April 17, 2007 Intelligence warned of a possible al-Qaeda hijacking, but in Europe, and not a suicide strike.
By Angela Doland, Associated Press
PARIS - Nine months before al-Qaeda 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 yesterday.
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-Qaeda might 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-Qaeda was hard at work in the months leading up to Sept. 11 but were unable to piece together fragmented warnings into a coherent plot.
The newspaper Le Monde first reported the story yesterday 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-Qaeda 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, United, Air France and Lufthansa. The list also mentioned a "US Aero," but it was unclear exactly what that referred to.
Two 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-Qaeda 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 9/11 commission and a joint congressional inquiry into the attacks have described vague warnings of potential threats in the months before Sept. 11.
The 9/11 commission said that as the year began, the CIA started receiving "frequent but fragmentary" threat reports.
"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 the 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-Qaeda threats to U.S. interests in the year leading up to Sept. 11, Le Monde said. The agency gained experience in fighting Islamist extremism when Algerian insurgents set off deadly bombs in Paris in the mid-1990s.
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-Qaeda camps. Their information was passed to Western intelligence officials. Dostum is now chief of staff of the Afghan army.