Sitting proudly in the front row of class, nine-year-old Adlene Hicheur looks every inch the star pupil.
The year was 1986 and the young French Algerian was already showing a remarkable talent in the sciences that would propel him towards an outstanding career as a nuclear physician.
But Hicheur, now 32, will spend the next decade in jail after admitting pinpointing targets for Al Qaeda which are likely to have included some in Britain, where he completed his education.
Secret agent interrogators have already told how he wanted to help with the destruction of a Total oil refinery, creating an explosion the size of a ‘city like London’.
In a brief appearance before an anti-terrorist judge in Paris last week, Hicheur was placed under formal examination for ‘criminal activities related to a terrorist group’.
The evidence against him includes money transfers through the UK, whose banking system is regularly used by North African terrorists, said a source close to the investigation.
Another certainty is that the former pupil of the Ecole Jean Moulin in Vienne – the city in eastern France where he was arrested in a dawn raid by armed police on October 8 – had visited numerous British cities.
After working at Stanford University in California in 2001, he moved to Britain four years later to work at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, a leading research centre in Oxfordshire.
More recently he was a full-time worker at the CERN nuclear research laboratory near Geneva, where he worked on the Large Hadron Collider.
At the Palais de Justice in Paris, anti-terrorist judge Christophe Teissier heard how the French authorities had been working with both MI5 and the CIA to track Hicheur’s movements around the world.
He has already confessed to trying to set up ‘at least one’ bombing and working with terrorists from Algeria, where he was born before moving to France in an immigrant family, aged just two.
His family was given a three-bedroom council flat in Vienne, and Adlene and his younger brother, Dr Halim Hicheur, now 25, excelled at their local school.
A former classmate of Adlene’s said: ‘He was always in the front row – he loved his lessons and always came top of the class.
‘It is beyond belief he has been accused of these terrible things. None of us can believe what has happened.’
The Hicheurs still live in the same flat where Adlene grew up with two brothers and three sisters.
The third brother is also a research scientist, based in Germany, while the sisters are
all married with families. All were said to be ‘absolutely distraught’ at his arrest.
A British security source said: ‘It appears Al Qaeda is now recruiting extremely intelligent people. This man is an eminent nuclear physicist – it is a worrying development.’