CIA, France Ally Against Terror

PARIS -- When Christian Ganczarski, a German convert to Islam, boarded an Air France flight from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, 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-Qaida 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.

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 McLaughlin, the former acting CIA director, 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 cooperation between the United States and France 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 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.

Even as U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was criticizing France in early 2003 for not doing its share to fight terrorism, his U.S. Special Operations Command was finalizing a secret arrangement to put 200 French special forces under U.S. command in Afghanistan. Since July 2003, its commanders have worked side by side there with U.S. commanders and CIA and National Security Agency representatives.

Alliance Base, headed by a French general assigned to France's equivalent of the CIA -- the General Directorate for External Security, or DGSE -- was described by six U.S. and foreign intelligence specialists with involvement in its activities. The base is unique because it is multinational and actually plans operations instead of sharing information among countries, they said.

France's 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 the run-up to the Iraq war, the White House drew the battle lines between countries that were tough on terrorists and those that were not. France's government believed UN inspections had successfully contained Saddam Hussein's development of weapons programs, and Bruguiere saw no connection between Iraq and al-Qaida. At the U.S. Defense Department and elsewhere, many cast France's opposition to war as evidence it was a slacker when it came to fighting terrorism.

Three months into the dispute, the U.S. State Department and the CIA made a case for France, citing its intelligence cooperation. U.S. President George W. Bush eventually told Rumsfeld to desist, according to two former State Department officials. Then-Secretary of State Colin Powell wrote a memo saying that punishing the French was not U.S. policy.

"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."