France warned CIA of hijack plot in 2001
By Angela Donald
Associated Press Writer
--- - PARIS - Nine months before al-Qaida slammed airliners
into the World Trade Center, French intelligence suspected the
terror network was plotting a hijacking — possibly involving a
U.S. airline — and warned the CIA, former French intelligence
officials said Monday.
But the French warning hinted at a plot in Europe, not the
United States, and there was no suggestion of suicide attacks or
multiple planes. One former official said al-Qaida may have
leaked misinformation to divert intelligence agencies from the
bigger, deadlier plot to come on Sept. 11, 2001.
The warning was another example of how intelligence agents
sensed al-Qaida was hard at work in the months leading up to
Sept. 11 but were unable to piece together fragmented warnings
into a coherent plot.
Le Monde first reported the story Monday as it published
excerpts of 328 pages of classified documents from France's main
foreign intelligence agency, the DGSE. One note, dated Jan. 5,
2001, reported that al-Qaida was plotting a hijacking.
Details were vague.
"It wasn't about a specific airline or a specific day, it was
not a precise plot," Pierre-Antoine Lorenzi, the former chief of
staff for the agency's director, told The Associated Press. "It
was a note that said, 'They are preparing a plot to hijack an
airplane, and they have cited several companies.'"
Le Monde printed a copy of part of the note. In early 2000 in
Kabul, Afghanistan, Osama bin Laden met with Taliban leaders and
armed groups from Chechnya and discussed the possibility of
hijacking a plane after takeoff in Frankfurt, Germany, the note
said, citing Uzbek intelligence.
The note listed potential targets: American, Delta, Continental,
and United airlines, Air France and Lufthansa. The list also
mentioned a "US Aero," but it was unclear exactly what that
Two of the carriers, United and American, were targeted on Sept.
CIA spokesman George Little said Le Monde's article "merely
repeats what the U.S. government knew and reported before Sept.
11 — that al-Qaida was interested in airliner plots, especially
"The article does not suggest that U.S. or foreign officials had
advance knowledge of the details surrounding the Sept. 11 plot,"
he said. "Had the details been known, the U.S. government would
have acted on them."
The Sept. 11 Commission and a joint congressional inquiry into
the attacks have described vague warnings of potential threats
in the months before Sept. 11, 2001.
The 9/11 commission said that, as the year began, the CIA
started receiving "frequent but fragmentary" threat reports.
Among other warnings, the intelligence community sent out a
March 2001 terror threat advisory about a heightened threat of
Sunni extremist attacks against U.S. facilities, personnel and
During that investigation George Tenet, CIA director at the
time, told the commission that "the system was blinking red."
"Everyone knew that something was cooking, that these people
were preparing something big and spectacular," Alain Chouet,
former chief of the security intelligence service at the DGSE,
told AP. "Our American colleagues knew, our European colleagues
knew, everyone did. But nobody had a hint it would happen inside
the United States — on the contrary."
The DGSE drew up nine reports about al-Qaida threats to U.S.
interests in the year leading up to Sept. 11, 2001, Le Monde
said. The agency gained experience fighting Islamist terrorism
when Algerian insurgents set off deadly bombs in Paris in the
The Sept. 11 Commission report mentions a 1994 Algerian plot
with chilling similarities to Sept. 11 — the hijacking of an Air
France flight by Algerian militants who threatened to blow it up
over the Eiffel Tower. The hijackers were killed when French
commandos stormed the plane.
Before drafting the January 2001 notice, the DGSE was tipped off
by Uzbek intelligence. Chouet said Abdul Rashid Dostum, an
Afghan warlord from the Uzbek community who was fighting the
Taliban, had sent his men to infiltrate al-Qaida camps. Their
information was passed to Western intelligence officials. Today,
Dostum is chief of staff of the Afghan army.
The French certainly passed the note along to the CIA, Chouet
"We transmitted everything to our American counterparts,
everything that could have posed a threat, and they did the same
with us," Chouet said.
He suggested details of the plot — such as the European setting
— may have been leaked by al-Qaida to confuse intelligence
services. It would not be the first time, he said.
An alleged bin Laden associate named Djamel Beghal was arrested
in the United Arab Emirates in the months before the Sept. 11
attacks. Investigators suspected he was the ringleader of a plot
to send a suicide bomber into the U.S. Embassy in Paris.
Chouet says he has concluded that plot was a fake — "part of a
misinformation operation by al-Qaida."
Associated Press writer Katherine Shrader in Washington
contributed to this report.
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