September 11, 2001: The French Knew Much About It
By Guillaume Dasqui
Monday 16 April 2007
It's an impressive mass of documents. From a distance, one would imagine a doctoral thesis. On closer inspection: nothing of the kind. Red stamps "Confidential-Defense" and "Strictly National Usage" on every page. At the top on the left, a royal blue logo: that of the DGSE, Direction g n rale des services ext rieurs [General Directorate for Foreign Services], the French secret services. In total, 328 classified pages. Notes, reports, syntheses and summaries, maps, graphs, organization charts, satellite photos. All exclusively devoted to al-Qaeda, its leaders, its seconds-in-command, its hide-outs and training camps. Also to its financial supports. Nothing less than the fundamentals of the DGSE reports compiled between July 2000 and October 2001. A veritable encyclopedia.
At the end of several months of investigation of this very special documentation, we contacted DGSE headquarters. And on April 3, the present chief of staff, Emmanuel Renoult, received us there, within the confines of the Tourelles garrison in Paris. After thumbing through the 328 pages that we set on his desk, he can't keep himself from deploring such a leak, all the while allowing us to understand that the packet represents virtually the entirety of DGSE production on the subject for this crucial period. On the other hand, it was impossible to draw the least comment from him on the substance of the material. Too sensitive.
It's true that these secret services chronicles about al-Qaeda, with their various revelations, raise many questions. And at first, a surprise: The high number of notes devoted exclusively to al-Qaeda's threats against the United States, months before the suicide attacks in New York and Washington. Nine whole reports on that subject between September 2000 and August 2001, including a five-page summary entitled, "Airplane Hijacking Plans by Radical Islamists," and dated ... January 5, 2001! Eight months before September 11, the DGSE reports therein tactical discussions conducted between Osama bin Laden and his Taliban allies from the beginning of 2000 on the subject of hijacking American commercial airliners.
Pierre-Antoine Lorenzi, chief of staff to the DGSE director up until August 2001, and today the president of a company specialized in crisis and influence strategies (Serenus Conseil), reviews these 328 pages in front of us and also stops short when he comes to that memo. He hesitates, takes the time to read it and admits: "I remember that." "You have to remember," Mr. Lorenzi elaborates, "that in 2001, hijacking an airplane didn't mean the same thing as it did after September 11. At the time, it implied forcing a plane to land at an airport to conduct negotiations. We were used to dealing with that." A useful perspective to understand why that January 5 alert didn't provoke any reaction from its recipients: the pillars of executive power.
As of January 2001, the al-Qaeda leadership nonetheless showed itself to be transparent to the eyes - and ears - of French spies. The redactors even detailed disagreements among the terrorists over the practical modalities of the planned hijacking. They never questioned their intention. Provisionally, the jihadists favored capturing an airplane between Frankfurt and the United States. They established a list of seven possible companies. Two would finally be chosen by the September 11 pirates: American Airlines and United Airlines. In his introduction, the author of the memo notes, "According to the Uzbek intelligence services, the airplane hijacking plan seems to have been discussed at the beginning of 2000 during a Kabul meeting of representatives from Osama bin Laden's organization...."
Consequently, Uzbek spies informed French agents. At the time, the opposition of Muslim fundamentalists to the pro-American regime in Tashkent united the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, the MIO. A military faction of this group, led by a certain Taher Yudachev, joined the Afghanistan camps and swore allegiance to Osama bin Laden, promising him he would export his jihad to Central Asia. MIO military leaflets and correspondence discovered in al-Qaeda's Afghan camps attest to that.
Alain Chouet remembers this episode. Until October 2002, he directed the Security Intelligence Service, a DGSE subdivision charged with following terrorist movements. According to him, the credibility of the Uzbek channel devolves from the alliances formed by General Rashid Dostom, one of the main Afghan warlords, himself of Uzbek ethnicity, who was then fighting the Taliban. To please his protectors in the neighboring Uzbek security services, Dostom infiltrated some of his men into the heart of the MIO, right up to the command structures of the al-Qaeda camps. That's how he informed his friends in Tashkent, knowing that the intelligence would then make its way to Washington, London and Paris.
