Translation of Le Monde Article
9/11- The French knew about it well in advance
It’s an impressive mass of documents. From afar, it looks like a university thesis. Up close however, there is nothing to see. Red stamps stating, “Confidential- defence” and “Strictly for federal use” are on each page. On the top left, there is a royal blue logo- that of the GDES, the General Directorate of External Security, the French Secret Service. In total, there are 328 classified pages. Notes, reports, summaries, maps, diagrams, charts, and satellites pictures. All of it dedicated exclusively to Al Qaeda, its leaders, sub-leaders, hideouts and training camps. And its financial benefactors as well. And what’s more, it is nothing less than the essence of GDES reports between July 2000 and October 2001. A real encyclopaedia.
Following several months of enquiry regarding this very unique documentation, we contacted the headquarters of the GDES. On the 3rd April, the current chief of staff, Emmanuel Renoult, welcomed us on site, in the enclosure of their Tourelles site in Paris. Having run through the 328 pages that we placed on his desk, he cannot prevent himself from deploring such a leak, while nevertheless letting us know that these documents do represent more or less the entirety of what the GDES produced on the subject during this crucial period. However, it is more or less impossible to draw from him the slightest comment about it. It is too sensitive.
It is true that these chronicles of the Secret Service on Al Qaeda, with their various revelations, do raise certain questions. And first off, a surprise: the large number of notes specifically relating to Al Qaeda threats against the USA, only months before the suicide attacks in New York and Washington. 9 whole reports on the subject between September 2000 and August 2001. Among this is one summary note, 5 pages long, headed, “Project to hijack planes by radical Islamists”, marked… 5th January 2001! 8 months before 9/11, the GDES reported tactical discussions, happening since the start of 2000 between Osama Bin Laden and his Taliban allies, regarding hijacking American commercial airliners.
Pierre Antoine-Lorenzi, chief of staff for the head of the GDES until August 2001, today running a company specialising in crisis management (Serenus Consulting), runs through these 328 pages in front of us, and falls on this note as well. He hesitates, takes the time to read it, and admits, “I remember this. One must bear in mind,” he specifies, “that until 2001, the hijacking of an airplane did not have the same import as it did post-2001. Back then, it meant forcing the plane to land at an airport in order to negotiate. People are used to dealing with that.” Which gives us useful perspective to understand why this alert from the 5th January did not entail any reaction from the people it was sent to- those with executive power.
From January 2001, the administration within Al Qaeda was, nevertheless, pretty transparent to both the eyes and ears of French spies. The authors of the document even detail disagreements between the terrorists on the specificities of the hijacking they were envisaging. But they were never in any doubt regarding their intention. Provisionally, the Jihadists favoured capturing a plane going from Frankfurt to the USA. They drew up a list of seven potential airline companies. 2 were finally chosen by the 9/11 criminals: American Airlines and United Airlines. In the introduction to the note, the author states, “According to Uzbek information services, the project for the hijacking of a plane seems to have been discussed at the start of 2000 at a Kabul meeting between representatives of Osama Bin Laden’s organisation.
Thus the Uzbek spies informed the French agents. At the time, the opposition of the fundamentalist Muslims to the pro-American regime in Tashkent was grouped under the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, the IMU. A military faction of this group, led by a certain Taher Youdachev, had joined up with the camps in Afghanistan, and sworn allegiance to Osama Bin Laden, promising him to export his jihad to central Asia. Military documents, and correspondences from the IMU, found in the Afghan camps of Al Qaeda, attest to this fact.
Alain Chouet kept this episode in his mind. Up until October 2002, he led the Service of Security Information, a sub division of the GDES, tasked with following the movements of terrorists. According to him, the credibility of the Uzbek sources is based in the contacts formed by General Rachid Dostom, one of the main Afghan warlords, also of Uzbek origin, and who thus fought against the Taliban. In order to placate his protectors in the security services of neighbouring Uzbekistan, he sent some of his men to infiltrate into the heart of the IMU, right up to the command structures of the Al Qaeda camps. It was thus that he informed his friends in Tashkent, knowing that such information would then pass to Washington, London or Paris.
