On Monday, Le Monde (Paris) reported on a massive collection of leaked French intelligence documents in a 2,400-word article, translated from the original below. -- French intelligence sources confirmed that the documents constitute "just about all of the DGSE productions on the subject for this crucial period" of July 2000 to October 2001 — 328 pages in all. -- They contain many items of interest, including, above all, this "surprise: the number of notes solely devoted to al-Qaeda's threats against the United States, months before the New York and Washington suicide attacks. Nine entire reports on the subject between September 2000 and August 2001. One of which is a five-page synthesis, entitled 'Plan for Plane Hijacking by Islamist Radicals,' and marked with a date — Jan. 5, 2001! Eight months before September 11, the DGSE was reporting on tactical discussions underway since the beginning of the year 2000 between Osama bin Laden and his Taliban allies, concerning an operation to hijack American airliners." ...
[Translated from Le Monde (Paris)]
SEPTEMBER 11, 2001: THE FRENCH KNEW A LOT
By Guillaume Dasquié
Le Monde (Paris)
April 16, 2007
The number of documents is impressive. From a distance, you'd think it was a university dissertation. Close-up, though, there's no resemblance. Little red stamps -- "Confidential -- prohibited" and "National use only" -- on each of the pages. In the upper left-hand corner, a royal blue logo: that of the DGSE, the Direction générale des services extérieurs, the French intelligence agency. In all, 328 classified pages. Notes, reports, syntheses, maps, graphics, organizational charts, satellite photos. All of it devoted exclusively to al-Qaeda, its leaders, lieutenants, hideouts, and training campus. To its sources of financial support, too. Nothing less than the most important DGSE reports drafted between July 2000 and October 2001. A veritable encyclopedia.
At the end several months of investigation into this very special mass of documents, we contacted the DGSE headquarters. And on Apr. 3, the present chef de cabinet, Emmanuel Renoult, met with us there, inside the Tourelles barracks in Paris. After having looked through the 328 pages that we put on his desk, he couldn't help but deplore such a leak, even as he gave us to understand that the packet represents just about all of the DGSE productions on the subject for this crucial period. On the other hand, as for the contents, he wouldn't say a thing. Too sensitive.
It's true that these intelligence agency chronicles about al-Qaeda, with their various revelations, raise many questions. And first of all, a surprise: the number of notes solely devoted to al-Qaeda's threats against the United States, months before the New York and Washington suicide attacks. Nine entire reports on the subject between September 2000 and August 2001. One of which is a five-page synthesis, entitled "Plan for plane hijacking by Islamist radicals," and marked with a date -- Jan. 5, 2001! Eight months before September 11, the DGSE was reporting on tactical discussions underway since the beginning of the year 2000 between Osama bin Laden and his Taliban allies, concerning an operation to hijack American airliners.
Pierre-Antoine Lorenzi, the DGSE head's chef de cabinet until 2001, who today is the president of a company that specializes in crisis and lobbying strategy (Serenus Conseil), skims through the 328 pages, and he, too, pauses when he comes to this note. He hesitates, takes the time to read it, and admits: "I remember that one." "You have to recall," says "that till 2001, airplane hijacking doesn't have the same meaning as after September 11. At the time, it implied forcing a plane to land at an airport in order to conduct negotiations. We're used to managing that." A useful reminder to understand why this Jan. 5 alert provoked no reaction from those to whom it was addressed: the pillars of executive power.
Already in January 2001, the al-Qaeda leadership was nonetheless an open book for the eyes -- and ears -- of French spies. Those who wrote the report even give details on the disagreements between terrorists about the practical methods for the planned hijacking. They never doubted their intent. The jihadists tentatively favored the capture of a plane between Frankfurt and the United States. They established a list of seven possible airlines. Two of them would be chosen in the end by the September 11 pirates: American Airlines and United Airlines (see the facsimile). Introducing the note, its author noted: "According to the Uzbek intelligence agency, the plan to hijack a plan seems to have been discussed at the beginning of 2000 at a meeting in Kabul between representatives of Osama bin Laden's organization . . ."
Uzbek spies thus informed French agents. At the time, the fundamentalist Muslim opposition to the pro-American regime in Tashkent had joined with Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). A military faction of that party, led by a certain Taher Yuldash, went to the Afghanistan camps and pledged allegiance to Osama bin Laden, promising to export his jihad in Central Asia. Military identification documents and letters from the IMU found in al-Qaeda's Afghan camps attest to this.
