3 October bulletin warned US citizens travelling to Europe that ‘al-Qaida and affiliated organisations continue to plan attacks’
The US state department today defended the decision to issue a terror alert covering all of Europe but admitted that it had no specific information of any plot or potential target.
The alert issued on 3 October stated “current information suggests that al-Qaida and affiliated organisations continue to plan terrorist attacks”. It warned American citizens to take safety measures when travelling in Europe, particularly on public transport or at tourist sites.
The alarm led to consternation across Europe, “tit-for-tat” warnings by France and Britain about travel in each other’s countries, German government complaints the US was over-reacting to a “hypothetical” threat, anonymous criticism by European security officials, and claims by Pakistani diplomats that the US move was politically motivated.
Speaking today in London after a tour of European capitals, Daniel Benjamin, co-ordinator for counter-terrorism at the state department, asserted that the decision to issue the 3 October alert was fully justified.
It followed “the accumulation of a significant body of information and corroboration that was of great concern”, he said. “The credibility [of the information] was striking and internally consistent. That said, some specifics were absent,” he acknowledged; for this reason, the alert was general in nature and did not mention individual countries.
Subsequent American media reports suggesting landmarks in European capitals, including the Hotel Adlon in Berlin and the Eiffel Tower in Paris, had been identified as terrorist targets had no basis in fact, Benjamin said. Nor did he offer any evidence to support newspaper claims that commando attacks like that in Mumbai in 2008 were planned.
Deciding whether or not to issue such an alert was one of the most difficult challenges facing any government, Benjamin said. “You need to discharge your responsibilities to the public while avoiding accusations of a lack of credibility.”
Rejecting a suggestion that it achieved little beyond media speculation, Benjamin said: “People will be more aware, take greater precautions. There’s a risk of being cynical about what people might do. We were just saying, ‘Don’t hang around at stations, don’t go people-watching at that demonstration, move on briskly’.”
Benjamin said the alert remained in force. His British and European counterparts were in full agreement about the threat level, he said. There were no serious divergences in approach, although it was accepted that “we [the Americans] do things a little differently”.
Benjamin said that terrorist networks linked to al-Qaida and centred on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, the subject of escalating US drone and helicopter missile attacks, continued to pose “the most formidable threat we face”. The links were spreading to take in groups in Yemen, Saudi Arabia and the Maghreb, part of what he said was a wider effort by al-Qaida to advance its “out-of-area” ambitions.
“There is clearly an attempt to get people under our radar, as on December 25 [when a Nigerian man tried to blow up a US airliner over Detroit]. There has been a lot of progress. The border region is under more pressure than at any time since 9/11. But it is a serious threat.”
Benjamin said Pakistan’s tribal areas had become a “melting pot” for terrorist groups that were increasingly indistinguishable from each other. They included the Haqqani network, the Pakistani Taliban, and foreign-born apprentice jihadis from Britain, Europe and the US who went there for indoctrination and training in terror techniques.