Israelis 'spied on al-Qa'ida in America'

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American agents have dismantled an Israeli spy network, which may have been watching al-Qa'ida members inside the US before the 11 September attacks, French publications reported yesterday.

More than 100 Israeli agents, posing as students, were arrested in the first half of last year after trying to penetrate American law enforcement agencies, according to Le Monde and a French internet newsletter, Intelligence Online.

The stories were dismissed as "bogus" by the FBI but Le Monde published extracts from a report by the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), which said the Israeli students – including many "attractive women, aged around 25" – were involved in "organised spying activities". This included attempts to penetrate the DEA and the FBI.

A dozen students/agents are still under arrest in the US, Le Monde said. Most of the others – including the son of an Israeli general and the former body-guard at Israeli army headquarters – have been expelled.

The newspaper said this was the most serious incident of Israeli espionage in America since the jailing for life in 1986 of Jonathan Pollard, an American naval officer convicted of selling defence secrets to Israel.

Nothing in the extracts from the DEA report published by Le Monde suggests a link between the Israeli "agents" and al-Qa'ida. But the newspaper says that the fact that many of the Israelis were based near Ford Lauderdale – close to places where al-Qa'ida agents involved in the 11 September suicide hijackings were also based – has aroused the suspicions of the authorities.

The newspaper says that some American officials believe the Israeli students were trailing al-Qa'ida operatives, without informing their American counterparts.

Le Monde says, without offering any further evidence, that this suggests Israel knew more in advance about the kamikaze attacks than it told Washington.

A spokesman for the Israeli embassy in Washington dismissed the reports. "No one in the US is taking this story seriously," he said.

"I categorically deny the claims and my embassy has received no complaints from the US. I am not aware of a single Israeli who has been charged with espionage."