Check your bags

The Jihadis Working at Paris Airports?

As investigators probe the EgyptAir crash, authorities in Paris are wrestling with the problem of potential radical cells among baggage handlers at city airports.

Philippe Wojazer/Reuters

PARIS — The fear that some of the 85,000 employees working at Paris airports might have terrorist sympathies, or be terrorists themselves, goes back at least a decade.

In December of last year, after attacks at other locations in Paris, about 70 airport employees with access to planes on the ground reportedly had their “red badges” lifted because they fell under police suspicion. And in years past, more quietly, police have broken up several criminal networks among baggage handlers with radical Islamist connections.

Since the crash of EgyptAir 804, which took off from Paris Charles De Gaulle Terminal 1 late last Wednesday night and plunged into the Mediterranean en route to Cairo some three and a half hours later, concerns about such airport ground personnel have grown even more acute. But worries about racial, ethnic, and religious profiling, plus the complications of French labor law, make them hard to address.

As one security contractor working with the airports told The Daily Beast privately, “The system in place fights against the police and law enforcement.”

To be sure, as the agonizingly slow EgyptAir 804 investigation proceeds, with no major pieces of wreckage found and neither of the “black boxes” on the plane recovered so far, theories about whether a terrorist somehow took down the plane, and if so, how, remain highly speculative.

As Clive Irving has reported in The Daily Beast, all that’s clear at this point is that data sent automatically from the plane shows “some kind of explosion involving smoke and fire at the front of the cabin… but not in enough detail to give an understanding of the cause.”

A small bomb in one of the E&E, electric and electronics, racks on the Airbus 320 might have caused such a thing, but aviation experts suggest frayed wiring might have done so as well.

Nobody wants to jump to any conclusions at this point, and no responsible official in France or elsewhere wants to point the finger at the ground staff working around the plane in Paris unless investigations turn up solid evidence. But, still, the record of handfuls of radicals working close to aircraft is worrisome—the stuff of which police dramas and spy novels are made.

In fact, one of the first scares came through the pen of conservative entrepreneur, politician and novelist Philippe de Viliers, whose book Les Mosquées de Roissy, the mosques of Charles De Gaulle airport, was published in 2006.

In a defense of his research, he wrote an article in Le Figaro Magazine that year, citing what appeared to be detailed reports by police and the French internal intelligence service. De Villiers chronicled the development of radical Islamist groups among some of the subcontractors handling baggage at the airport. These tended to come from the same small towns in North Africa, and mixed criminal activities with fundamentalist teachings: a blend common among terrorist enterprises. About 20 members of one gang had been arrested for stealing cell phones out of checked suitcases, De Villiers reported.

Over the years, clearly, French authorities tried to keep track of such activities, and no terrorist attacks took place connected to the airport. But the atrocities of last year, first with the Charlie Hebdo and kosher supermarket attacks in January, then with the devastating slaughter at cafés, a concert hall, and a stadium in November, showed that the police had lost track of many known and suspected terrorists in France and Belgium.

Exactly one month after the Nov. 13 attacks, the chief executive officer of Aéroports de Paris (ADP), Augustin de Romanet, told a television interviewer that “nearly 70 badges” had been taken away from various personnel at the Paris airports.

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Romanet said that over the previous month the lockers of 4,000 employees were searched, and while no one employed directly by ADP had what is called a fiche S, a file on the terror watchlist, there apparently were some among the employees of subcontractors, hence the removal of their clearances to work near the planes.

A red badge normally requires at least one background check, and is then given for three years—while radicalization, as we have seen, can take place in a matter of months or even weeks.

In years past, the communist CGT labor union and French law made it difficult to dismiss employees suspected of radical Islamist sympathies. In an effort to support its Muslim members, indeed, the union wanted halal meat served in the company canteen, provoking an uproar among far right-wing politicians.

But by last year, even the CGT leadership expressed concerns about some of its members who were working for Air France. After the November attacks, CGT-Air France secretary general Philippe Martinez told France Info radio that 500 of 2,000 members had been identified as “fundamentalists” and expelled from the union.

French law strictly forbids discrimination on religious, ethnic, or racial grounds, as in the United States, but it goes much further and prohibits keeping religious, ethnic, or racial data, so all decisions about suspect personnel are based, punctiliously, on behavior and it is hard to identify which actions may be tied to radical religious activities.

As Alain Zabulon, the ADP security director, explained to France Info, if a male employee refuses to say bonjour to a woman because of his religious beliefs, that is not a punishable offense. But if he refuses to obey a superior, that might be.

In the Paris airports there has been rising religious fervor among employees “for several years,” said Zabulon. “But we must distinguish between religious belief and radicalization. Religious practice—reading the Quran during a break, choosing not to eat some kind of food—that doesn’t pose a problem. What does pose a problem are proselytizing and aggressive practices.

“For example,” said Zabulon, “pressuring other employees of the same faith to respect religious precepts or be apologists for terrorist acts. That attitude needs a response from management. The employee can be taken out of the critical zone at the airport where the planes are, and lose his red badge.”

In such circumstances, to lose a badge is, most often, to lose one’s job. But, one must wonder, what about the employees who show no public signs of religious fervor at all, like many of those connected to the Paris and Brussels attacks in the last few months?

Authorities say the investigations are continuing.

—Erin Zaleski reported this story from Paris, Christopher Dickey from New York.

An earlier version of this story confused politician and novelist Philippe de Villiers with the late thriller writer Gérard de Villiers. The Daily Beast regrets the error.