PARIS (Reuters) - French secret services produced nine reports between September 2000 and August 2001 looking at the al Qaeda threat to the United States, and knew it planned to hijack an aircraft, Le Monde newspaper reported on Monday.
The newspaper said it had obtained 328 pages of classified documents that showed foreign agents had infiltrated Osama bin Laden’s network and were carefully tracking its moves.
One document prepared in January 2001 was entitled “Plan to hijack an aircraft by Islamic radicals”, and said the operation had been discussed in Kabul at the start of 2000 by al Qaeda, Taliban and Chechen militants.
The hijack was meant to happen between March and September 2000 but the planners put it back “because of differences of opinion, particularly over the date, objective and participants,” said Le Monde, quoting from the report.
The attacks on U.S. cities that eventually occurred on September 11, 2001 killed nearly 3,000 people.
In the United States, CIA spokesman George Little said Le Monde’s article did not add to what was already known about the attacks.
“Today’s Le Monde article merely repeats what the U.S. government knew and reported before September 11 — that al Qaeda was interested in airliner plots, especially hijackings,” he said.
“The article does not suggest that U.S. or foreign officials had advance knowledge of the details surrounding the September 11 plot. Had the details been known, the U.S. government would have acted on them.”
Le Monde said the French report of January 2001 had been handed over to a CIA operative in Paris but that no mention of it had been made in the official U.S. September 11 Commission, which produced its findings in July 2004.
The newspaper quoted a former senior official at France’s DGSE secret service agency as saying that, although France thought a hijack was being planned, the DGSE did not know the plot involved flying aircraft into buildings.
“You have to remember that a plane hijack (in January 2001) did not have the same significance as it did after September 11. At the time, it implied forcing a plane to land at an airport and undertaking negotiations,” said Pierre-Antoine Lorenzi.
Le Monde said the documents showed the French believed bin Laden was still receiving help from family members and senior officials in Saudi Arabia ahead of September 11, 2001, despite attempts to clamp down on the network after al Qaeda’s attacks on U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya in 1998.
Additional reporting by David Morgan in Washington