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France warned CIA of hijack plot in 2001

By Angela Donald
Associated Press Writer

04/17/07 "AP" --- - 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 referred to.

Two of the carriers, United and American, were targeted on Sept. 11.

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 hijackings."

"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 other interests.

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 mid-1990s.

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 said.

"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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