U.S. and allied intelligence agencies are on a near-global manhunt — from South Asia and the Middle East to North Africa and Europe — for teams of al Qaeda-affiliated terrorists thought to be preparing multiple attacks on major European cities.
U.S. counterterrorism officials told The Washington Times that U.S. and allied services were examining multiple plots as well as multiple modes of attacks ranging from paramilitary-style raids similar to the 2008 attacks on downtown Mumbai to the vehicle bombs that to this day ravage Baghdad.
The al Qaeda affiliates plotting the attacks on Europe include Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Pakistani Taliban that are said to be training dozens of European passport holders for attacks in Europe.
Also planning attacks are operatives from al Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb, the group’s affiliate based in Algeria and North Africa.
“No one should think in terms of a single Europe threat,” a U.S. counterterrorism official told The Times. “We could be looking at plots — plural — that are probably at various stages of development.
“As you would expect, American and European counterterrorism officials are working closely together to gather information on, and thwart, anything that terrorists may be planning,” the official said. “And since some of the concerns emanate from South Asia and North Africa, governments in those parts of the world are involved, too.”
Over the weekend, the State Department issued a travel alert for Americans in Europe to beware of “potential for terrorist attacks in Europe.”
The alert is not as strong as a warning, said Patrick F. Kennedy, undersecretary of state for management, stressing that the State Department was not asking Americans to forgo travel to Europe.
Mr. Kennedy said multiple streams of intelligence and threat reporting led to the conclusion. “As facts came to our attention, a picture began to emerge,” he said.
The official alert warned Americans of “potential strikes on public transportation systems and other tourist infrastructure. Terrorists have targeted and attacked subway and rail systems, as well as aviation and maritime service.”
On Friday, Sweden announced that it was elevating its terrorism threat alert. On Sept. 16, France raised its alert to “reinforced red” — one below the top level.
On Tuesday, the Eiffel Tower was evacuated for two hours after an anonymous caller said a bomb was about to detonate. The Eiffel Tower experienced a similar scare two weeks earlier.
The United Kingdom issued a travel warning for France over the weekend and increased its terrorism warning as well, an indication that more invasive electronic eavesdropping was authorized for the duration of the threat.
Concern about an attack in the West this fall first emerged over the summer after U.S. authorities captured a German citizen of Afghan origin named Ahmad Siddiqui. Mr. Siddiqui was in contact with at least four of the original plotters of the Sept. 11 attacks, according to press sources including the German newspaper Der Spiegel.
“One reason Siddiqui is important is because he was recruited at the Taiba Mosque in Hamburg, Germany, which was a core part of Osama bin Laden’s network at the time of the Sept. 11 attacks. The mosque was closed down just weeks after Siddiqui was detained in Afghanistan,” said Thomas Joscelyn, a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. “This says to me the plot is being planned at the highest levels of al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden.”
Security specialists have been concerned about the prospect of an attack similar to the 2008 military-style raids on sections of downtown Mumbai in which 166 people were killed during a three-day assault.
Intelligence sources said the mastermind of the Mumbai attack was Mohammad Ilyas Kashmiri, a senior al Qaeda commander who the CIA at first thought had killed in a drone attack a year ago but is now thought to be in control of a sleeper network in Western Europe. That network was first disclosed to the public in the case of David Coleman Headley, a Pakistani-American convicted of terrorism charges in March.
The indictment against Headley stated that Mr. Kashmiri sent him to scope out Jyllands-Posten, the Danish newspaper that published cartoons of the Muslim Prophet Muhammad in 2005.