Paris terror attacks: The importance of Djamel Beghal

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Story highlights

  • Djamel Beghal, an al Qaeda recruiter in Europe, has links to the Charlie Hebdo attack
  • Former CIA Director George Tenet was briefed on Beghal in July 2001

(CNN)An al Qaeda operative who helped radicalize and recruit two of the Paris gunmen was identified by U.S. authorities in July 2001, less than two months before the 9/11 attacks against the World Trade Center and Pentagon.

Djamel Beghal, an al Qaeda recruiter in Europe, was tapped in 2001 by senior Osama Bin Laden operative Abu Zubaydah to organize a terror cell to attack the U.S. Embassy in Paris. He was stopped in Dubai on his way home from Afghanistan and days later on July 24, 2001, former CIA Director George Tenet was briefed on Beghal.
Tenet confirms the "discussion of the pending deportation from the UAE to France of Djamel Beghal, who intended to blow up the U.S. Embassy in Paris," in his biography. On August 6, 2001, Tenet briefed President George W. Bush in a classified presidential daily brief, entitled "Bin Ladin Determined to Strike in the U.S."
    Terror experts describe Beghal as a key figure linking generations of European terrorists. They include shoe bomber Richard Reid, 9/11's Zacarias Moussaoui and cleric Abu Hamza al Masri, all of whom Beghal knew from his association with the radical Finsbury Mosque in London.
    "He was seen very much as an al Qaeda point man in Europe," says terror expert Sajjan Gohel of the Asia Pacific Foundation.
    Like Reid and Moussaoui, Beghal was inspired and radicalized by Abu Hamza al-Masri and adopted the name Abou Hamza in homage to his mentor, court documents show. A Western intelligence source says al-Masri may have helped Beghal connect with the right people on his 2000-2001 trip to Afghanistan.
    Coincidentally, a federal judge in Manhattan gave al-Masri a life sentence on terror charges January 9, the same day the Paris attackers were killed in coordinated sieges by French police.
    Yet whether or not French authorities knew about his al Qaeda connections, Beghal served only eight years of a 10-year sentence for the U.S. Embassy plot. He was released under house arrest in 2009.
    "He's not the type of person who gets de-radicalized in prison," says Gohel, adding, "He recruits others who he has incubated in prison. He's a very dangerous person."
    Defying the terms of his house arrest, Beghal quickly reconnected with two of his key recruits where he was confined, at the Murat Hotel in Cantal, France.
    Surveillance photos in 2010 show Beghal meeting two men in a Murat park in the presence of Cherif Kouachi. Amedy Coulibaly visited Beghal the same year with his girlfriend, and now fugitive, Hayat Boumeddiene, the couple bringing Beghal food and money. Boumeddiene refered to Beghal as a "wise man" who had "lots of books on religion." Court records show Kouachi and Coulibaly stayed with Beghal for several days in April.
    It didn't take long before all three men were once again in the crosshairs of French authorities, this time for a 2010 prison-break plot to free a man convicted of the 1995 bombing of a Paris Metro.
    Beghal was sentenced to 12 years. Coulibaly, discovered with a weapons cache, was sentenced to four years and released in 2014. Kouachi remained free because there was not enough evidence to tie him to the plot.
    Kouachi and his brother, Said, were killed by police in a gunfight after they attacked the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a French magazine with a history of mocking Mohammed. Twelve people were killed, including several top editors. The brothers said they were avenging the prophet.
    Coulibaly also was killed January 9, after a shooting at a kosher grocery store in Paris. Police say Boumeddiene escaped the scene of the shooting.