Adléne Hicheur, the French physicist arrested 8
October on charges of having ties to Algerian terrorists, did not hide
his religious convictions. The acknowledgements in his 2003 doctoral
thesis in particle physics begin: “First of all, I would like to thank
Him who gave me the strength, perseverance, and endurance necessary to
bring this work to its completion." The devout Hicheur was friendly and
easy to work with, say former colleagues.
Hicheur, 32, was arrested by French authorities along with the younger
of his two brother at the apartment in Vienne that his parents settled
in after immigrating from Algeria more than 30 years ago. His brother
was released after 2 days, but Hicheur remains in custody on charges
of having ties with Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, a North African
branch of the Al-Qaeda terrorist network, according to press reports.
Adléne was a year old when the family arrived in France, the older of
his brothers, Halim Hicheur, 30, said in an e-mail. The family of eight
grew up in modest circumstance but “did not suffer from that,” says
Halim Hicheur, who holds a Ph.D. in physiology and biomechanics from
the University of Paris VI.
Hicheur’s arrest grabbed
headlines internationally primarily because, as a post-doc at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Lausanne (EPFL), he was working on
an experiment at the world’s largest atom smasher, the Large Hadron
Collider (LHC) at the European particle physics laboratory, CERN, near
Early press reports pegged Hicheur as a nuclear
physicist, perhaps picking up on CERN’s original and now discarded
name, the European Organization for Nuclear Research. But Hicheur’s
research focused on particle physics and exotic bits of matter that
blip in and out of existence far too quickly to have any practical
applications, nefarious or otherwise. In a statement, CERN stressed
that the lab possesses no materials that would be particularly useful
In 2003, Hicheur complete his thesis at the
University of Savoie on the production of a particle called an η' meson
in the decays of another called B meson. The data for the study came
from the BaBar experiment at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in
Menlo Park, California, where Hicheur spent 6 months. B mesons can be made only
in particle collisions and last for a thousandth of a
nanosecond. Hicheur’s thesis was relevant to a particular theoretical
debate, says Yannis Karyotakis, a physicist at the Annecy-le-vieux
Laboratory for Particle Physics (LAPP) who was Hicheur's thesis director.
“The only practical application was [to spark] some debate over a good
coffee,” he says. Hicheur largely directed himself, Karoytakis notes.
“"He was very good so he didn't really need us," Karyotakis says.
Boutigny, a physicist at the Computing Center at the French National
Institute of Nuclear Physics and Particle Physics in Lyon, shared an
office at LAPP with Hicheur from 2001 to 2003 and says “he was probably
one of the best students we had.” Hicheur was not one to join in
parties or celebrations, Boutigny says, but “he was always very
friendly and we had no problems with him. … High energy physics is almost
by definition a collaborative effort, and he had no problem working
with others.” Hicheur was devout, but “did not try to force his ideas
on others,” Boutigny says.
Boutigny notes that Hichuer seemed
particularly close to his family. “I remember he had a number of phone
calls with his younger brother to help him and push him to get his
diploma,” he says. After receiving is Ph.D., Hicheur did a post-doc at
the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory near Oxford, U.K., during which time
he worked on the gargantuan ATLAS particle detector at the LHC, helping
with its alignment. By 2006 he had taken a position at EPFL and switched to working on the smaller LHCb detector, which will study more B
mesons. According to press reports, authorities say Hicheur
corresponded by e-mail with Al-Qaeda members in Algeria and may have
been looking to aid in attacks on European targets.