The episode has stuck in Alain Chouet's memory. Until October 2002, he directed the Service de renseignement de sécurité, the DGSE subdivision charged with following terrorist movements. According to him, the Uzbek channel's credibility goes back to the alliances made by General Rachid Dostom, one of the principal leaders of the Afghan wars, who is also of Uzbek ethnicity and who was then fighting the Taliban. In order to please his protectors in the intelligence services of neighboring Uzbekistan, Dostom infiltrated some of his men inside the IMU, reaching the command structures of the al-Qaeda camps. That was how he was able to inform his friends in Tashkent, knowing that this information would make its way to Washington, London, or Paris.
The way the January 2001 French note is written clearly indicates that other sources corroborated this information on al-Qaeda's plans. According to well-established procedures in Afghanistan, the DGSE did not rely solely on exchanges with friendly intelligence agencies. In order to penetrate the secrets of the camps, it on the one hand manipulated and "turned" young jihad candidates coming from banlieues in Europe's large cities, and on the other, sent agents to Commander Massud's Northern Alliance. Satellite telephone communications were also intercepted.
A close associate Pierre Brochand, the present DGSE boss, has assured us that the agency has had a "Osama bin Laden cell" since at least 1995. The Jan. 5 alert thus relied on a often-tested set-up. Alain Chouet, after having asked us to point out that he was not speaking officially for French bodies, was laconic, but clear: "It is rare that we transmit a paper that we have not confirmed." All the more so in that the paper in question followed and preceded multiple DGSE reports supporting the credibility of Osama bin Laden's belligerent incantations.
In its note, the DGSE concluded that al-Qaeda's intention to realize its act of piracy against an American aircraft was beyond doubt: "In the month of October 2000, Osama bin Laden attended a meeting in Afghanistan during which agreement in principle to carry out this operation was upheld." This was on Jan. 5, 2001, the die was cast, the French knew -- and they were not alone.
As is the case for all information referring to risks against American interests, the note was transmitted to the CIA via the DGSE's services des relations extérieures ('external relations services'), responsible for working with allies (which has since been renamed "service de liaisons"). It was addressed, first of all, to the head of the CIA post in Paris, Bill Murray, a Francophone with the build of John Wayne, who has since returned to the United States. We were able to reach him, but Mr. Murray did not wish to follow up on our requests. Pierre-Antoine Lorenzi, whose responsibilities at the DGSE then covered questions relating to cooperation with foreign agencies, does not believe it possible that this information would not have been given to him: "Typically, that's the kind of information that is transmitted to the CIA. It would even be wrong not to have done so."
On the other side of the Atlantic, two former CIA agents specializing in al-Qaeda, whom we contacted, do not remember particular alerts sent by the DGSE. Neither Gary Berntsen, with agency operations from 1982 to 2005, nor Michael Scheuer, the former head of the bin Laden unit at CIA headquarters, can recall specific information coming from the DGSE.
In Washington, Congress's commission of inquiry into September 11, in its final report published in July 2004, emphasized the inability of the FBI, the CIA, or the immigration service to put together scattered pieces of information related to some members of the September 11 commandos. The commission never mentioned the possibility that the CIA might have passed on to political authorities as early as January 2001 information coming from the French agency on Osama bin Laden's tactical decision to organize the hijacking of American planes.
Beyond that, the most disorienting thing about reading the DGSE's 328 pages is perhaps the juxtaposition between the notes that call attention to threats -- like the one on January 2001 -- and the ones that describe, very early on, and in great detail, how the organization functions. Already on Jul. 24, 2000, with the drafting of a thirteen-page report entitled "Osama bin Laden's networks," the essential outline is there in black and pale yellow, the color of the DGSE originals. The context, the anecdotal details, and all the strategic aspects respecting al-Qaeda are already there. Quite often, the subsequent documents merely clarify them. Thus the speculation about the death of bin Laden -- which went quite far in September 2006 -- takes, in the Jul. 24, 2000, note, the tone of an oft-repeated, but nevertheless well-founded, refrain: "The ex-Saudi, who has been living for several years in precarious conditions, always on the move, from camp to camp, also suffers from kidney and back problems. . . . Recurrent rumors mention his imminent death, but he does not, so far, appear to have changed his life style."
On an aerial photograph of Aug. 28, 2000, DGSE agents located a key man who was extremely close to Osama bin Laden. His name: Abu Khabab. This munitions expert of Egyptian origins, known for having taught the science of homemade explosives to generations of jihadists, was in principle a priority target. In two biographical notices on this figure, dated Oct. 25, 2000, and Jan. 9, 2001, the DGSE listed items of information about him exchanged with the Israeli Mossad, the CIA, and Egyptian intelligence. Everything was known about his career and his movements.
