10.03.10

The Latest Al Qaeda Alarms

How serious are the new terrorist threats in Europe? Obama's strategic Af-Pak adviser Bruce Riedel unravels the plots—and what Osama bin Laden's sudden spate of new messages means.

Al Qaeda is reported to be planning attacks in European cities to replicate what its ally Lashkar-e-Taiba did in Mumbai, India, almost two years ago. In November 2008, right after President Obama's election, 10 heavily armed Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorists arrived by boat from Karachi, Pakistan, split into teams and then attacked targets throughout the city, including five-star hotels, a Jewish center, restaurants, and the city train station. A great city was terrorized for three days. The world looked on, horrified.

Little is known yet about the new al Qaeda plots in Europe or how serious the threat reports are. Most of the press reports link the plots back to the al Qaeda core in Pakistan. European security services have taken them seriously and increased security has been obvious in France, Germany, and the United Kingdom.

Matthew Yglesias: Terror Alerts Are UselessWe do know that al Qaeda planned a Mumbai-style, mass-casualty suicide attack in Denmark last year and that the plot involved many of those involved in the carnage in India in 2008. The Copenhagen plot was the brainchild of Muhammad Ilyas Kashmiri, one of al Qaeda's most dangerous operators. A Pakistani who was trained in the 1980s by Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency to fight the Russians in Afghanistan and then the Indians in Kashmir, Kashmiri joined al Qaeda after the 9/11 attacks. He has been linked to several major terrorist attacks in Pakistan in the last few years. The U.N. has tied him to the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. He has publicly promised al Qaeda will outdo Mumbai in the West.

Kashmiri's accomplice in the Copenhagen plot was an American of Pakistani descent, David Headley, who did the reconnaissance for the Mumbai attack. He had scouted out all the targets for Lashkar-e-Taiba in Mumbai in five visits to the city in the two years beforehand.

Posing as a travel agent, he carefully videoed and photographed all the targets, and then provided his handlers in Pakistan with detailed reports on what to expect. He had done the same in Denmark for al Qaeda in 2009, visiting the target—the office of the newspaper that published the famous cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad—and photographed it and its surroundings, then delivering the videos to Kashmiri in Pakistan, who told Headley "the elders of al Qaeda" were overseeing his mission.

Kashmiri also said al Qaeda already had its hit team in Europe. On one of his trips, Headley met with them. They planned to storm the offices, execute all the Danes they found inside, and then fight to the death with the police. All this information is in Headley's guilty plea; he was arrested last October in Chicago by the FBI as he prepared to travel to join the attack.

There has been much speculation that bin Laden's messages are designed somehow to trigger attacks in the West, but they may just be a coincidence.

We can derive from the Danish plot that al Qaeda is indeed determined to replicate the Mumbai horror somewhere in Europe. Most European security services are better prepared for a terrorist attack than India was in 2008. But no one should underestimate what a handful of determined and well-armed suicidal killers could accomplish.

The alarms in Europe also reflect concerns about al Qaeda's franchise in North Africa, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb—a group that is focused on attacking French interests both in Africa and at home. The group has been threatening to do something in France for years without taking action, but Paris lately seems more concerned about AQIM's capabilities in France. AQIM has long been assumed to have a cadre of supporters among the millions of French citizens of Algerian origin.

In the midst of the terror scare in Europe, Osama bin Laden has issued two audio messages, dealing with climate change and the floods in Pakistan. In them, he lambasts the Islamic world's governments for doing too little to help the Pakistani people. Specifically, he says the wealth of the Gulf states, especially his own Saudi Arabia, should be used for the benefit of all Muslims, not just the rich princes who run those states. This is a popular message among the poor in Islam. There has been much speculation that these two messages are designed somehow to trigger attacks in the West, but they may just be a coincidence. Bin Laden fashions himself a great commentator on our age, not the mass murderer that he really is.

Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer, is a senior fellow in the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution. At President Obama's request, he chaired the strategic review of policy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2009. He's also the author of The Search for Al Qaeda: Its Leadership, Ideology and Future.