WASHINGTON – U.S. concerns about terrorist plots to hijack overseas flights headed for the United States remained intense on Christmas Day, officials said, even as French authorities reported that they had found no evidence that al-Qaida operatives had planned to commandeer an Air France jetliner headed for Los Angeles.
U.S. intelligence officials said they continued to receive current and credible intelligence indicating that such an attack could be in the works – possibly a series of coordinated hijackings – and that al-Qaida operatives could be targeting any number of overseas cities from which to launch such operations.
Some of the information – much of it gleaned from electronic intercepts and human sources – indicate that terrorists are interested in using commercial or cargo jetliners as guided missiles in an assault on urban areas, symbolic targets or parts of the critical infrastructure of the United States, including nuclear plants and petroleum facilities, according to several U.S. officials interviewed yesterday.
“This is a broad and serious threat that is not going to disappear with the cancellation of one or two flights,” said one U.S. official who, like others, spoke on condition of anonymity.
“There is a lot of crisscrossing [intelligence] data that points to certain flights, certain times and certain countries,” the official added. “It’s not just in one location, point of departure or arrival. It’s not only France and it’s not only L.A.”
Officials said they were particularly concerned about what appeared to be incomplete information from France about the fate of several men whose names had appeared on the passenger manifest of an Air France flight headed from Paris to Los Angeles early Christmas Eve.
The men were scheduled to board Flight 68 – one of three canceled Wednesday at the urgent request of the U.S. and French governments, based on what U.S. intelligence officials said were credible indications that they might have been targeted for attack. Air France announced that flights would resume today.
The Los Angeles Times reported Wednesday that U.S. officials had told French authorities that up to six passengers on Flight 68 might be al-Qaida or Taliban terrorists, and that one was a trained pilot with a commercial license.
Yesterday, French authorities said they searched and questioned at least seven passengers who had checked in for Flight 68 at Charles de Gaulle Airport, and that they made no arrests and did not open a judicial inquiry.
“Some people were interrogated and their baggage was searched. But they are free,” said the official, who asked to remain anonymous. “Nothing in particular was found. No terrorists were identified. There is nothing new today and no problems.”
But a U.S. official said yesterday that some of the men whose names had been given to the French never showed up at the airport – including the man believed to be a pilot – and that he did not believe French authorities had questioned them.
“We haven’t heard the full story,” said the U.S. official, particularly the details about how many of the men identified by U.S. intelligence were questioned by French authorities, and what they said before being let go.
More information surfaced yesterday about why U.S. officials were so fearful that the three Air France flights might have been targeted for hijacking.
One U.S. official, quoting electronic intercepts, said terrorist operatives had been overheard discussing specific flight numbers and airlines without mentioning a specific day, while other conversations alluded to attacks on the Christmas holiday and other days.
“It was not just coincidence of names,” the official said. “There were other indicators that raised concerns.”
French authorities said they took the U.S. request very seriously. After a flurry of high-level conversations between the two governments Wednesday, the office of the prime minister announced the cancellations based on information relayed by the U.S. Embassy in Paris about a plot to commandeer a Paris-to-Los Angeles flight for a Sept. 11-style attack.
“This decision to cancel the flights was taken at the highest level,” a senior French law enforcement official said. “But this was all based on information coming from the Americans. And apparently nothing was found.”
Those singled out for questioning at the airport Wednesday included citizens of the United States, France and Belgium, the French Interior Ministry official said. He did not say whether the passengers under scrutiny had Arab names and did not give the precise number questioned.
But French news media reported yesterday that police questioned two men of Arab origin who turned out to be a diplomat and an athlete. French news media also reported that U.S. law enforcement provided French counterparts with the name of a Tunisian with a pilot’s license as a potential suspect. But the Tunisian was not on the passenger lists and appears to be in his native country, according to the reports.
Investigators in Europe are on high alert for terrorist attacks because of al-Qaida’s record of attempting strikes during the Christmas holidays. And last month’s suicide bombings against British and Jewish targets in Istanbul, Turkey, reinforced worries that Islamic terrorists are intent on carrying out attacks in Western Europe, especially against allies of the United States in Iraq.
British and Spanish police have deployed special armed patrols. Italian authorities beefed up defenses at the Vatican and elsewhere after a report of a terror plot against Roman Catholic religious symbols in Italy.
The fear of attacks involving aviation increased recently when British police arrested a man suspected of preparing a device to smuggle plastic explosives aboard a plane. Traces of plastic explosives were found in socks that the man had connected with string, allegedly a device he intended to strap on under his clothes and use to smuggle bomb-making components aboard a plane, investigators say.
French police joined the investigation of the Briton, who has been charged with terrorism, because he is an alleged associate of Richard Reid, the convicted al-Qaida operative who tried to blow up a Paris-to-Miami flight with explosive-filled gym shoes Dec. 22, 2001. French police failed to detect the plot by Reid, despite an interrogation at Charles De Gaulle Airport that caused him to miss his original flight.
Los Angeles Times staff writers Andrew Blankstein and Achrene Sicakyuz contributed to this article. The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.
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