Al Qaeda and its allies are taking aim at Europe, according to U.S. and Western intelligence officials, who say there are indications a terrorist plot is in the offing.
“Despite the significant counterterrorism pressure abroad, al Qaeda continues to be committed to high-profile attacks directed at the West, including plans against Europe as well as the homeland,” FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III told a hearing of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told senators “there have been a number of activities in Europe — we are in constant contact with our colleagues abroad.”
Ms. Napolitano spoke in response to questions from Sen. Joe Lieberman, Connecticut independent and committee chairman, about recent warnings from senior European officials about an impending terrorist strike on the Continent.
European counterterrorism officials in recent days have said there are new signs that terrorist attacks against Europe are being planned.
One official, Bernard Squarcini, head of France’s counterterrorism and counterintelligence agency, told Le Monde on Sept. 10, “All the lights are red. They are flashing from everywhere.”
A former senior U.S. intelligence official told The Washington Times that “the threat-reporting stream today is like what we were seeing in the summer of 2001.”
Ms. Napolitano declined to provide details of the threats. “In an open setting, suffice it say that we are all seeing increased activities by a more diverse set of groups and a more diverse set of threats. That activity, much of which is Islamist in nature, is directed at the West generally,” she said.
One cause of concern for the U.S. counterterrorism community is a network in Europe that was first disclosed to the public in the case of David Coleman Headley, an American arrested on terrorism charges in October.
The indictment against Mr. Headley states that he was sent by an al Qaeda commander named Mohammed Ilyas Kashmiri to scope out Jyllands-Posten, the Danish newspaper that in 2005 published cartoons of the Muslim Prophet Muhammad.
The indictment says Kashmiri recommended contacts in Western Europe that could provide Mr. Headley “with money, weapons and manpower for the attack on the newspaper.” That network of contacts is still at large, according to U.S. intelligence officials.
Ms. Napolitano also warned that terrorist plots from radical Islamic groups have become cruder and simpler than the intricate multiple-airline hijacking plot of Sept. 11.
Ms. Napolitano specifically noted the danger of a car-bomb attack. On May 1, Faisal Shahzad reportedly parked a car bomb that did not detonate in New York City’s Times Square.
“There is a rising threat from attacks that use improvised explosive devices (IEDs), other explosives and small arms,” Ms. Napolitano said. “This type of attack has been common in hot spots around the world for some time, but we have now experienced such attempted attacks in the United States.”
Ms. Napolitano also warned about an attack involving “small teams of operatives [who would] storm a facility using small arms.”
This kind of attack is the signature style of attack of Kashmiri, a former Pakistani special forces general who is believed to be the mastermind of the 2008 seizure of downtown Mumbai.
“Unlike large-scale, coordinated, catastrophic attacks, executing smaller-scale attacks requires less planning and fewer pre-operational steps. Accordingly, there are fewer opportunities to detect such an attack before it occurs,” Miss Napolitano said.
At the hearing on Wednesday, Michael Leiter, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, also warned that the Iranian-inspired and -supported terrorist group Hezbollah likely would attempt an attack on U.S. interests if Israel attacked Iran’s nuclear facilities.
Speaking about Hezbollah, Mr. Leiter said, “The big question mark for us has always been not their capability but their intent. Currently we do not assess there to be a clear intent to attack the United States, but should that intent change, they undoubtedly have the capability to launch attacks against the U.S. and the West on a relatively global scale.”
Sen. Scott Brown, Massachusetts Republican, then asked: “Do you think if there is an escalation between Iran and Israel that we will see more of a threat here in the United States?”
Mr. Leiter responded with one word. “Yes,” he said.