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Who is France's 'Big Bang' physicist turned 'terrorist'?

Franco-Algerian physicist Adlène Hicheur went on trial Thursday accused of plotting terrorist attacks in a case that has shattered one of France’s most promising scientific careers and rekindled fears of homegrown terrorism.


As France slowly awoke from the nightmare of Mohamed Merah – the al Qaeda inspired gunman who killed seven people in France’s south-west – another homegrown terrorist suspect has grabbed headlines.

On Thursday a Paris court began hearing the case against Adlène Hicheur, a Franco-Algerian physicist who has been studying the birth of the universe – the so-called Big Bang – and is now charged with planning terrorist attacks on French soil.

The 35-year-old researcher, who was arrested at his parents’ home near the Franco-Swiss border in October 2009, is suspected of “criminal association in relation with a terrorist group” and could face 10 years in jail.

Prosecutors will present the court with emails Hicheur exchanged with a senior al Qaeda leader, in which he agrees to carry out an attack. The young man’s defence will present the story of a responsible man who has become a scapegoat for a justice system obsessed with the threat of terrorism.

Head of the class

Adlène Hicheur was born in Setif, Algeria, and moved to France’s Alpine region of Isere with his family in 1978. He holds dual French-Algerian nationality. His father, Said, a retired construction worker, told the Journal du Dimanche weekly that he taught his children to respect the values of their adoptive country.

“I tried to raise my six children as straight as possible, I was afraid of crime, drugs," Said told the Journal du Dimanche. Adlene’s brother, Halim, remembered the defendant’s early passion for science magazines. “We wanted to get ahead, always wanted to be the head of the class,” Halim said.

A website created by his family and supporters says Hicheur went to primary and secondary school in the town of Vienne, 33 kilometres south of the city of Lyon.

He received his Masters in physics from the prestigious École Normale Supérieure de Lyon. Doctoral and post-doctoral studies allowed the young man to travel to Stanford University in the United States and the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in England.

He began working at the Ecole polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland as a teacher starting in 2006, but spent most of his time studying the Big Bang at the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN), the world’s largest particle physics laboratory that straddles the border between France and Switzerland.

‘A critical view of the world’

Writing in a blog hosted by the news website Mediapart in February 2012, the incarcerated Hicheur fumed against newspapers and other media for falsely portraying his convictions and personality. Notably he discredits a sentence by left-wing daily Liberation that described him as a “practising Muslim… who sometimes wavers in his faith.”

In an interview with centre-left daily Le Monde, Hicheur’s lawyer, Patrick Baudouin, said his client was a moderate Muslim who was interested in his religion from a young age. He also said he developed a “critical view of the world”, in particular over the Iraq War and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

French anti-terrorist services have said they first flagged Hicheur because of his frequent visits to radical Islamic websites. However, the order for the scientist’s arrest came only after he began exchanging emails with “Shadow Phoenix”, the alleged pseudonym of Moustapha Debchi, a key player in the north African branch of al Qaeda.

Of the 35 emails allegedly exchanged between the two men, one will feature prominently during Hicheur’s trial. In June 2009, Debchi asked Hicheur: "Don't beat around the bush: are you prepared to work in a unit becoming active in France?"

The scientist replied: "Concerning your proposal, the answer is of course YES but there are a few observations: ...if your proposal relates to a precise strategy -- such as working at the heart of the main enemy's house and emptying its blood of strength -- then I should revise the plan that I've prepared."

Speaking to the Journal du Dimanche, Hicheur’s father lamented that his son “was too curious, naive,” and that “it cost him dearly.” Since his arrest, Hicheur has continued to claim that he didn't know Debchi’s true identity.

His lawyer will claim that he cannot be judged for an act he did not commit, and that Hicheur has become the perfect target for a society that has grown fearful of a new bout of terrorism.

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