Europe, U.S. Track Clues on Possible Urban Terror Plot
By DAVID CRAWFORD in Berlin, SIOBHAN GORMAN in Washington and STEPHEN FIDLER in Brussels
European police are searching for a suspected terror hit team believed to be in Europe and possibly planning a shooting spree in an urban center, according to a senior European intelligence official.
The investigation is driven by U.S. intelligence and is focusing on a man of unknown age thought to be from North Africa known only as “Mauritani,” the official said.
The threat reports are too broad for specific action, U.S. and European officials say, although the strongest intelligence suggests that the group may be preparing an attack against an unprotected target or targets in the U.K., France or Germany.
Central Intelligence Agency Director Leon Panetta met Wednesday in Islamabad with Pakistani officials to discuss a range of counterterrorism issues, including the European plot and other terror schemes.
U.S. officials believe that some operatives have already left Pakistan’s tribal region and were likely smuggled through Turkey, and possibly Iran, to Europe, said a former counterterrorism official familiar with the probe. One possible target includes public transportation, the former official added.
Officials on both sides of the Atlantic have been piecing together the plot, but many details remain unknown. The scheme is believed to be styled on the armed commando attacks that killed more than 160 people in Mumbai, India, in 2008.
U.S. and European counterterrorism officials have been investigating the suspected plot since August, when they began to intercept communications involving al Qaeda militants in Pakistan, officials said. Another important source of information was Ahmed Sidiqi, a German of Afghan descent who was captured in Afghanistan in July, U.S. officials said.
In an effort to disrupt the emerging plot, the CIA stepped up its drone attacks in the tribal areas of Pakistan. With more than 20 strikes this month, September has seen the highest monthly count of drone strikes in six years, according to the New America Foundation.
European officials say that before the plot became public, it was believed to be in the early planning stages.
U.S. and European counterterrorism officials continue to probe the suspected plot. “We’re still concerned about the threat,” said one U.S. counterterrorism official. “We’re not backing down.”
A European official said, “This is an ongoing operation. We’re not going to comment on it…It would have been better if it wasn’t out in the public domain.”
Asked Wednesday about the plot, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that speaking about intelligence reports would undermine operations, but added, “as we have repeatedly said, we know that al-Qaeda and its network of terrorists wishes to attack both European and U.S. targets.”
Mrs. Clinton said that the U.S. is working closely with its European allies to disrupt terrorist plots.
In the U.K., Prime Minister David Cameron was told of the potential plot a few weeks ago, according to a person familiar with the matter.
Although many details of the suspected attack plans are unknown, one intelligence official said European security officials have stepped up their investigations of potential Muslim extremists or supporters of terrorism in the hope of finding new leads to the hit team.
European security officials fear an attack against crowds of people in an urban center, which could lead to a large number of casualties. In the U.S., transportation terror experts have said terrorists are favoring attacks with firearms over bombs on transport systems because such assaults would maximize casualties on a packed train.
European security officials reviewing previous attacks that could stand as a model for a new attack there are looking to the assault on Mumbai. Officials in both India and Pakistan have blamed Muslim extremists in Pakistan for planning and participating in the attack.
The intelligence on the suspected plot is so broad in nature, “we can’t do anything with it,” the European intelligence official said. Yet the suspected threat is so great, “we have to pull out all the stops to prevent an attack,” the official said.
U.S. officials say they are beginning to draw connections between this new intelligence and other threats they have been tracking for some time.
One focus of the intelligence operation is to identify the languages that the members of the hit team speak. French and Spanish are considered possible in addition to Arabic, the official said.
Intelligence officials don’t have reliable information on the identities of the members of the suspected hit team, although the members are suspected to have a variety of national backgrounds. The difficulty is compounded because officials suspect the individual members avoid travelling as a group, the official said.
It is also unclear where the members of the suspected hit team received their training. One line of investigation is focusing on determining whether Mauritani visited Waziristan in Pakistan, the official said.
“We are searching for a needle in a haystack,” the intelligence official said, adding that with limited information on the plot, they have to prepare for “everything and nothing.”
This is not the first such threat in Europe. Muslim terrorist groups attacked commuter trains killing 191 people in Madrid, Spain in 2004 and killed 52 people aboard Underground trains and a bus in London in 2005.
A few months ago, the U.K. performed a practice exercise to prepare for a Mumbai-style attack on a train station and a hotel.
—Alistair MacDonald and Keith Johnson contributed to this article.