisation.

In summer 1990, following the outbreak of the Gulf crisis and the decision by Syria and Iran to join the anti-Iraq coalition, the United States, joined by the French examining magistrate, Jean-Louis Bruguire, decided to abandon those leads and concentrate on Libyan responsibility instead. In pursuing Libyan involvement the investigators had to rely on extremely fragile testimony by a Congolese national, Bernard Yanga, in Brazzaville who has links with his country's security services. Following are excerpts from Pierre Pan's new book.


Investigation insiders were well aware of the UTA case's fragile nature since it hinged on the testimony of a single witness (Bernard Yanga). Yanga's testimony was inconsistent with the scientific evidence, which had pointed to the Arab Organisation of May 15 and thus in all likelihood to Ahmed Jibril's Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC) (1). Additional scientific evidence was thus necessary to strengthen Yanga's accusations against Libya.

One man came rushing to the aid of Bruguire, the examining magistrate: J Thomas Thurman, an FBI special agent assigned to the Bureau's prestigious Explosives Unit. This unit was responsible for determining the origin of bombs and explosives used in terrorist incidents. Tom Thurman has worked on all the major American terrorist incidents since beginning work in the police crime lab in 1981. His interest in bombs, explosives and weaponry dates back to his time in Korea, where he headed a weapons factory. Thurman is not the kind of man to waste his time behind a microscope, and many of his colleagues have been bitterly critical of this. One of them, Dr Frederic Whitehurst of the FBI's Scientific Analysis Section (SAS), complained in a memo to his superiors that Thurman had fabricated evidence in order to prove the guilt of Walter Leroy Moody (an American "serial bomber") while working on another case being investigated concurrently with the Lockerbie bombing incident. … Thurman's misbehaviour was substantiated in several other cases and resulted in his suspension from the FBI in 1997 (2).

Thurman always tried to arrive quickly at bombing sites and, much like a bloodhound, begin his search for evidence. Two days after the Pan Am 747 went down over Lockerbie, he was bustling about the wreckage, making contacts with both the Scottish police and his CIA counterparts. It is worth repeating how he masterfully solved the Lockerbie case by providing "scientific" evidence of the involvement of Libya and two Libyan nationals, even though the evidence had been pointing to Iranian and Syrian complicity via the PFLP-GC. The Americans saw a real go-getter in action, high on the adrenalin rush he felt during his dramatic investigations. "You can't sleep," said the new Superman. "We're the blacksmiths of the FBI. The nuts and bolts. We get extremely dirty, actually, filthy dirty."

Thurman's approach is anything but scientific. He manufactures opinions or hears them on the grapevine, and then tries to "prove" them scientifically. Working alongside his CIA colleagues on the Lockerbie and UTA bombings, he was aware that the CIA suspected Libyan involvement in both cases despite the evidence pointing to the PFLP-GC.

Help from the CIA

The CIA provided Thurman with information concerning three cases that showed unmistakable signs of Libyan involvement:

On Saturday 10 March 1984, at 12.35 pm, a UTA DC-8 operating as flight 772 connecting Brazzaville, Bangui, N'Djamena and Paris exploded at the N'Djamena airport in Chad. … Twenty-five people were injured, one of whom died several months later. This incident came on the heels of a statement by Gadafy in which he wondered if the French "were ready to wage another Algerian war in Chad". Libya decided to harass France, which sent 3,000 soldiers to Chad as part of Operation Manta. Libya wanted to demonstrate that despite the French military presence, security could not be assured in a sensitive location like an airport, located more than 1,500 km from the "red line" on Chad's 16th parallel. The French intelligence services concluded that Libyan involvement was "very probable". The suitcase containing the explosives was most likely loaded onto the aircraft in Bangui (Central African Republic), checked in under the fictitious name of Sad Youris. In reality, Youris was one Al Masri, who had been observed in March 1985 in Cotonou (Benin) working within the highly active Libyan People's Bureau. The French foreign intelligence service, the General Directorate for External Security (GDES), conveyed its findings to the CIA.

