Help from France key in covert operations
Paris’s shadowy ‘Alliance Base’ aids U.S. in terror fight
PARIS - When Christian Ganczarski, a German convert to Islam, boarded an Air France flight from Riyadh on June 3, 2003, he knew only that the Saudi government had put him under house arrest for an expired pilgrim visa and had given his family one-way tickets back to Germany, with a change of planes in Paris.
He had no idea that he was being secretly escorted by an undercover officer sitting behind him, or that a senior CIA officer was waiting at the end of the jetway as French authorities gently separated him from his family and swept Ganczarski into French custody, where he remains today on suspicion of associating with terrorists.
Ganczarski is among the most important European al Qaeda figures alive, according to U.S. and French law enforcement and intelligence officials. The operation that ensnared him was put together at a top secret center in Paris, code-named Alliance Base, that was set up by the CIA and French intelligence services in 2002, according to U.S. and European intelligence sources. Its existence has not been previously disclosed.
CIA pet project
Funded largely by the CIA's Counterterrorist Center, Alliance Base analyzes the transnational movement of terrorist suspects and develops operations to catch or spy on them.
Alliance Base demonstrates how most counterterrorism operations actually take place: through secretive alliances between the CIA and other countries' intelligence services. This is not the work of large army formations, or even small special forces teams, but of handfuls of U.S. intelligence case officers working with handfuls of foreign operatives, often in tentative arrangements.
Such joint intelligence work has been responsible for identifying, tracking and capturing or killing the vast majority of committed jihadists who have been targeted outside Iraq and Afghanistan since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, according to terrorism experts.
The CIA declined to comment on Alliance Base, as did a spokesman for the French Embassy in Washington.
Most French officials and other intelligence veterans would talk about the partnership only if their names were withheld because the specifics are classified and the politics are sensitive. John E. McLaughlin, the former acting CIA director who retired recently after a 32-year career, described the relationship between the CIA and its French counterparts as "one of the best in the world. What they are willing to contribute is extraordinarily valuable."
The rarely discussed Langley-Paris connection also belies the public portrayal of acrimony between the two countries that erupted over the invasion of Iraq. Within the Bush administration, the discord was amplified by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, who has claimed the lead role in the administration's "global war on terrorism" and has sought to give the military more of a part in it.
But even as Rumsfeld was criticizing France in early 2003 for not doing its share in fighting terrorism, his U.S. Special Operations Command was finalizing a secret arrangement to put 200 French special forces under U.S. command in Afghanistan. Beginning in July 2003, its commanders have worked side by side there with U.S. commanders and CIA and National Security Agency representatives.
Organizing Alliance Base
Alliance Base, headed by a French general assigned to France's equivalent of the CIA — the General Directorate for External Security (DGSE) — was described by six U.S. and foreign intelligence specialists with involvement in its activities. The base is unique in the world because it is multinational and actually plans operations instead of sharing information among countries, they said. It has case officers from Britain, France, Germany, Canada, Australia and the United States.
The Ganczarski operation was one of at least 12 major cases the base worked on during its first years, according to one person familiar with its operations.
"It's really an effort to come up with innovative ideas and deal with some of the cooperation issues," said one CIA officer familiar with the base. "I don't know of anything like it."
Factions within the intelligence services of several countries opposed a multinational approach, according to current and former U.S. and European government officials who described its inception. The CIA's Counterterrorist Center did not want to lose control over all counterterrorism operations; the British service did not want to dilute its unique ties to Washington; Germany was not keen to become involved in more operations.
And no country wanted to be perceived as taking direction from the CIA, whose practice of extraordinary renditions — secretly apprehending suspected terrorists and transferring them to other countries without any judicial review — has become highly controversial in Europe. In Italy, 13 alleged CIA operatives are accused of kidnapping a radical Egyptian cleric off the streets of Milan in 2003.
Opening lines of communication
To play down the U.S. role, the center's working language is French, sources said. The base selects its cases carefully, chooses a lead country for each operation, and that country's service runs the operation.
The base also provides a way for German case officers to read information from their own country's law enforcement authorities, sources said. German law bars criminal authorities from sharing certain information directly with their intelligence agencies.
