Help From France Key In Covert Operations
Sunday, July 3, 2005
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.
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.