The CIA also supplied Thurman with information concerning the attempted bombing of the United States embassy in Togo; the Togolese security services had arrested nine people and discovered two suitcases packed with plastic explosives.

Most significantly, Thurman was given access to a special CIA dossier that the Americans used to direct the Congolese military security forces toward the trail leading to Libya. This case pertains to the 20 February 1988 arrest at Dakar airport of two Libyans, Mohammed Marzouk, alias Mohammed Naydi, and Mansour Omran Saber. The men were in possession of two MST-13 timers, part of an order that Libya had placed with the Swiss firm Mebo AG. They were also carrying Semtex and nine kilos of plastic explosives. The men spent four months in prison and were then released.

A year and a half into the Pan Am investigation, Thurman "discovered" a fingernail-sized fragment of printed circuit board that had allegedly triggered the explosion of the suitcase bomb. In mid-June 1990 a fact-finding commission showed a photograph of the fragment to Edwin Bollier, the head of Mebo. According to Bollier, the fragment he identified could have come from an order Mebo had sold to the Libyan secret service; but Bollier was not able to physically examine the fragment itself. It was only in September 1999 during the Lockerbie trial in Scotland that he was able to inspect two fragments of the infamous timer using a microscope. Bollier and his adviser reached the following conclusions: the fragments did not come from the timer that had been sold to the Libyans; the timer fragments had not been connected electrically (ie they had not been used); and most importantly, the fragments were not the same as those in the photo he had been shown in 1990! In May last year a Scottish judge asked Bollier to examine a fragment from the same timer: this time the fragment was charred!

Bollier has proclaimed far and wide, including on his company's website (3), that the fragments the Scottish judge showed him had been tampered with; some form of manipulation had thus taken place. "It's a forgery created by the FBI to support the theory implicating Libya. What I saw could not have come from Mebo" (4). It may be wise to keep one's distance from a man who has never been particularly selective about who he sells to, and who has apparently continued selling timers to Libya even after finding out that they were being used for terrorist purposes. Indeed, Bollier - who also supplied the Stasi, the former East German intelligence service - has changed his initial version of events somewhat. Nevertheless, it is useful to bear his testimony in mind (and to ascertain the nature of his relations with the CIA as well) in order to understand the account of the timer that allegedly detonated the suitcase on board the UTA flight.

Shifting the ground to Libya

In early summer 1990 Bruguire was studying the possible role of the PFLP-GC and certain Shiite Muslim groups - thus suggesting Syrian and Iranian involvement - when the Congolese report implicating Libya was issued. This shift in focus occurred at the same as it had in the Lockerbie investigation, and US influence was immediately suspected. Moreover, Bruguire and the Americans were both aware of the fragile nature of the testimony of the sole witness, Bernard Yanga…

Thurman had been working on photos of all the UTA wreckage found in a 50 sq km area of the Tenere Desert; this evidence was placed under special judicial seal no. 4. Unbeknownst to Bruguire and Claude Calisti, an expert from the Prefecture of Police crime lab, in summer 1991 Thurman identified a small piece of printed circuit board, green in colour and measuring 4 sq cm, bearing the marking TY.

Without notifying the French authorities, the FBI detectives began following the TY trail. TY is the trademark of the Taiwanese firm Taiyoun, which manufactured 120,000 such timers in 1988, of which 20,000 were for the German firm Grsslin, based in Freiburg. The FBI then pored over Grsslin's client list of some 350 names before singling one of them: Hans Peter Wst, a German national who had travelled to Libya in November 1988 and met with Issa al-Shibani. Al-Shibani had asked if Wst could provide him with timers that could run on direct current using a nine or 12 volt power supply and which were intended for the night-time illumination of airfields in the desert.

Upon returning to Germany, Wst contacted the Steinmetz company about modifying the batteries, which were not sufficiently powerful, and this was arranged. Wst told the FBI that he delivered the timers to Tripoli on 20 July 1989. The FBI quickly concluded that Libya had indeed purchased the TY timer, which had served as the retarding agent in the Samsonite luggage on board the DC-10. Thurman thus discovered the scientific evidence implicating Libya in both the Lockerbie and Tenere incidents.

