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Monday, April 16, 2007

French knew al Qaeda was planning hijacking

Link via the Blue Collar Republican. Story from Reuters:

French "knew in 2001 al Qaeda was planning hijack"
16 Apr 2007 12:41:30 GMT
Source: Reuters

PARIS, April 16 (Reuters) - French secret services produced nine reports between September 2000 and August 2001 looking at the al Qaeda threat to the United States, and knew it planned to hijack an aircraft, the French daily Le Monde said on Monday.

The newspaper said it had obtained 328 pages of classified documents that showed foreign agents had infiltrated Osama bin Laden's network and were carefully tracking its moves.

One document prepared in January 2001 was entitled "Plan to hijack an aircraft by Islamic radicals", and said the operation had been discussed in Kabul at the start of 2000 by al Qaeda, Taliban and Chechen militants.

The hijack was meant to happen between March and September 2000 but the planners put it back "because of differences of opinion, particularly over the date, objective and participants," Le Monde said, citing the report.

The attacks on U.S. cities that eventually took place on Sept. 11, 2001 killed almost 3,000 people.

Le Monde said the French report of January 2001 had been handed over to a CIA operative in Paris, but that no mention of it had ever been made in the official U.S. Sept. 11 Commission, which produced its findings in July 2004.

The newspaper quoted a former senior official at France's DGSE secret service agency as saying that, although France thought a hijack was being planned, the DGSE did not know that the plot involved flying aircraft into buildings.

"You have to remember that a plane hijack (in January 2001) did not have the same significance as it did after Sept. 11. At the time, it implied forcing a plane to land at an airport and undertaking negotiations," said Pierre-Antoine Lorenzi.

Le Monde said the documents showed the French believed bin Laden was still receiving help from family members and senior officials in Saudi Arabia ahead of Sept. 11, 2001, despite attempts to clamp down on the network after al Qaeda's attacks on U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya in 1998.


More details from the AP:

France's foreign intelligence service learned as early as January 2001 that al-Qaida was preparing a hijacking plot likely to involve a U.S. airplane, former intelligence officials said Monday, confirming a report that also said the CIA received the warning.

Le Monde newspaper said it had obtained 328 pages of classified documents on Osama bin Laden's terror network that were drawn up by the French spy service, the DGSE, between July 2000 and October 2001. The documents included a Jan. 5, 2001, intelligence report warning that al-Qaida was at work on a hijacking plot.

Pierre-Antoine Lorenzi, the former chief of staff for the agency's director at the time, said he remembered the note and that it mentioned only the vague outlines of a hijacking plot — nothing that foreshadowed the scale of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

"It wasn't about a specific airline or a specific day, it was not a precise plot," Lorenzi 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.'"

The Sept. 11 commission's report on the four hijacked flights has detailed repeated warnings about al-Qaida and its desire to attack airlines in the months before Sept. 11, 2001.

In a version declassified last September, the report shows that the Federal Aviation Administration's intelligence unit received "nearly 200 pieces of threat-related information daily from U.S. intelligence agencies, particularly the FBI, CIA, and State Department."

The French warning, part of which was published in Le Monde, detailed initial rumblings about the plot.

In early 2000 in Kabul, Afghanistan, bin Laden met with Taliban leaders and members of armed groups from Chechnya and discussed the possibility of hijacking a plane that would take off from Frankfurt, Germany, the note said, citing Uzbek intelligence.

The note listed potential targets: American Airlines, Delta Airlines, Continental Airlines, United Airlines, Air France and Lufthansa. The list also included a mention of "US Aero," but it was unclear exactly what that referred to.

Two of the airlines, United and American, were targeted months later on Sept. 11.

Lorenzi said details of the threat would certainly have been passed along to the CIA, though he was unable to specifically confirm that they had been.

"That's the kind of information concerning a friendly country that we communicate," he said. "If you don't do it, it's an error."

He also stressed that officials could not say whether the plot they outlined in January 2001 was an early warning about the attacks to come in September.

At the time, Lorenzi said, officials had heard echoes only about a standard hijacking — they had no idea al-Qaida planned to slam planes into buildings, let alone the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Uzbek officials apparently tipped off the French about the plot. Alain Chouet, a former top anti-terrorism official within the DGSE, said that an Afghan warlord from the Uzbek community who was fighting the Taliban at the time had sent men to infiltrate al-Qaida camps — and their information was passed down the chain to Western intelligence officials.

Confirming information in Le Monde, Chouet said such intelligence was likely checked out before it was put into a note. He also said that to the best of his knowledge, "all identified threats, even indirect and minimal ones, were passed in both directions" between the CIA and the CGSE.