Charles de Gaulle Airport Handling Cultural Baggage

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.

Most of the 72 workers are Muslims, but a few are accused ofhaving ties to groups such as the Tamil Tigers, the Sri Lankan rebelgroup. Nine of them have gone to court, and four have succeeded ingetting their security badges back. Some intelligence reports hadinaccurate information about name spellings, license numbers andrelatives, let alone supposed militant activity, lawyers asserted.

A former French anti-terrorism official who investigated airportemployees said many are Salafists, hard-core fundamentalists whoaspire to return to the religious practices of the time of theprophet Muhammad. Many Salafists are nonviolent, but their ideologyspawned Al Qaeda and allied movements.

"A lot of these guys are 25 to 35 years old," said the formeranti-terrorism official. "They traveled a while ago to study at\o7madrasas \f7[religious schools] in countries such as Yemen, wherereligious indoctrination often ended up having a paramilitarytraining component."

Associates of terrorists

Investigators have not proved that the men attended terroristtraining camps, but find it troubling that they studied at Koranicschools in countries with virulent militant movements. Some workersbelong to Tablighi Jamaat, a missionary sect that organized theirtrips. Although Tablighis shun politics and violence, investigatorssay, the group has produced a number of terrorists.

One employee had repeated contact with a close associate ofconvicted "shoe bomber" Richard C. Reid. The associate was aPakistani member of a network that provided logistical support herefor Reid's plot in late 2001, Chaboud said.

Two other men are suspected of being associates of an Algeriannetwork that plotted to bomb the Paris subway, Orly airport and theheadquarters of the DST counter-terrorism service last year, Chaboudsaid.

Investigators also detected travel by airport employees toAfghanistan before the Sept. 11 attacks, when Al Qaeda's trainingcamps still were operating there. Chaboud said those workers were nolonger at the airport.

Grignard, the Belgian expert, has long worried that extremistscould target airport workers because of the combination of their lowsocioeconomic status and high-security jobs.

"The heart of the problem is that the worst jobs are held by thepoorest workers, who are often immigrants and Muslims," he said."It's logical. If I had a terrorist network, I would try to recruitworkers at the airport, or infiltrate people into the airport."

A Brussels cell dismantled in late 2001 after allegedly plottingto bomb the U.S. Embassy in Paris had associates working inmaintenance and security at the Brussels airport, Grignard said.

That airport has had at least three incidents of anti-Semitism byemployees. In 2001, an employee of Arab origin defaced baggage froman El Al flight with swastikas and graffiti declaring "Death toJews." The Israeli airline also was the target in the German case, inwhich authorities arrested six people and accused them of trying tobribe an airport employee.

In London, suspects arrested in the alleged airplane bomb plot inAugust included a worker at Heathrow Airport. He was released withoutcharge.

Despite those cases, critics say the Paris crackdown is overkill.

Feeling like a scapegoat

Mohammed Abdellah Tou, a baggage handler who contested hissuspension in court, sees himself as a scapegoat.

"France doesn't like Islam," Tou said in an interview in theparking lot of a courthouse in the industrial suburb of Bobigny."They have demonized us."

A French citizen who retains a slight accent of his nativeAlgeria, Tou, 31, is compact and burly. He has worked for eight yearsfor a baggage company and makes about $1,700 a month. He wore thefull beard of a devout Muslim and a red jacket with the insignia ofthe Manchester United soccer team.

"In our private lives, we who work at the airport, we arewiretapped, we are followed," he said. "When I talk on the phone, allI talk about is soccer. I'm not a danger, so I talk freely."

Police detained him briefly in 1998 along with a neighbor who isprominent in a Pakistani extremist group. Authorities also allegethat Tou attended a Salafist mosque, worshiped at clandestine prayerhalls in airport locker rooms and had ties to convicted stickup menas well as baggage handlers arrested on suspicion of theft last year.

His lawyer argued that Tou did not know about his neighbor'smilitant activity and was not implicated in crimes. As for the lockerroom prayer areas, lawyers and intelligence officials say some wereapproved by supervisors.

Twice as many employees

The workforce at De Gaulle has doubled in a decade, increasing thepresence of private subcontractors and short-term workers, accordingto the former French anti-terrorism official. About half the 20,000employees who provide security, load luggage and cargo, and clean andsupply planes are of North African backgrounds, he said.

"As the airport authority has progressively subcontracted, theyhave started to lose control," the former official said. "Ethnicnetworks recruit in their hometowns in Morocco. And sometimes thisresults in illegal immigrants being hired, thefts, other securityproblems."

The problems usually do not rise to the level of terrorism.Authorities insist that the airport remains well protected and thatthe vast majority of its Muslim workers are law-abiding. Butinvestigators expend great effort tracking a small minority.

"You are not just screening passengers, you have to watch your ownpeople," Grignard said. "There is all this attention now on carry-onliquids. But there are still other vulnerabilities, like the luggagegoing into the cargo hold, like the workforce.

"It's the last line of defense."

Times staff writer Achrene Sicakyuz contributed to this report.

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