Before informing Bruguire, the Americans began seeking British and French participation in an anti-Gadafy initiative, which led to the Libyan embargo. Immediately after receiving Thurman's report on 15 October 1991, Calisti notified Bruguire, who was pleased to have formal evidence supporting Yanga's testimony and scientifically proving the Libyan connection. "Formal proof of Libyan culpability" was supplied by the FBI, which worked on the top-secret photographs of the tiny piece of circuit board used to detonate the suitcase bomb, as Jean-Marie Pontault passionately proclaimed on both Le Point's front page and in his book (5). Neither Bruguire nor Pontault is worried by the belated yet timely arrival of this evidence, more than two years after the bombing.

Bruguire's bill of indictment includes the FBI's findings in their entirety but makes no mention of the French specialists' objections to these conclusions. Thurman's assertions, however, have spurred two counter-inquiries, one by the French 6th Central Criminal Investigation Directorate (CCID) and the French Territorial Surveillance Directorate (TSD), and the other by the Prefecture of Police crime lab.

Findings of the crime lab

The latter's conclusions are definitive: "It cannot be established that our timer fragment came from either the first batch purchased by the Freiburg factory or the second batch modified by the Libyan." A French interior ministry internal memorandum, dated 10 March 1993, is equally categorical: "The investigations pertaining to the fragment of printed circuit board found in the wreckage of the DC-10 and which may have come from the timer that caused the explosion have been completed. These investigations, conducted in 1992 in both Taiwan and Germany, have not enabled us to determine that the fragment came from the shipment of 101 timers ordered by the Libyan Issa al-Shibani."

Nor does Bruguire mention the Prefecture of Police crime lab's counter-inquiry, conducted in spring 1993 under Calisti's direction after the FBI investigation had been completed. Following the release of Thurman's report, the circuit board fragment - the "evidence" - had been removed from judicial seal no. 4, under which all the debris had been gathered, placed under special seal no. 4/4 and then examined thoroughly. Calisti, considered one of the world's leading explosives experts, offered this conclusion: the fragment provided by the FBI may have come from a timer similar to the one the FBI presented to Bruguire (ie the same timer purchased by Libya), but in no way could the fragment have come from the timer used to detonate the suitcase bomb. Calisti and his team found no trace of explosives on the timer fragment.

How could the bomb's retarding agent show no molecular trace of its exposure to penthrite during an explosion of such magnitude? Using complicated methods, the FBI tried to allay the doubts of its French counterparts by demonstrating that other areas close to the bomb showed no trace of explosives; according to the FBI, the deformations on the circuit board fragment were unquestionably due to the blast effect!

According to Calisti, the timer fragment did not constitute scientific evidence of Libyan involvement; his familiarity with Abu Ibrahim's bomb-making techniques also helped him arrive at this conclusion. Indeed, the TY timer could not have fit in the suitcase bomb because the timer was much too large. The Prefecture of Police crime lab thus stuck to its guns. Despite his certainty, Calisti had the debris under judicial seal no. 4 examined under a microscope in the hopes of finding another circuit board fragment on which the blast effect could be observed; this important test also proved unsuccessful. It is striking to note the similarity of the "scientific" evidence discovered by the FBI in both the Lockerbie and UTA cases. Of the tens of thousands of pieces of debris collected at each disaster site, one lone piece of printed circuit was found and, miracle of miracles, in each case the fragment bore markings that allowed for positive identification: Mebo in the Lockerbie case and TY in the case of the UTA DC-10. …

Despite the common findings of the CCID, the TSD and the Prefecture of Police crime lab, Bruguire chose to believe Thurman, the expert in fabricating evidence …

The suitcase story

Given that the initial scientific evidence - the suitcase bomb - had led the investigation to focus on Ahmed Jibril and the Arab Organisation of 15 May, and given that the timer fragment itself was unpersuasive, Bruguire resorted to incredible contortions to establish a link between the suitcase and Libya.

