European terror plot begins to unravel
Within the past 24 hours, the existence of an ongoing multi-pronged international terror plot in Europe modeled after the 2008 Mumbai attacks has been exposed. The plan is said to involve simultaneous attacks, consisting of commando-style raids and hostage-taking, on major targets in England, France, and Germany.
The US Predator campaign in Pakistan has been ramped up to counter this threat, and several terrorist leaders associated with the plot are thought to have been killed in these strikes over the past month. Also, US special operations forces have targeted al Qaeda-linked terror groups in northern Afghanistan who have been linked to the plot.
The revelation of this latest terror plot shakes an already edgy Europe, which has recently seen the Eiffel Tower evacuated twice in the past two weeks due to anonymous bomb threats, the arrest in Norway of several operatives planning another attack on the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, and specific threats to the French public transportation systems. At present, the terror alert level in France is high, as it is in England.
Western security officials may have made several arrests in an attempt to disrupt the plot, which apparently was not yet in the 'imminent' stage. These arrests follow a series of terror-related incidents in recent weeks linking individuals in Europe with al Qaeda and some of its affiliates.
The attack planning has been under the scrutiny of Western intelligence agencies for some time, and the recent flurry of drone strikes managed to interrupt the planning for the attack, according to the BBC. The dramatic increase in strikes has resulted from briefings with the Obama administration about the terror plot. In addition, the BBC observes, Western intelligence agencies have been somewhat dismayed by the leaks, as they have compromised an ongoing investigation.
According to Sky News, the plan had been hatched by Pakistan-based militants and was "in an 'advanced but not imminent stage'" and its planners "had been tracked by spy agencies 'for some time'." The report in The Telegraph states that the plan "was foiled after Western intelligence agencies, including MI6 and GCHQ, uncovered the plans by senior al Qaeda operatives in the lawless tribal areas."
The Telegraph goes on to note that a German resident who was detained by the US military in Afghanistan in July has revealed considerable information related to attacks being planned on German and other European targets. He was "identified in Germany as 'Ahmad S', aged 36, [and] was said to be a member of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which is closely associated with al-Qaeda." The New York Times notes that he has been identified in German media reports as Ahmed Sidiqui, of Hamburg. According to the Times, Sidiqi told US interrogators that some of the terrorist operatives may already be in Europe, and that the Haqqani Network in Pakistan is involved in the plot or plots.
Dramatic increase in drone strikes in September may be linked to European terror plans
Coalition Special Operations Forces have dramatically stepped up operations against the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan immediately after Sidiqui's capture in July. Multiple IMU commanders have been killed or captured in the northern Afghan provinces of Kunduz, Baghlan, and Takhar since July. Many of these commanders had integrated their operations with the Taliban in northern Afghanistan, and some held senior positions in the Taliban's shadow government. [See LWJ report, Coalition continues pursuit of IMU commanders in the Afghan north.]
In conjunction with the operations against the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan in the Afghan north, the US ramped up its Predator campaign in Pakistan's tribal areas. The unprecedented rain of Predator strikes in Pakistan's tribal areas this month has killed more than 100 militants, from several terror affiliates, including al Qaeda, the Islamic Jihad Group, and the Haqqani Network. Three top al Qaeda and Islamic Jihad Group commanders who may be linked to the plot have been reported killed in the past month.
The most significant al Qaeda leader reported to have been killed is Sheik Abu el Fatah al Masri, al Qaeda's chief of operations for Afghanistan and Pakistan. Fateh is thought to have been killed in a drone strike on Sept. 25 in North Waziristan. Since the news of the European terror plot surfaced, reports have suggested that Fateh's death has severely disrupted the plot. Other reports also suggest, however, that the plot itself, though unraveling, may not yet be completely interrupted.
Another significant terror leader linked to the plot who is thought to have been killed is Qureshi, an Uzbek commander from the al Qaeda-linked Islamic Jihad Group, a US intelligence official told The Long War Journal. Qureshi was targeted in a drone strike in North Waziristan on Sept. 8. According to AKI, Qureshi "used to receive foreigners especially the Germans in North Waziristan and then train them and resend them to their country of origins." [See LWJ report, Islamic Jihad Group commander reported killed in Predator strike, for more on Qureshi's death]. The Islamic Jihad Group is a splinter group of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and has numerous German and Turkish members.
Also thought killed in the strike that killed Qureshi are two Britons and eight Germans, The Telegraph reported. One of the Britons, who was originally from Pakistan, was identified as Abdul Jabbar of the district of Jhelum in Punjab province.
Also, unconfirmed reports indicate that Bekkay Harrach, a German national who is based along the Afghan-Pakistani border, may have been killed in the Aug. 23 Predator strike in Danda Darpa Khel, the hub for the al Qaeda-linked Haqqani Network in North Waziristan. Harrach is a German national who is a senior member of al Qaeda's external operations branch.
Uncertainties remain as to scope of plot and terror groups' involvement
The latest reports on the plot appear to downplay its significance as an imminent threat, and to stress the uncertainties at the moment. The Associated Press reports that "U.S. intelligence had heard of the European plot about a month ago and was monitoring the people involved" and states that the US had increased the number of drone strikes in Pakistan in an effort to disrupt the plot. Reflecting the present lack of any clear answers on the issue, however, the AP report goes on to quote an anonymous British official who cautioned that although the drone strikes were believed to have interrupted the planning for the European attacks, "the operation was still considered active."
Looking at the scope of the interrupted plot to attack several European countries simultaneously, it is apparent that for a plan of this size to succeed, operatives with diverse backgrounds would be most useful, in order for them to blend in effectively with the local populations. Al Qaeda planners might draw from the group's various affiliates for this sort of extensive operation: they would likely use Pakistanis for the planned attacks in London, North Africans from al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb for the attacks in France, and Germans from the IMU and IJG for the German attacks, for example.
Arrests have been recently made in Europe that may have some connection with this still-unraveling plot.
Yesterday, a US citizen of Algerian origins was arrested in Spain; he is reported to have links with al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. The arrest was made for his allegedly sending large amounts of money to al Qaeda in the Islamic Mahgreb, al Qaeda's affiliate in North Africa. AQIM has an extensive network in France and southern Europe.
In July, three men were arrested in Norway for plotting terror attacks in Europe, and more recently, the Norwegian authorities have revealed that one of the three Norwegian suspects, an Iraqi Kurd named Shawan Sadek Saeed Bujak Bujak, has confessed to plotting to attack the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, which had published cartoons of the prophet Mohammed several years ago. The other two suspects are an Uzbek national named David Jakobsen, and a Norwegian citizen of Uighur origins named Mikael Davud, who arrived in Norway in 1999 and apparently was the main planner for the attack. MSNBC notes that Davud had gone to Waziristan at approximately the same time as New York subway plotter Najibullah Zazi, though, according to US officials, they did not meet or train together there.
In Germany, officials remain concerned about possible future terror attacks, in light of information provided by a Sidiqui, the German national of Afghan descent who was arrested by US forces in Afghanistan in July and has been held in Baghram since that time. According to the head of the German federal police, there is "concrete evidence that 70 Islamists from Germany had undergone paramilitary training in terror camps." The German police estimate that over 400 Islamists are currently in Germany, of which perhaps 131 could be potential "offenders."
As the investigation in this unraveling terror plot continues, it has become apparent that much of the planning seems to have been on the radar of the various Western intelligence agencies for weeks and even months. The recent leaks may have forced Western intelligence services and law enforcement agencies to act more quickly than they might otherwise have done to arrest planners and operatives, thus potentially leaving other suspects at large, and other terror plans possibly intact.