The formulation of the January 2001 French memorandum clearly indicates that other sources were corroborating this intelligence about al-Qaeda's plans. In accordance with a well-oiled machine in Afghanistan, the DGSE did not limit itself to exchanges with friendly foreign secret services. To penetrate the secrets of the camps, it, on the one hand, manipulated and "turned" young jihad candidates from the suburbs of Europe's great cities. On the other, it sent men from Commandant Massoud's Northern Alliance. This, without even counting satellite telephone intercepts.
An intimate of Pierre Brochand, the present DGSE boss, assured us that the service had "an Osama bin Laden cell" from at least 1995. Consequently, the January 5 alert was based on a tried and tested system. Alain Chouet, after asking that we specify that he was not expressing himself in the name of French institutions, remained laconic, but clear: "It is unusual to pass a paper on without double-checking." All the more so in that the paper in question follows and precedes many DGSE reports buttressing the credibility of Osama bin Laden's warrior incantations.
In its memo, the DGSE finally deems that al-Qaeda's desire to execute its act of piracy against an American airplane was absolutely certain: "During the month of October 2000, Osama bin Laden attended a meeting in Afghanistan during which the decision in principle to conduct this operation was sustained." It's January 5, 2001; The dice have been thrown; the French know it.... And they are not the only ones.
As with all intelligence mentioning risks against American interests, the memo was passed on to the CIA by the DGSE's service for foreign relations, responsible for cooperation between allies (since renamed liaisons service). Its first recipient is Paris CIA Station Head Bill Murray, a French speaker with a John Wayne physique, since returned to the United States. We were able to make contact, but Mr. Murray did not want to respond to our requests. Pierre-Antoine Lorenzi, whose responsibilities at the DGSE then covered questions relative to cooperation with foreign agencies, cannot conceive that the intelligence should not have been handed over to him. "That is typically the type of information that is passed along to the CIA. It would even have been a professional error not to have done so."
On the other side of the Atlantic, two former CIA agents who specialized in al-Qaeda, and whom we solicited, did not remember any specific alerts sent by the DGSE. Neither Gary Berntsen, a member of the agency's operations directorate from 1982 to 2005, nor Michael Scheuer, former head of the bin Laden team at CIA headquarters, remembered specific intelligence from the DGSE.
In Washington, Congress's commission to investigate September 11, in its final report published in July 2004, emphasized the inability of the FBI, the CIA and Immigration Services to aggregate the scattered data concerning certain members of the September 11 commandos. At no time did the commission mention the possibility that as of January 2001, the CIA could have passed intelligence from the French secret services about Osama bin Laden's tactical choice to organize American airliner hijackings on to the US government.
Beyond that, the most staggering thing about reading the DGSE's 328 pages comes perhaps from the juxtaposition of the memos that warn of certain threats - like that of January 2001 - with those that describe the organization's operation very early on and in minute detail. As of July 24, 2000, with the redaction of a thirteen-page report entitled "Osama bin Laden's Networks," the gist appears in black on pale yellow - the color of DGSE originals. The context, anecdotal details, and all strategic aspects related to al-Qaeda are already there. Quite often, subsequent documents settle for firming them up. Thus, the theory of bin Laden's death - which enjoyed a certain success in September 2006 - in this memo of July 24, 2000, takes on the intonations of a well-known, but nonetheless well-founded refrain: "The former Saudi, who has lived for several years under precarious conditions, unceasingly moving from camp to camp, also suffers from renal and dorsal problems.... Recurrent rumors declare his imminent death, but he seems not to have changed his habits up until now."
On an aerial snapshot taken August 28, 2000, DGSE agents locate a key man, very close to Osama bin Laden. His name: Abu Khabab. This pyrotechnist of Egyptian origin, known for having taught the science of artisanal explosives to generations of jihadists, constitutes a theoretically high-priority target. In two biographical notices about him from October 25, 2000 and January 9, 2001, the DGSE enumerates the intelligence exchanged with the Israeli Mossad, the CIA, and Egyptian security services about him. Everything about his trips and his moves was known.