Bruguire explains in his bill of indictment that in September 1992 the TSD was informed that the Libyans were keeping two suitcase bombs in a non-judicial location, with one of them being of potential interest to the inquiry already underway. According to the Libyans, the two suitcases had been recovered at the time of bombing incidents carried out by the Libyan opposition on Libyan soil. Shielding himself behind the TSD, the judge saw the incidents as nothing but a "Libyan manoeuvre" designed "to sidetrack the French investigators". The judge then used the so-called manoeuvre to indict the Libyans.

One of the two Samsonite 200 wheeled suitcases was similar in appearance to the one that had brought down the UTA flight. In his bill of indictment, Bruguire stated that "the TSD's deputy director, who examined the suitcase in Tripoli, noted that in all probability it had been stored somewhat carelessly since it was quite dusty. In addition, there was no indication that the suitcase had been under any form of judicial seal. According to accounts, the suitcase was reportedly retrieved in 1987 in Tripoli in the possession of an opponent of Gadafy's regime who had links to the Mugarief network, the primary opponents of the Libyan government. The DST's deputy director then spoke with Abdallah Senoussi, head of the Libyan intelligence services. Under pressure from the French official, Senoussi suddenly agreed to have the two suitcases brought up to his Tripoli office. The Libyans would go on to regret this imprudent act."

This account is quite simply false. It was in Tripoli on Friday 15 November 1991 (not September 1992) that Senoussi first mentioned the existence of the suitcase to General Philippe Rondot, Pierre Joxe's intelligence adviser. In the belief that he was offering definitive proof of his good faith, the Libyan showed the general the suitcase bomb, which was identical to the one used on board the UTA DC-10. Rondot was able to take samples of the explosives in the suitcase, and a Libyan foreign intelligence official gave him the following account: "We found this suitcase in the possession of a Tunisian member of the Mugarief group. As you may know, Mugarief has long had a base in Baghdad, where he provided assistance to Hissene Habre's regime in Chad, supplying it with arms seized by Iraq after the Iran-Iraq war. Mugarief was part of Colonel Haftar's forces, which were set up and financed by the CIA in Chad, and which disappeared without a trace with CIA help following Idriss Deby's overthrow of Habre. And as you may know, Mugarief is currently in the United States."

Another TSD delegation arrived in Tripoli in April 1992 to investigate the suitcase story and other matters. On 24 September 1992 Bruguire met secretly with the Libyan Judge Mursi at the French consulate in Geneva, where Bruguire examined photographs of the suitcases and retained possession of the photos. Many more secret meetings took place before the suitcases arrived in France. What the Libyans had taken to be proof of their good faith had been transformed by the French examining magistrate into the key evidence of their guilt. Starting from the presumption that Libyans are inveterate liars, Bruguire concluded that Libya was in possession of suitcase bombs manufactured by Abu Ibrahim and that the suitcase used to blow up the UTA DC-10 came from Tripoli. However, in his bill of indictment, the judge forgot one "detail": the system used to detonate the suitcase recovered by the Libyans was not the same as the one that, according to the FBI, blew up the Samsonite suitcase on board the aircraft in Brazzaville. This detail only served to bolster the arguments of the French experts under Calisti's direction. In short, the suitcase debris and timer fragments found in the Tenere Desert could in no way constitute proof of Libyan involvement in the bombing.

The scourge of terrorists

As one of the first French judicial celebrities, Bruguire has spent long hours polishing his image and setting the stage for his investigations and travels. Realising that he could single-handedly reshape French foreign policy and recognising that politicians were scared of him, Bruguire organised and perfected a powerful system that enabled him to lobby for and impose his own view of the truth. Judges are the last remaining professionals to enjoy flattering coverage in an otherwise ruthless press since they can grant scoops to whomever they like due to the confidentiality of judicial proceedings. Woe unto those who fail to return the favour. Bruguire was one of the first to learn this trick. The DC-10 bombing case put him on the magazines' front pages for the first time. The French weekly Le Point offers justification for this in an article that must have made his head spin: "This judge is on our cover because he represents all that we cherish as opposed to all that we hate. A love for justice as opposed to compulsory moral compromise; civic courage as opposed to systematic equivocation; the rule of law as opposed to the collusive reasons of state. He is a soldier fighting terrorism, that war waged by cowards. He combats the investigative sloth recommended by our chronic 'realists' in order to ensure their own peace of mind and that of a jaded state.

