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Profile: Alain Chouet

Alain Chouet was a participant or observer in the following events:

The Saudi government revokes bin Laden’s citizenship and moves to freeze his assets in Saudi Arabia because of his support for Muslim fundamentalist movements. (Ibrahim 4/10/1994; PBS Frontline 2001) However, allegedly, this is only a public front and they privately continue to support him as part of a secret deal allegedly made in 1991 (see Summer 1991). In fact, bin Laden will travel to Albania as part of an official Saudi delegation later in the month (see Shortly After April 9, 1994). The Saudis were said to have been pressured into this move after US officials privately met with Saudi officials and confronted them with satellite images of al-Qaeda training camps in northern Sudan. (Follath and Mascolo 6/6/2005) But Alain Chouet, head of the French intelligence subdivision tracking terrorist movements, will later claim that bin Laden’s “loss of Saudi nationality is nothing but a farce.” (Dasquié 4/15/2007)

Rocco Martino, an Italian information peddler and former SISMI agent, will later tell reporters that he provides French officials with documents suggesting that Iraq intends to expand its “trade” with Niger. He does not say from where he obtains these documents. The French assume the trade being discussed concerns uranium, Niger’s main export. At French intelligence’s request, according to Martino, he continues supplying them with documents. (Rufford 8/1/2004; Huband 8/2/2004) However Martino’s account is disputed by French intelligence official Alain Chouet who insists that France’s first contact with Martino takes place in June 2002 (see Late June 2002). (Bonni and D'Avanzo 12/1/2005)

Alain Chouet.Alain Chouet. [Source: La Repubblica]A five page summary French intelligence report dated on this day is entitled “Hijacking of an Airplane by Radical Islamists.” The report details tactical discussions since early 2000 between bin Laden, Chechen rebels, and the Taliban about a hijacking against US airlines (Early 2000 and October 2000). The plot considers hijacking a US airliner flying from Frankfurt to the US or hijacking a French or German airliner. The French intelligence comes from Uzbek spies who have infiltrated the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), a militant group based in Uzbekistan next door to Afghanistan and closely tied to bin Laden and the Taliban. Some of the spies ended up in al-Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan. The French report makes clear that the information was independently verified from other sources, including satellite telephone intercepts and possibly spies recruited in France. (Dasquié 4/15/2007; Doland 4/16/2007; Le Monde (Paris) 4/17/2007) When this French report will be leaked to the press in 2007, French officials will insist that the information in it would have been forwarded to the CIA at the time. For instance, Pierre-Antoine Lorenzi, responsible at the time for communications between French and other foreign intelligence services, will say the information would have gone to Bill Murray, chief of the CIA Paris station. Lorenzi says, “That, typically, is the kind of information that would certainly have been forwarded to the CIA. It would even have been an error not to have done it.” (Dasquié 4/15/2007) Alain Chouet, head of the French intelligence subdivision tracking terrorist movements, also says the information was certainly passed to the CIA. “We transmitted everything to our American counterparts, everything that could have posed a threat, and they did the same with us.” Chouet thinks it is possible the information was deliberate misdirection by al-Qaeda, because it does not mention multiple hijackings or suicide pilots. No CIA officials have gone on record saying that they received the warning. (Dasquié 4/15/2007; Doland 4/16/2007) However, the Chechens are likely connected to Chechen leader Ibn Khattab, who has a long history of collaboration with bin Laden (see 1986-March 19, 2002), and by April 2001 an FBI report says that Ibn Khattab and bin Laden are seriously planning an attack together, possibly against US interests (see Before April 13, 2001). In May 2001, President Bush will be given a warning entitled, “Terrorist Groups Said Cooperating on US Hostage Plot,” which could involve a hijacking to free al-Qaeda prisoners in the US (see May 23, 2001). The plot described by French intelligence is also designed to free al-Qaeda prisoners in the US, though this may just be coincidence as the terrorist groups in Bush’s warning have not been publicly named. (Le Monde (Paris) 4/17/2007)

In part due to pressure from Vice President Cheney, the CIA sends a cable to France’s intelligence agency, the Direction Generale de la Securite Exterieure (DGSE), communicating concerns about intelligence suggesting that Iraq is attempting to purchase uranium from Niger. (Another cable had been sent the year before (see Summer 2001).) Specifically, the CIA says it is concerned about an alleged agreement between Iraq and Niger on the sale of 500 tons of uranium that was signed by Nigerian officials. (In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, DGSE official Alain Chouet will note that the details of this agreement matched those of the forged documents.) (Hamburger, Wallsten, and Drogin 12/11/2005; Unger 2007, pp. 241) Niger is a former French colony, and the French keep a tight rein on Niger’s uranium production. Hence, the CIA turns to French intelligence to vet the claim of Nigerien uranium going to Iraq. “The French were managing partners of the international consortium in Niger,” former US ambassador Joseph Wilson will later say. “The French did the actual mining and shipping of [uranium].” (Unger 2007, pp. 208-209) The CIA asks for an immediate answer about the authenticity of the information. (Bonni and D'Avanzo 12/1/2005) In response, the DGSE sends its head of security intelligence, Chouet, to look into the uranium deal. The initial information Chouet receives from the CIA is vague, he will later recall, except for one striking detail: Iraq’s ambassador to the Vatican, Wissam al-Zahawie, made an unusual trip to four African countries in 1999, including Niger. CIA analysts fear the trip may have been a prelude to the uranium deal. But Chouet soon learns that the al-Zawahie trip (see February 1999) had not been secret, as the CIA avers, but had been well covered by, among other news outlets, the local Nigerien press. In addition, French, British, and US intelligence had received routine reports on al-Zawahie’s visits. Chouet, head of a 700-person intelligence unit specializing in weapons proliferation and terrorism, sends an undercover team of five or six men to Niger to check on the security of Niger’s uranium. The investigation produces no evidence that al-Zawahie had even discussed uranium with the Nigeriens. (Bonni and D'Avanzo 12/1/2005; Hamburger, Wallsten, and Drogin 12/11/2005; Unger 2007, pp. 208-209) Chouet will later recall, “[O]nce back, they told me a very simple thing: ‘the American information on uranium is all bullsh_t.’” (Bonni and D'Avanzo 12/1/2005) The French summarize the results of their investigation in a series of formal cables they send to CIA offices in Langley and Paris. Chouet will later tell the Times that they communicated their doubts about the claims in no uncertain terms. “We told the Americans, ‘Bullshi_t. It doesn’t make any sense.’” (Bonni and D'Avanzo 12/1/2005; Hamburger, Wallsten, and Drogin 12/11/2005) Choeut’s formal reports to the CIA use less coarse language, but he later describes them as candid. “We had the feeling we had been heard,” he will recall. (Unger 2007, pp. 241) The DGSE considers the issue closed. (Unger 2007, pp. 208-209)


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