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"Paris airport handling cultural baggage"
Monday, December 11, 2006
Airport handling cultural baggage
Demographics make France's Charles de Gaulle facility more vulnerable to
Islamic extremism, experts say.
By Sebastian Rotella
The Los Angeles (CA) Times
PARIS - The list looks like a typical roster of suspected Islamic
One man had regular contact with a close associate of the "shoe bomber" who
tried to blow up a jet flying to Miami from Charles de Gaulle International
Airport here. Others are accused of undergoing terrorist training overseas
or associating with a North African network involved in bomb plots in
Europe. Many allegedly attended sermons by radical clerics.
But this is no ordinary group of suspected radicals. They all work at De
Gaulle, the second-busiest airport in Europe and seventh-busiest in the
Until authorities revoked their security badges recently, the 72 workers had
access to restricted zones and often to passenger cabins and cargo holds.
The group includes security screeners, baggage handlers, maintenance workers
and employees of freight companies such as FedEx.
The suspicions are based on intelligence culled from files of anti-terrorism
agencies. The workers have been barred from the job site but have not been
charged with crimes. The case against them is based on information that
falls into a gray area between raw intelligence and legal evidence.
The world's airports, including those in the United States, are perennial
targets of thieves and smugglers. But demographics make the workforce of
European airports more vulnerable to Islamic extremism.
"In most airports you have tens of thousands of people who have access to
secure areas and thousands of people who have access to planes to clean or
load them," said Christophe Chaboud, chief of a police anti-terrorism unit.
"You can imagine using them to smuggle aboard explosives or weapons. Who is
vulnerable to being recruited for such a plot? People who frequent radical
environments. That doesn't mean they are terrorists, but that they are
The Al Qaeda terrorist network's obsession with the aviation industry,
demonstrated by the Sept. 11 plot and a failed precursor in Asia, was
reiterated in August by the alleged London plot to blow up U.S.-bound
planes. Authorities responded with limits on carry-on items.
But terrorists are always looking for new angles, Chaboud said. In Germany,
authorities announced in late November that they had broken up a suspected
plot to use an airport employee to plant a bomb on a plane belonging to
Israel's El Al airline.
Airports must maintain stringent standards for their personnel, said
Chaboud, who led the inquiry on the workers here.
"You have to choose," he said. "Either you worship at a radical mosque, you
have contacts with radicals, or you work at the airport. You can't do both."
Charles de Gaulle has about 85,000 employees, about one-fifth of them
Muslim. The airport northeast of the capital is a top employer in an expanse
of slums with high concentrations of immigrants, poverty and crime. Many
airport employees live in grim housing projects that were in the spotlight
during riots last year and are home to a tangle of extremist, criminal and
Anti-terrorism officials acknowledge wrestling with ambiguities when
monitoring extremism that falls short of lawbreaking.
"The risks are often going to be subjective," said Supt. Alain Grignard of
the Belgian Federal Police, a respected expert on Islam. "You can't ban
someone from a job just because of their religion."
Labor unions and civil rights advocates accuse the French government of
doing just that.
With the French presidential election approaching, critics say that Interior
Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, who is a candidate, led a witch hunt in response
to a book in which far-right presidential hopeful Philippe de Villiers said
there were Islamic extremists at De Gaulle.
"These men are hostages to electoral excess and political debate," said Eric
Moutet, a union lawyer.
Most of the 72 workers are Muslims, but a few are accused of having ties to
groups such as the Tamil Tigers, the Sri Lankan rebel group. Nine of them
have gone to court, and four have succeeded in getting their security badges
back. Some intelligence reports had inaccurate information about name
spellings, license numbers and relatives, let alone supposed militant
activity, lawyers asserted.
A former French anti-terrorism official who investigated airport employees
said many are Salafists, hard-core fundamentalists who aspire to return to
the religious practices of the time of the prophet Muhammad. Many Salafists
are nonviolent, but their ideology spawned Al Qaeda and allied movements.
"A lot of these guys are 25 to 35 years old," said the former anti-terrorism
official. "They traveled a while ago to study at madrasas [religious
schools] in countries such as Yemen, where religious indoctrination often
ended up having a paramilitary training component."