French law, by contrast, encourages intelligence sharing among its police and security services. In fact, since the Napoleonic Code was adopted in 1804, French magistrates have had broad powers over civil society. Today, magistrates in the French Justice Department's anti-terrorism unit have authority to detain people suspected of "conspiracy in relation to terrorism" while evidence is gathered against them.
The top anti-terrorism magistrate, Judge Jean-Louis Bruguiere, has said that in the past decade, he has ordered the arrests of more than 500 suspects, some with the help of U.S. authorities. "I have good connections with the CIA and FBI," Bruguiere said in a recent interview.
In France, which has a Muslim population reaching 8 percent — the largest in Europe — U.S. and French terrorism experts are desperate to take terrorist-group recruiters and new recruits off the streets, and have been willing to put their own anti-terrorism laws into the service of allies to lure suspects such as Ganczarski from abroad.
"Yes, without a doubt there are some cases where we participate that way," one senior French intelligence official said.
France sent its interrogators to Guantanamo Bay to gather evidence that could be used in French court against the French detainees the United States was holding there. France is the only one of six European nations that continues to imprison detainees returned to it from the U.S. military facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Experience with extremism
Bruguiere and other French intelligence officials like to note dryly that France first realized it had become a target of al Qaeda-style jihadists when a group of Algerian radicals hijacked an airliner with the intent of crashing it into the Eiffel Tower in 1994. They viewed the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon as another, if much larger, part of the jihadist campaign against Western civilization.
So it did not surprise many intelligence officers when, in the days after the attacks, President Jacques Chirac issued an edict to French intelligence services to share information about terrorism with the U.S. intelligence agencies "as if they were your own service," according to two officials who read it.
The steady, daily flow of encrypted messages increased. "We saw a quantitative and qualitative difference in the degree of detail in the information," said Alejandro Wolff, the second-in-charge at the U.S. Embassy here, whose portfolio includes fighting terrorism.
One CIA veteran with knowledge of the U.S.-French intelligence work estimates that the French have detained about 60 suspects since the end of 2001, some with the help of the CIA. "They do as much for us as the British and in some ways more — if you ask them," said a recently retired senior intelligence official who worked closely with France and other European countries.
A strategic partner
France was also an early and willing collaborator in other parts of the world, allowing the CIA to fly its top secret, armed Predator drone, still controversial inside the Pentagon, from France's air base in the former French colony of Djibouti. Its mission was to kill al Qaeda figures on a classified CIA list of "high-value targets." On Nov. 3, 2002, CIA officers operating remote controls from the air base took their first shot, killing Abu Ali al-Harithi, the mastermind of the October 2000 attack on the destroyer USS Cole, and six others, including Ahmed Hijazi, a naturalized U.S. citizen, in a Yemeni desert.
The broader cooperation between the United States and French plays to the strengths of each side, according to current and former French and U.S. officials. The CIA brings money from its classified and ever-growing "foreign liaison" account — it has paid to transport some of France's suspects from abroad into Paris for legal imprisonment — and its global eavesdropping capabilities and worldwide intelligence service ties. France brings its harsh laws, surveillance of radical Muslim groups and their networks in Arab states and its intelligence links to its former colonies.
"There's an easy exchange of information," said Pierre de Bousquet de Florian, director of France's domestic CIA, the Directorate of Territorial Surveillance, who declined to comment on specifics of the relationship. "The cooperation between my service and the American service is candid, loyal and certainly effective."
France's willingness to share its dossiers on terrorists has helped the United States make some of its most significant convictions, including those of Ahmed Ressam, who was stopped at the Canadian border on his way to attempt to blow up Los Angeles International Airport in 1999, and Zacarias Moussaoui, a Moroccan who once lived in France and is the only person in the United States to have pleaded guilty in the Sept. 11 hijacking plot.
Tension over Iraq
In the run-up to the Iraq war, the White House drew the battle lines between countries that were tough on terrorists — the administration included Iraq in the mix — and those that were not. France's government believed U.N. inspections had successfully contained Saddam Hussein's development of weapons programs, and Bruguiere saw no connection between Iraq and al Qaeda. At the Defense Department, on Capitol Hill and elsewhere, many cast France's opposition to war as evidence it was a slacker when it came to fighting terrorism.