The formulation of the French note from January 2001 shows clearly that other sources were involved in the gathering of information on the plans of Al Qaeda. According to a well-oiled plan in Afghanistan, the GDES was not content with exchanges between friendly Secret Service pals. In order to truly pierce the secrets of the camps, it firstly manipulated and “sent back” young Jihadist candidates from the suburbs of major European cities. Secondly, it sent servicemen to be close to the Northern Alliance of Commander Massoud. And on top of that, there were also the satellite telephone intercepts.
A source close to Pierre Brochand, the current head of the GDES, has assured us that the service had its own “Osama Bin Laden” cell at least since 1995. The 5th January alert simply catalysed a tested system. Alain Chouet, having asked us to specify that he was keeping quiet in the name of French institutions, remained laconic, but clear: “It is rare that one sends out a document and doesn’t get anything back.” All the more since the said document follows, and precedes multiple reports from the GDES supporting the credibility of the war-like threats coming from Osama Bin Laden.
In its note, the GDES reckons that there is no doubt of the desire of Al Qaeda to put an attack against an American target into practice: “In October 2000, Osama Bin Laden attended a meeting in Afghanistan during which the decision, on principle, to carry out this attack was restated.” On the 5th January, the dice had been thrown, and the French knew about it… And they weren’t the only ones.
As with all information implying a threat to American interests, the note was sent to the CIA by the GDES foreign relations wing, responsible for co-operation amongst allies (since renamed Liaison Services). Its first recipient was the CIA’s main man in Paris, Bill Murray, a French speaker with the physique of John Wayne, who has since gone back to the US. We got in touch with him, but he did not want anything to do with what we were asking. Pierre-Antoine Lorenzi, whose responsibilities at the GDES include dealing with questions regarding co-operation with foreign agencies, does not believe that the information had not been sent to Murray: “That is typical of the sort of information that would get sent to the CIA. It would be a mistake if it had not been done.”
On the other side of the Atlantic, 2 CIA agents specialising in Al Qaeda who we spoke to, do not remember any specific alerts sent by the GDES. Neither Gary Berntsen, who worked in the management of operations at the agency from 1982 to 2005, nor Michael Scheuer, formally head of the Bin Laden unit at CIA headquarters, remembers any specific information coming from the GDES.
In Washington, the 9/11 Commission, in their report which came out in July 2004, underlined the incapacity of the FBI, the CIA, or the immigration services to aggregate a wide range of facts which relating to some of the 9/11 hijackers. The Commission never mentioned the possibility that the CIA may have been sent information from French intelligence regarding Bin Laden’s plan to hijack planes, to those in political power.
Over and above that, the most confusing thing, having read the 328 pages of the GDES documents, may be the juxtaposition of notes that give notice to threats- like the one on the 5th January- and notes that describe, very early and in very great detail, the way the organisation functions. This is true from the 24th July, in a 13 page report headed, “Bin Laden’s Networks”, which is principally written in black on a pale yellow background, the colour of original GDES documents. The context, anecdotal details, and all strategic aspects relating to Al Qaeda are there. There are many documents which do no more than detail these facts. Thus, the theory as to Bin Laden’s death- quite widely believed in September 2006- seems, in the note from the 24th July 2004, both familiar, and to have some basis: “The former Saudi, who has lived in precarious conditions for several years, moving about all the time, from camp to camp, suffers from both dorsal and renal problems(…) There are constant rumours as to his impending death, but up until now, he does not seem to have changed his way of living.”
From an aerial negative from the 28th August 2000, the GDES agents spotted a key man, very close to Bin Laden. His name- Abu Kahab. This Egyptian bomb maker, renown for having taught the art of bomb making to generations of Jihadists, is in theory a priority target. In 2 biographical notes on him, from the 25th October 2000 and the 9th January 2001, the GDES details information exchanged with Mossad, the CIA and Egyptian Intelligence on him. Nothing regarding his journeys and his whereabouts are left out.
