As warnings about a possible new al Qaeda attack mount, new details have emerged about the soft targets in Europe, the hostage plan—and how KSM fits in. By Obama Afghanistan adviser Bruce Riedel.
For weeks now, counterterrorism officials have been warning about a possible al Qaeda plot to conduct "Mumbai-style" terror attacks in Europe. The searing memories are still fresh. Just two years ago, a 10-man terror team from the al Qaeda ally Lashkar-e-Taiba attacked India's financial capital, Mumbai—killing over 160, wounding nearly a thousand, and terrorizing the world's largest democracy for almost three days. We now know the terrorist commando team had been carefully trained in Pakistan by Lashkar-e-Taiba and possibly by Pakistani navy frogmen, and was guided minute by minute in their attack by LeT handlers in Karachi and Lahore using cellphones. We also know the terrorists benefited from an American citizen's help in preparing the battlefield: David Headley, who has confessed to being the man who did the reconnaissance for the attack.
What would an al Qaeda Mumbai like plot look like in Europe? Thanks to great investigative reporting by the German news magazine Der Spiegel, and one of its fine reporters, Yassin Musharbash, we have now a plausible scenario. A team trained in Pakistan by al Qaeda and LeT specialists and made up of al Qaeda fanatics recruited from disaffected Muslims in Europe would split up and attack two or three soft targets in several European cities at the same time. These could be hotels, restaurants, and Jewish sites, like the ones LeT targeted in Mumbai. In addition to killing innocents, the al Qaeda teams would take hostages, barricade themselves in with small arms, and prepare for hostage negotiations. Let's assume they strike in Hamburg, Strasbourg, and Antwerp, with four or five terrorists at each site—big cities with lots of easy soft targets where the world press would be on the scene in minutes.
What might al Qaeda demand in exchange for hostages? According to Der Spiegel, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the so-called mastermind of 9/11, and the other detainees still in Guantanamo, Cuba. Al Qaeda has long had its eyes on the Guantanamo detainees and often promised to avenge their imprisonment. Just this last June, Osama bin Laden, issued a message promising that if KSM is ever sentenced to death, al Qaeda would make American captives pay. Was this an indirect warning that al Qaeda is prepared to take captives to trade for his release?
This month bin Laden issued a message addressed to the people of France, who have had several of its citizens recently abducted by al Qaeda's franchise in North Africa, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Bin Laden warned that France will see more hostage-taking unless it reverses its plans to ban Islamic burqas and withdraws its troops from Afghanistan. The timing of the message seems related to the abductions in North Africa. But bin Laden may also have been signaling more.
We know from Headley's confession that after the carnage in Mumbai, Lashkar-e-Taiba and al Qaeda sent him twice to Europe to do reconnaissance for an attack in Copenhagen on the newspaper that printed offending cartoons of the prophet Muhammad. Headley's al Qaeda boss for that plot, a Pakistani named Muhammad Ilyas Kashmiri, said the terror group planned to seize Danish hostages and then kill them gruesomely and gradually for maximum terror impact. Headley told U.S. prosecutors that he met with the al Qaeda terror team somewhere in Europe before his arrest last October at Chicago O'Hare airport en route to the final planning session with Kashmiri in Pakistan and the attack. The British apparently detected Headley's meetings in Europe with al Qaeda operatives and that led the FBI to take him out.
Are there European Muslims training in al Qaeda's camps in Pakistan along the Afghan border? Yes, perhaps as many as several dozen.
Are there European Muslims training in al Qaeda's camps in Pakistan along the Afghan border? Yes, perhaps as many as several dozen. There has been reporting in Der Spiegel about a "German camp" in the badlands. The four British citizens of Pakistani origin who carried out the July 2005 attack on the London underground trained in those camps. Some of these Eurojihadists are said to have been killed in recent drone attacks.
A plot conducted in multiple cities simultaneously is al Qaeda's signature of terror, going back to the multiple attacks in East Africa in 1998, the millennium plot in 2000, and 9/11. Taking hostages and trading them for prisoners is an old terrorist tactic that goes back to Palestinian airline hijacking in the 1960s and 1970s from Entebbe to Algiers to Mogadishu. Putting the two together and throwing in KSM and Guantanamo would be the plot from hell for President Obama and his European counterparts.
Bruce Riedel, a former longtime CIA officer, is a senior fellow in the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution. At 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.