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French Spy Chief: al-Qaida Not Destroyed

Fri Jan 23, 7:39 PM ET

By JOHN LEICESTER, Associated Press Writer

PARIS - The al-Qaida network has been severely destabilized but not destroyed by the war on terror and still represents a "very motivated and very dangerous" threat, the head of France's domestic intelligence agency said Friday.

At the same time, French intelligence has over the past 18 months monitored "a surge in strength" by terror cells that have no organizational links with al-Qaida but which "exist all over Europe," Pierre de Bousquet de Florian said in an interview with The Associated Press.

One such cell was dismantled in France over the past year, with the latest arrests coming this month. France says the cell planned chemical attacks against Russian targets.

Generally, the threat of terrorism for France "is real and of a high level," he said.

The 49-year-old former aide to President Jacques Chirac heads the Directorate for Territorial Surveillance, known by its French initials DST. Created in 1944 to fight espionage, the DST has evolved to take a lead in French efforts to combat terrorism.

It still handles counterespionage and other security threats, including weapons proliferation. Its organizational framework is secret.

Bousquet de Florian said that because France opposed the U.S.-led war in Iraq, it appeared to have become less of an immediate target for Islamic terrorists. But he said that was not why France opposed the military campaign and he indicated that this unsought-for benefit would likely be short-lived.

Bousquet de Florian said France has no indication that Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida had links. But he said France has evidence that Saddam's regime financed another group, the Mujahedeen Khalq, which the United States and the European Union have branded a terrorist organization.

France cracked down on the Mujahedeen Khalq's French operations last June, raiding over a dozen sites including its walled headquarters in Auvers-Sur-Oise, north of Paris. More than 150 people were detained.

The Mujahedeen Khalq is an Iranian opposition group which for years fought Iran's Islamic leadership from Iraq with the backing of Saddam's regime. It was disarmed by U.S. forces in Iraq soon after major hostilities ended in May.

As for al-Qaida, Bousquet de Florian said it "has been destabilized to a large extent" but "retains a capacity to carry out operations."

"Very apparently," November's suicide bombings in Istanbul, Turkey, were, if not ordered by al-Qaida, then "validated by the heads of al-Qaida or by Osama bin Laden himself," he said, referring to the terror network's fugitive leader.

Despite losing leaders, fighters, training camps and financing to the war on terror, al-Qaida "remains a structure that is very motivated and very dangerous," said Bousquet de Florian.

On other issues:

_Among the thousands of Islamic fighters who fled Afghanistan after the U.S.-led war against al-Qaida and the Taliban there, many found refuge in the Persian Gulf and Iraq, he said.

_Despite its concerns that France-based Islamic radicals might go to Iraq to fight U.S. forces, the DST has no concrete evidence that they have done so, he said.

_Without naming them, he said countries suspected of developing weapons of mass destruction mostly exchange the technology needed among themselves. It is "practically impossible" for them to get such technology from Western sources because of strict controls in place designed to prevent the spread of equipment that can be used in weapons programs, he said.

The counterterrorism chief insisted that cooperation between French and American security agencies was totally unaffected by the diplomatic tensions between Washington and Paris over the Iraq war. He said his department is in contact with the CIA and the FBI two or three times a day.

Bousquet de Florian said he has sought to lift some of the veil of secrecy shrouding the department since he took over in 2002. He is occasionally quoted in French media.

He would not divulge how many people work for the agency, but said it has been reinforced since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks in the United States.

"What we do is useful," he said. "There's no reason to hide what we do."

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