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Help From France Key In Covert Operations

"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 Ganczarski.

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.

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 each other. 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.


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