Associates of terrorists
Investigators have not proved that the men attended terrorist training
camps, but find it troubling that they studied at Koranic schools in
countries with virulent militant movements. Some workers belong to Tablighi
Jamaat, a missionary sect that organized their trips. Although Tablighis
shun politics and violence, investigators say, the group has produced a
number of terrorists.
One employee had repeated contact with a close associate of convicted "shoe
bomber" Richard C. Reid. The associate was a Pakistani member of a network
that provided logistical support here for Reid's plot in late 2001, Chaboud
Two other men are suspected of being associates of an Algerian network that
plotted to bomb the Paris subway, Orly airport and the headquarters of the
DST counter-terrorism service last year, Chaboud said.
Investigators also detected travel by airport employees to Afghanistan
before the Sept. 11 attacks, when Al Qaeda's training camps still were
operating there. Chaboud said those workers were no longer at the airport.
Grignard, the Belgian expert, has long worried that extremists could target
airport workers because of the combination of their low socioeconomic status
and high-security jobs.
"The heart of the problem is that the worst jobs are held by the poorest
workers, who are often immigrants and Muslims," he said. "It's logical. If I
had a terrorist network, I would try to recruit workers at the airport, or
infiltrate people into the airport."
A Brussels cell dismantled in late 2001 after allegedly plotting to bomb the
U.S. Embassy in Paris had associates working in maintenance and security at
the Brussels airport, Grignard said.
That airport has had at least three incidents of anti-Semitism by employees.
In 2001, an employee of Arab origin defaced baggage from an El Al flight
with swastikas and graffiti declaring "Death to Jews." The Israeli airline
also was the target in the German case, in which authorities arrested six
people and accused them of trying to bribe an airport employee.
In London, suspects arrested in the alleged airplane bomb plot in August
included a worker at Heathrow Airport. He was released without charge.
Despite those cases, critics say the Paris crackdown is overkill.
Feeling like a scapegoat
Mohammed Abdellah Tou, a baggage handler who contested his suspension in
court, sees himself as a scapegoat.
"France doesn't like Islam," Tou said in an interview in the parking lot of
a courthouse in the industrial suburb of Bobigny. "They have demonized us."
A French citizen who retains a slight accent of his native Algeria, Tou, 31,
is compact and burly. He has worked for eight years for a baggage company
and makes about $1,700 a month. He wore the full beard of a devout Muslim
and a red jacket with the insignia of the Manchester United soccer team.
"In our private lives, we who work at the airport, we are wiretapped, we are
followed," he said. "When I talk on the phone, all I talk about is soccer.
I'm not a danger, so I talk freely."
Police detained him briefly in 1998 along with a neighbor who is prominent
in a Pakistani extremist group. Authorities also allege that Tou attended a
Salafist mosque, worshiped at clandestine prayer halls in airport locker
rooms and had ties to convicted stickup men as well as baggage handlers
arrested on suspicion of theft last year.
His lawyer argued that Tou did not know about his neighbor's militant
activity and was not implicated in crimes. As for the locker room prayer
areas, lawyers and intelligence officials say some were approved by
Twice as many employees
The workforce at De Gaulle has doubled in a decade, increasing the presence
of private subcontractors and short-term workers, according to the former
French anti-terrorism official. About half the 20,000 employees who provide
security, load luggage and cargo, and clean and supply planes are of North
African backgrounds, he said.
"As the airport authority has progressively subcontracted, they have started
to lose control," the former official said. "Ethnic networks recruit in
their hometowns in Morocco. And sometimes this results in illegal immigrants
being hired, thefts, other security problems."
The problems usually do not rise to the level of terrorism. Authorities
insist that the airport remains well protected and that the vast majority of
its Muslim workers are law-abiding. But investigators expend great effort
tracking a small minority.
"You are not just screening passengers, you have to watch your own people,"
Grignard said. "There is all this attention now on carry-on liquids. But
there are still other vulnerabilities, like the luggage going into the cargo
hold, like the workforce.
"It's the last line of defense."
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