Friday, October 15, 2010

15-Oct-10: Is Europe facing a terror attack?

Earlier this month, the US State Department advised Americans living or traveling in Europe to conduct themselves as if terrorists are plotting attacks in Europe. Yesterday (Thursday), its counterterrorism coordinator Daniel Benjamin clarified that the terror plot focused on Europe is still enough of a threat for the US to maintain the current advisory. It's a step below a formal warning advising Americans not to visit Europe.

So often when terrorism is under discussion, you hear voices downplaying the dangers (for instance, "Some Muslims, Officials See Terror Alert As Alarmist" on the National Public Radio website this week) and that's certainly the case in this current alert. European and Pakistani officials, for instance, have questioned out loud whether the US is overreacting. TIME Magazine captured the European ambivalence well last week in an opinion piece entitled "Terror Threat: Caught Between Caution and Alarm". The acrobatics described here are impressive:
Given the thickening flurry of terror-related developments around the world — intelligence discoveries, counter-terrorism efforts, rising threat levels — the global public, and people in Europe in particular, could be forgiven for reading them as worrying signs of a looming strike on Western soil. Yet despite the feeling that all this activity is reaching a critical mass, European security officials stress that they have no reason to believe an attack is imminent. And they note that while the general terror threat is indeed relatively high, it is not acute.
Relatively high danger, but not acute. It's not only Europeans who are living in denial about Islamic terror but they certainly contribute a certain distinctive style.

Meanwhile back on Earth, the State Department says its intelligence was gathered from multiple sources over several months and is credible. Some of the plot details come from the interrogation of Ahmed Siddiqui, an Afghan with German citizenship, captured by US forces in Afghanistan during July and the source of some detailed operational information about European jihadist circles. Siddiqui was a cleaner at Hamburg airport and a devout member of the al-Quds mosque in Hamburg several of the 9/11 hijackers gathered prior to their attack.

Concern over the presence of German citizens in Pakistan's tribal areas has gotten some media attention in past weeks. The BBC, relying on German media sources, said last week that several Islamist militants disappeared from their homes in Hamburg in 2009 and were believe to have gone to Pakistan's North Waziristan. A week ago, the German interior ministry revealed that 70 Germans had gotten paramilitary training in Afghanistan and Pakistan... and a third of them had returned home. In August 2010, German police shut down that Hamburg mosque on the basis that it had become a focus for terrorist activity. 
Associated Press today quotes the State Department's people saying "The credibility of the information was what was most striking about this – and the fact that it was so internally consistent... We tried to couch it as carefully as we could [but] we had an obligation – both an ethical one but also a legal one – to warn American tourists that this was a concern."

Tony Blair used to be prime minister of the UK. Today he sees himself having a similar kind of ethical obligation. In a speech that got wide coverage last week, Blair noted that these has been a failure to challenge the ''narrative'' that Islam was oppressed by the West and that this is fuelling extremism around the world. Too many people accept the extremists' analysis, says Blair. For example, that the actions taken by the military forces of western countries in the wake of the 9/11 mass terrorism were directed at countries because they were Muslim

Blair says:
''We should wake up to the absurdity of our surprise at the prevalence of this extremism... Look at the funds it receives. Examine the education systems that succour it. And then measure, over the years, the paucity of our counter-attack in the name of peaceful co-existence. We have been outspent, outmanoeuvred and out-strategised.''
Not only outspent, outmanoeuvred and out-strategised. But also outsmarted.

Ron Ben-Yishai gets scant media attention outside Israel, but he is often on the money. He published some observations a week ago, pointing out that the US warnings are based on concrete intelligence from intelligence agencies in the US, Pakistan, Britain, France, and Germany. He backs up the reports of Afghan jihadists with German passports, and says they are getting plenty of attention from US forces. Let's quantify that:
"Since entering the White House, US President Barack Obama has authorized no less than 122 drone hits against senior al-Qaeda and Pakistani Taliban leaders hiding out in the tribal regions of the country. This is more than double the number of attacks former President George W. Bush authorized in all eight years of his presidency. Just last month, at least 22 such attacks in Pakistan alone killed dozens of Muslim terrorists. In response... jihadists are now trying to leave Pakistan for a revenge campaign in Europe. The reasoning is clear. There are many American tourists on the continent, whose urban centers and public transportation systems are packed with people, and security measures are relatively lax. The preferred method of attack is shooting attacks and taking hostages. This modus operandi, which was successfully executed last year in Mumbai, India... allows the perpetrators, British and German citizens, to reach their targets unhindered, armed with assault rifles and handguns that can be obtained on the local market and hidden in handbags."
Ben-Yishai says the Pakistani-Germans are partnered with a North African group called "al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb". They recently kidnapped several groups of French tourists and professionals from the mining and oil industries; one of the French hostages was murdered in a jihadist execution. Now the terrorist leadership has decided to carry out a mass-casualty attack
"by detonating explosives at central French tourist sites, first and foremost being the Eiffel Tower. This is the reason that French authorities have evacuated the site, a symbol of France's strength, twice in recent weeks... It is likely that this information reached the security establishment in Paris after Italian police arrested a French citizen of Algerian descent in possession of explosive devices about a month ago. It remains unclear whether the Pakistani group and the North African group are coordinating their attacks with one another."
He says al-Qaeda is trying to time the actions of the two groups in order to create the impression of simultaneous, coordinated attacks on different sites in Europe, something which would increase their deterrent effect and grant al-Qaeda new momentum.

Meanwhile, even in France, there are some sane voices capable of observing and then acting. Jean-Louis Bruguière, France's top anti-terrorism official in the recent past, says
"all European nations are paying close attention to movement and planning in the Pakistan border area, because "since 2008, as Islamist networks in Europe have re-focused full attention on the Afghan jihad, we've all seen an increasing flow of Europeans traveling to the region for combat and terror training." in Islamic Maghreb "has proven its stated strike out at France by kidnapping French citizens in Africa which means we're taking its promises to unleash violence on French soil more seriously than ever."
Thank goodness for that.

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