The same thing is true for Omar Chabani, the emir, according to the DGSE, charged with supervising all the Algerian militants who came to Afghanistan. Thanks to him, during the year 2001, al-Qaeda made infrastructures available to the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (SGPC), the Algerian terrorist movement whose historic head, Hassan Hattab - a former bin Laden ally - subscribed to Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika's national reconciliation policy in 2006 - which provoked the ire of the SGPC's younger generations. The latter resumed the armed struggle that their elders had relinquished the previous October, proclaiming themselves a new SGPC - renamed al-Qaeda for the Islamic Mahgreb - which seems to be responsible for the April 11 attacks in Algiers.
On the periphery of the operational aspects of al-Qaeda's workings, these DGSE documents propose a second look at its leaders' political connections. One example: In a February 15, 2001 memorandum devoted in part to the risks of attacks against the French military base in Djibouti, the authors refer to the presence of Osama bin Laden's representative for the Horn of Africa, Nidal Abdul Hay al Mahainy, in the country. The man, who arrived there May 26, 2000, had met with no less a personage than "the president of the Djibouti Republic."
But it's Saudi Arabia above all that appears as a constant preoccupation with respect to the sympathy outside Afghanistan from which Osama bin Laden benefited. The DGSE reports explore his relations with the country's businessmen and various organizations. Certain Saudi personalities have proclaimed their hostility to al-Qaeda, but, obviously, they have not convinced everyone. Pierre-Antoine Lorenzi remembers French intelligence officials' frame of minds well: "The DGSE had great difficulty definitively believing that he no longer had any relationship with the Saudi monarchy because he was proscribed. It was difficult to accept."
The July 24, 2000 memorandum mentions a $2.4 million payment in favor of the al-Qaeda leader made by the International Islamic Relief Organization (IIRO), a structure placed directly under the trusteeship of the Muslim World League, itself considered a policy instrument of the Saudi ulemas. It took until August 3, 2006, however, for the IIRO offices to figure on the American Treasury Department's official list of organizations financing terrorism. During the course of that month of July 2000, two years after the Nairobi and Dar es Salaam attacks, the authors of this memo doubted the sincerity of the positions proclaimed by the bin Laden family itself: "It seems more and more likely that Osama bin Laden has maintained contact with certain members of his family, even though the family, which directs one of the biggest public works companies in the world, has officially disowned him. One of his brothers seems to play the role of intermediary in his professional contacts and in the monitoring of his affairs." According to Mr. Lorenzi, it was the recurrence of these doubts and more specifically the IIRO's ambivalence that would lead the DGSE to mobilize along with the Quai d'Orsay in 1999, when French diplomats proposed an international convention against the financing of terrorism to the United Nations.
Another memo from the French secret services, dated September 13, 2001, and entitled "Factors in Osama bin Laden's Resources," reiterates these suspicions about the Saudi bin Laden Group, the family empire. It also presents a powerful banker, once close to the royal family, as the historic architect of a banking system that "seems to have been used to transfer funds from the Gulf to the terrorist." An annex to this memorandum of September 13, 2001 lists the assets supposedly under Osama bin Laden's direct control. Surprise: In the middle of the known structures that the "Sheikh" managed in Sudan, Yemen, Malaysia and Bosnia, a hotel situated in Mecca in Saudi Arabia still figures in 2001.
Alain Chouet expresses real skepticism about the Riyadh authorities' desire to apprehend Osama bin Laden before September 11: "His forfeiture of Saudi nationality was a farce ... to my knowledge; no one did anything at all to capture him between 1998 and 2001." As this memorandum from October 2, 2001 attests: "The departure of Prince Turki al-Faisal, head of the Saudi secret services: a political eviction" - reveals the underside of this spectacular demotion just before September 11. The authors emphasize "the limits of Saudi influence in Afghanistan.... During Prince Turki's recent trips to Kandahar, he did not succeed in convincing his interlocutors to extradite Osama bin Laden."
And six years later? In an ample DGSE report dated June 6, 2005 that we were able to peruse and entitled "Saudi Arabia, A Kingdom in Danger?" French agents draw up a more positive report of the Saudi regime's initiatives against al-Qaeda. Some paragraphs still betray persistent fears, however. The French secret services are still anxious about the penchant for holy war shared by several Saudi doctors of the faith.