French fries became "freedom fries" on Air Force One and in congressional cafeterias. Rumsfeld prohibited general officers from telephoning their French counterparts, grounded U.S. planes at the Paris Air Show and disinvited the French from Red Flag, a major U.S. military exercise in which they had participated for decades.
Three months into the dispute, the State Department and the CIA made a case for France, citing its intelligence cooperation. Bush eventually told Rumsfeld to desist, according to two former State Department officials. Then-Secretary of State Colin L. Powell wrote a memo saying that punishing the French was not U.S. policy. A. Elizabeth Jones, the assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, kept it on top of her desk. "I frequently needed to be able to pull it out and quote it to my Pentagon colleagues," Jones said.
Rumsfeld’s criticism questioned
But Rumsfeld persisted a year later, excluding the French Air Force from the Red Flag exercise in 2004.
Rumsfeld's symbolic jabs baffled some officials inside the Bush administration. "Most things the secretary of defense did I could understand, even if I disagreed with him," said Lawrence B. Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Powell. "On this one, it was totally irrational, even dumb."
The intelligence services tried to insulate themselves from the public fray.
"The French were very keen on demonstrating there was no drop-off at all," said Wolff, the U.S. diplomat here. "There was never any sense of this spilling over. There was an effort on both sides to compartmentalize" the differences.
The same was true for the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies, which report a steady, daily flow of encrypted messages on terrorism between the CIA and its French counterpart.
"The relations between intelligence services in the United States and France has been good, even during the transatlantic dispute over Iraq, for practical reasons," Bruguiere said. "If you want to have a better grasp of a difficult situation, you have to share intelligence real time."
The Ganczarski operation
Ganczarski, a metallurgist from the industrial Ruhr district in Germany, had been radicalized by a Saudi cleric touring European mosques in the early 1990s, studied Islam on a religious scholarship in the kingdom, traveled to Afghanistan four times, trained in al Qaeda camps, met Osama bin Laden, and returned to Germany from his last trip nine days before Sept. 11, 2001.
Intelligence officials say he was part of a patient, post-9/11 al Qaeda plan to activate European converts, including failed British "shoe-bomber" Richard Reid. Ganczarski's cell phone was the last number that a suicide bomber who killed 21 people on the island of Djerba called in April 2002. Some of the casualties were French, which gave Bruguiere legal grounds to arrest him.
On May 20, 2003, an urgent bit of intelligence was fed into Alliance Base: Ahmed Mehdi, an associate of Ganczarski, had just booked a 14-day vacation to the French island of Reunion in the Indian Ocean.
Mehdi, then a 34-year-old Moroccan who had lived near Ganczarski in Germany, was under surveillance and showing a worrisome interest in remote control detonators. German authorities, who did not have enough evidence to arrest him or Ganczarski, believed Mehdi was planning an attack on Reunion.
Mid-level case officers working at Alliance Base met to devise a plan: They would entice first Mehdi, then Ganczarski, to France. Bruguiere would lock them up on suspicion of associating with terrorists.
An unplanned reunion
The CIA arranged for an asset to suggest that Mehdi stop in Paris on his way to Reunion to surveil targets. Mehdi, Alliance Base learned from wiretaps, worried that France would not give him a visa, which he needed because he is Moroccan. On cue, the French services arranged for a visa. The Germans monitored calls and contacts there for a change of plans.
On June 1, French authorities apprehended Mehdi at Charles de Gaulle International Airport in Paris. He was sent to Fresnes Prison outside Paris. Two days later, on June 3, 2003, Ganczarski was there, too.
Unbeknownst to the two men, they were held in cells just yards from one another. Authorities used the information gained from one to question the other. Within days, Mehdi told Bruguiere's investigators about the plot, the network and Ganczarski. Investigators now believe that Mehdi has links to al Qaeda's Hamburg cell that plotted the Sept. 11 attacks and that Ganczarski associated directly with Sept. 11 architect Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.
Alliance Base's role in the operation was noted obliquely on June 11, 2003, by Interior Minister Nicholas Sarkozy. Speaking before Parliament, he said, "This arrest took place thanks to the perfect collaboration between the services of the great democracies."
Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.
© 2005 MSNBC.com