This is also the case for Omar Chabani, the emir charged with organizing support for all the Algerian militants who came to Afghanistan, according to the DGSE. Thanks to him, in the course of the year 2001 al-Qaeda put resources at the disposition of the Groupe salafiste pour la prédication et le combat (GSPC) ('Salafist Group for Preaching and Fighting'), the Algerian terrorist movement whose historic leader, Hassan Hattab, bin Laden's ex-ally, signed on in 2006 to Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika's policy of national reconciliation -- which provoked the ire of the GSPC's younger generations. These resumed as of October the armed struggle abandoned by their elders, while proclaiming their allegiance to a new GSPC -- renamed al-Qaeda for the Islamic Maghreb -- which seems to have been responsible for the Apr. 11 attacks in Algiers.
In the margins of the operational aspects concerning how al-Qaeda functions, these DGSE documents take another look at its leader's political support. One example: in a Feb. 15, 2001, note devoted in part to the risks of attacks against the French military base of Djibouti, the authors reveal that Osama bin Laden's representative for the Horn of Africa, Nidal Abdel Hay al Mahainy, is in the country. This man, who, it is specified, arrived on May 26, 2000, has "met with the president of the Republic of Djibouti," no less.
But it is above all Saudi Arabia that appears as a constant preoccupation when it comes to sympathy outside of Afghanistan from which Osama bin Laden is benefiting. The DGSE reports explore his relations with businessmen and various organizations of that country. Some Saudi figures proclaimed their hostility to al-Qaeda but it is clear that this did not convince everyone. Pierre-Antoine Lorenzi remembers well the state of mind of the officials in French intelligence: "The DGSE found it very difficult to consider definitively that because he was at odds with them, there were no more relations with the Saudi monarchy. That was difficult to accept."
The Jul. 24, 2000, note mentions a payment of $4.5m to the al-Qaeda leader by the International Islamic Relief Organisation (IIRO), a structure placed directly under the control of the Muslim World League, which itself was considered to be the political tool of Saudi ulema. But it was not until Aug. 3, 2006, that IIRO offices appeared on the American Treasury Department's official list of organizations financing terrorism. During July 2000, two years after the Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam attacks, the authors of this memo doubt the sincerity of the public positions of even bin Laden's family: "It seems more and more probable that Osama bin Laden had remained in contact with certain members of his family, even though the latter, which directs one of the world's most important construction groups, has officially denied it. One of his brothers is thought to be playing the role of intermediary in his professional contacts or in keeping up with his affairs." According to Mr. Lorenzi, these recurrent doubts, and more specifically the IIRO's ambivalence, are what led the DGSE to work with the French Foreign Ministry in 1999, when the latter proposed to the United Nations an international convention against the financing of terrorism.
Another French intelligence note, dated Sept. 13, 2001, and entitled "Basics on Osama bin Laden's Financial Resources," repeats these suspicions regarding the Saudi Ben Laden Group, the family empire. It also presents a powerful banker, formerly close to the royal family, as the historic architect of a banking arrangement that "seems to have been used to transfer funds coming from Gulf countries to the terrorist." A Sept. 13, 2001, annex to this note lists the assets which a priori are under the direct control of Osama bin Laden. Surprise -- in the middle of these structures known to have been run by the "Sheikh" in Sudan, Yemen, Malaysia, and Bosnia, there still figures, in 2001, a hotel situated in Mecca, in Saudi Arabia.
Alain Chouet expresses a genuine skepticism regarding the will of Rihadh authorities to apprehend Osama bin Laden before September 11: "His loss of Saudi nationality is a piece of slapstick comedy . . . . To my knowledge, no one did anything to capture him between 1998 and 2001." As this note of Oct. 2, 2001, testifies -- "The Departure of Prince Turki al-Faisal, Head of Saudi Intelligence: A Political Eviction" -- which reveals what was behind the spectacular dismissal just before September 11. The authors emphasize "the limits of Saudi influence in Afghanistan . . . On Prince Turki's recent trips to Kandahar, he failed to convince his interlocutors to extradite Osama bin Laden."
And six years later? In a lengthy DGSE report that we were able to consult, entitled "Saudi Arabia, a Kingdom in Peril?" and dated Jun. 6, 2005, French agents draw up a rather positive balance sheet of the Saudi regime's initiatives against al-Qaeda. But some paragraphs betray persistent fears. French intelligence still fears the inclinations of a few Saudi doctors of the faith for holy war.
Translated by Mark K. Jensen
Associate Professor of French
Department of Languages and Literatures
Pacific Lutheran University
Tacoma, WA 98447-0003
Web page: http://www.plu.edu/~jensenmk/