"Bruguire is one of the last to serve this unworthy old crone that our democracy is becoming. He is a soldier of justice. He is not a braggart. He has no sponsors, and has nothing to sell or advertise save a personal conception of the law that brings honour to all civilised nations. I recognise that his is not the image likely to be exhibited in the court of public opinion, but this is all the more reason to do so…"

The reality is otherwise. Bruguire has always felt closer to the Place Beauvau (ministry of the interior) than to the Place Vendme (ministry of justice), especially when Charles Pasqua and Jean-Louis Debr were in power. He remained on good terms with Alain Marsaud after Marsaud resigned his position on the 14th antiterrorist court to join Charles Pasqua in the Senate. His close links to the Rally for the Republic have led him to dream of occupying positions such as the directorship of the TSD or of the Gendarmerie, since this "soldier of justice" also has secret agent yearnings. Nothing thrilled him more than arranging, in collaboration with General Rondot, the 1994 capture of Carlos in the Sudan. As a man of order and a believer in "reasons of state", Bruguire sees himself on the front lines of the fight to preserve certain values. He disdains those human rights defenders who "play into terrorists' hands". …

In 1981 the French State Security Court, which had dealt with terrorist cases, ceased to exist. Bruguire was then entrusted with a bombing case involving the Direct Action group. This proved a turning point in his career. He gave up his work on organised crime and began to concentrate on terrorism-related matters. Eighty of his 100 cases in 1986 pertained to terrorism. Bruguire became the uncontested expert in cases that had badly shaken public opinion - so much so that journalists dubbed him the terrorists' "hunter" and "nemesis". …

Bruguire's methods, often seen as expeditious, make him stand out among judges. He has increased the number of commissions of enquiry, examinations, interrogations, temporary detentions and instances of political provocation. Certain prominent cases that initially seemed open-and-shut turned out to be without substance or were poorly conceived. In January 1999 the French court of criminal appeal dismissed the case of the Saint-Germain-des-Prs drugstore bombing involving Carlos the Jackal, ruling that there were no grounds for prosecution. The tribunal's judgement with respect to the vast so-called Chalabi network - 173 Islamic activists who, on Bruguire's orders and in connivance with Jean-Louis Debr, were rounded up with great ceremony - was a stinging rebuff to Bruguire's efforts. Thirty-four of those detained were released for lack of evidence on the orders of Judge Thiel, who took over the case; of the 138 individuals tried in a Fleury-Mrogis gymnasium, 51 were released after spending several months in pre-trial detention…

The administration of French antiterrorist justice under Bruguire's heavy hand is now being challenged. Bruguire's judicial efforts have eluded any form of democratic control since antiterrorist matters are his purview and he has been entrenched since 1986. He is accountable to no one, and thanks to his made-to-measure position as first vice-president of the Paris tribunal, he enjoys a semi-regal status worthy of France's ancien rgime. In the opinion of most lawyers, the French court of criminal appeal, which should serve as a genuine recourse as regards the decisions of antiterrorist judges, now operates like a simple record-keeping chamber: owing to the cases' size and complexity, the judges cover up without asking questions.

* Author of Manipulations africaines (Plon, Paris, 2001), from which this piece was excerpted. Other publications (for Fayard, Paris) include La Diabolique de Caluire (1999); Vies et morts de Jean Moulin (1998); and TF1, un pouvoir (with Christophe Nick) (1997).

(1) Leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC), a Damascus-based Palestinian organisation opposed to Yasser Arafat.

(2) See also Tainting Evidence: Inside the Scandals at the FBI Crime Lab, John F Kelly and Philip K Wearne, Free Press, New York, 1998.

(3) http://www.mebocom-defilee.ch/

(4) Le Temps, Friday 30 June 2000.

(5) L'Attentat, Fayard, Paris, 1992.


Translated by Luke Sandford

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