Charles de Gaulle Airport Handling Cultural Baggage

Demographics make France's Charles de Gaulle facility more vulnerable to Islamic extremism, experts say.


The list looks like a typical roster of suspected Islamic extremists.

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 world.

Until authorities revoked their security badges recently, the 72workers had access to restricted zones and often to passenger cabinsand cargo holds. The group includes security screeners, baggagehandlers, maintenance workers and employees of freight companies suchas FedEx.

The suspicions are based on intelligence culled from files ofanti-terrorism agencies. The workers have been barred from the jobsite but have not been charged with crimes. The case against them isbased on information that falls into a gray area between rawintelligence and legal evidence.

The world's airports, including those in the United States, areperennial targets of thieves and smugglers. But demographics make theworkforce of European airports more vulnerable to Islamic extremism.

"In most airports you have tens of thousands of people who haveaccess to secure areas and thousands of people who have access toplanes to clean or load them," said Christophe Chaboud, chief of apolice anti-terrorism unit. "You can imagine using them to smuggleaboard explosives or weapons. Who is vulnerable to being recruitedfor such a plot? People who frequent radical environments. Thatdoesn't mean they are terrorists, but that they are vulnerable."

The Al Qaeda terrorist network's obsession with the aviationindustry, demonstrated by the Sept. 11 plot and a failed precursor inAsia, was reiterated in August by the alleged London plot to blow upU.S.-bound planes. Authorities responded with limits on carry-onitems.

But terrorists are always looking for new angles, Chaboud said. InGermany, authorities announced in late November that they had brokenup a suspected plot to use an airport employee to plant a bomb on aplane 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 radicalmosque, 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 ofthem Muslim. The airport northeast of the capital is a top employerin an expanse of slums with high concentrations of immigrants,poverty and crime. Many airport employees live in grim housingprojects that were in the spotlight during riots last year and arehome to a tangle of extremist, criminal and ethnic networks.

Anti-terrorism officials acknowledge wrestling with ambiguitieswhen monitoring extremism that falls short of lawbreaking.

"The risks are often going to be subjective," said Supt. AlainGrignard 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 Frenchgovernment of doing just that.

Election approaching

With the French presidential election approaching, critics saythat Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, who is a candidate, led awitch hunt in response to a book in which far-right presidentialhopeful Philippe de Villiers said there were Islamic extremists at DeGaulle.

"These men are hostages to electoral excess and political debate,"said Eric Moutet, a union lawyer.

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