It is the same for Omar Chabani, the emir charged with training all the Algerian militants from Afghanistan, according to the GDES. Thanks to him, during 2001, Al Qaeda allowed its infrastructures to be used by the Salafist Group for Preaching and Fighting (SGPF), the Algerian terrorist movement whose former head, Hassan Hattab, a former ally of Bin Laden, subscribed to the policies of national reconciliation led by the Algerian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika, which provoked the wrath of the young generations of the SGPF. Since October they have picked up the gauntlet of war left behind by their elders, creating a new SGPF- renamed Al Qaeda for Maghreb Muslims- who would appear to be responsible for the attacks on 11th April.
Regarding the operational aspects of the functioning of Al Qaeda, the GDES documents propose another way of looking at the political shifts of its head. One example- in a note from the 15th February dealing with, in part, the risk of attacks against a French military base in Djibouti, the authors bring up the presence in the country of Bin Laden’s representative for the horn of Africa- Nidal Abdel Hay al Mahaini. This man, there since the 26th May 2000, it is specified, “met the President of Djibouti”.
It is, however, Saudi Arabia that appears to be a constant preoccupation regarding the sympathies which Bin Laden enjoys, other than those of Afghanistan. The GDES reports explore its relationship with businessmen and various organisations in the country. Certain Saudis have stated their hostility towards Al Qaeda, but, evidently, they have not convinced everyone. Pierre Antoine Lorenzi remembers the state of mind of those in charge of French information well: “The GDES has had a lot of difficulty in realising for definite that is had no relationship with the Saudi monarchy, because it had been broken definitively. It was tough to admit.”
The note from the 24th July mentions a transfer of $4.5 million to the head of Al Qaeda by the International Islamic Relief Organisation (IIRO), an organisation placed directly under the watch of the Muslim World League, itself considered a political instrument of the Saudi Ulemas. One would have to wait, however, until the 3rd August 2006 until the IIRO was on the US Treasury Departments list of organisations which finance terrorism. During July 2000, 2 years after the attacks of Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam, the authors of this memo doubt the sincerity of the positions publicly stated by the members of the Bin Laden family, “It seems more and more likely that Bin Laden has maintained contact with certain members of his family, although they, heading up one of the biggest construction firms in the world, have officially renounced him. One of his brothers played an intermediary role regarding his professional contacts, or would monitor his business affairs.” According to Mr Lorenzi, it is the recurrence of these doubts, and more precisely the ambivalence of the IIRO, which led the GDES to mobilise itself in 1999, with the Quai d’Orsay meetings, after French diplomats had proposed to the UN to stage an international meeting to deal with the financing of terrorism.
Another note from the French Secret Services, from the 13th September, and headed, “Elements regarding the financial resources of Osama Bin Laden”, reiterates these suspicions regarding the Saudi Bin Laden Group, the family empire. It also mentions a powerful banker, formerly close to the royal family, as the architect of the financial scheme which “seemed to have been used to transfer funds coming from the Gulf region, to terrorists”. An annex to this note details the assets under the control of Osama Bin Laden. To one’s surprise, in the middle of the structures that are known that “The Sheikh” has run in Sudan, in Yemen, in Malaysia and also in Bosnia, is a hotel in Mecca, in Saudi Arabia.
Alain Chouet expresses a real scepticism on the desire of the Saudi authorities to arrest Bin Laden before 9/11. “The revoking of his Saudi nationality is a bad joke (…) To my knowledge, nobody did anything to capture him between 1998 and 2001.” He cites this note from 2nd October 2001: “The departure of Prince Turki al Faisal, the head of Saudi Intelligence: a political eviction”, which shows the machinations of this spectacular succession just prior to 9/11. The authors underline “the limits of Saudi influence in Afghanistan (…) At the time of recent trips to Kandahar by Prince Turki, he did not manage to convince his counterparts to extradite Bin Laden.”
And 6 years on? In a large GDES report that we were able to get hold of, entitled, “Saudi Arabia- a kingdom in peril?” and dated 6th June 2005, the French agents paint a more positive picture of Saudi actions against Al Qaeda. However, there are certain paragraphs that betray some nagging fears. The French Secret Service still fear the penchant for holy war amongst some Saudi religious leaders.