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 US 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 may 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.
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 , the note said, citing Uzbek intelligence.
The note listed potential targets: American, Delta, Continental, United , Air France, and Lufthansa airlines .
Two of the carriers, United and American, were targeted on Sept. 11.
CIA spokesman George Little said Le Monde's article "merely repeats what the US government knew and reported before Sept. 11 -- that Al Qaeda was interested in airliner plots, especially hijackings."
"The article does not suggest that US or foreign officials had advance knowledge of the details surrounding the Sept. 11 plot," he said. "Had the details been known, the US government would have acted on them."