It wasn’t until after the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks that much of the world recognized the threat of Lashkar-i-Taiba. But in France, a renowned judge had been warning about the Pakistan-based militant group’s international ambitions for years.
Much of the American intelligence community before November 2008 viewed Lashkar as a regional threat focused exclusively on fighting a proxy war with India over Kashmir. But Jean-Louis Bruguière, who earned a reputation as a relentless terrorist hunter in his 30 years as one of France’s powerful “investigative judges,” knew from his own investigations that the group had for several years been carefully training Western recruits to carry out plots in the West.
Just a year before the Mumbai attacks, Bruguière successfully convicted a French citizen who had been deployed by Lashkar on an international mission. In the video below, Bruguière tells ProPublica reporter and FRONTLINE correspondent Sebastian Rotella how Lashkar’s threat became clear during the course of his investigation.
It was this French Lashkar operative, Willie Brigitte, who sparked Bruguière’s pursuit of the terrorist group. After being caught, Brigitte had confessed to involvement in a foiled bomb plot in Australia in 2003.
Brigitte was already affiliated with Al Qaeda-linked extremists in Europe when he traveled to Pakistan in September 2001 on a quest to wage jihad in Afghanistan. Attracted by the group’s sharp English-language propaganda, he was one of dozens of Westerners, including four militants from the suburbs of Virginia, who trained with Lashkar shortly after 9/11.
According to Brigitte’s testimony, their handler was a chief in Lashkar’s foreign operations wing whom they knew as Sajid Mir. But Mir decided not to send them to Afghanistan, telling Brigitte the U.S. operation there was ending and the border was closed to foreign fighters. Mir, Brigitte said, instead asked him to return to France from Afghanistan to act as the group’s “sector chief” there.
In May 2003, Mir sent Brigitte to Australia to join a cell planning a bomb plot in Sydney. There, Brigitte collected maps and gathered intelligence on targets, including a nuclear facility near Sydney. But French agents who had already been hunting him in a broader investigation tipped off Australian intelligence. He was arrested and deported back to France that October.
When Bruguière questioned Brigitte, the links between Lashkar-i-Taiba, Sajid Mir and Pakistan’s intelligence service, the ISI, began to unravel. Bruguière told Rotella that Brigitte’s case revealed not only that Sajid Mir was a Lashkar operative, but that he belonged to the ISI. Pakistani officials deny these charges.
In three years investigating Mir, Bruguière learned that he was connected to plots in Virginia, Britain and Austrailia. Soon enough, Bruguière had built a case arguing Mir was a Lashkar chief with ties to the Pakistani military and the ISI, and had been leading terrorist plots across four continents.
In October 2006, Bruguière issued an arrest warrant for Mir. It was met with silence in Pakistan. But, because French laws allowed Bruguière to pursue terrorist plots across borders, Mir was charged in absentia in a Paris court in 2007 and sentenced to 10 years in prison. Brigitte was convicted at the same time and sentenced to nine years. His trial testimony was some of the strongest evidence at the time of Lashkar’s international threat.
That same year, Bruguière, who has extensive contacts with international intelligence agencies, says he met with a high-level Bush administration security adviser to discuss Lashkar’s threat and Pakistan’s double game. He says the official, whom he declines to name publicly, was unconvinced.
More than a year after his French conviction, Sajid Mir, from his perch in Pakistan, directed the 10 gunmen who over the course of three days in late November 2008 laid siege to Mumbai. They expressly targeted Westerners — looking for individuals with British or American passports at the Taj and Oberoi hotels — as well Jews, attacking Chabad House, a synagogue and hostel run by an American rabbi and his wife. The slaughter left 166 dead. Twenty-two of them were Westerners, six of them Americans.
“There should have been a recognition that Lashkar had the desire and the potential to attack the West and that we needed to get up to speed on this group,” Charles Faddis, a former CIA counterterrorist chief, told Rotella. “It was a mistake to dismiss it as just a threat to India.”
Today, U.S. counterterrorism agencies have a stronger grasp of Laskhar’s threat. Mir and three others were indicted by federal prosecutors in Chicago last April for their roles in the Mumbai attacks, but remain at large.
Pakistan’s failure to crack down on Lashkar operatives, or arrest Sajid Mir, has been an irritant in relations with the United States, which has supplied the Pakistani military with billions of dollars as an ally in the war against terrorism.
“Today Pakistan is the heart of the terrorist threat,” Bruguière, now a French envoy working with the European Union on counter-terror issues, told Rotella. “And it may be too late to do anything about it.”