Reflections on the al Qaeda plot in Europe

Earlier today, I served as a panelist at an FDD event on the current warnings about an al Qaeda plot in Europe. The panel, moderated by Clifford D. May, also featured Frank Cilluffo of George Washington University’s Homeland Security Policy Institute and Tom Joscelyn of both FDD and LWJ. This entry is excerpted from my remarks.

At the outset, it is important to note that a large number of reports inevitably surface after a major terror attack, arrest, or (in this case) unraveling plot that end up being inaccurate. That is the nature of how intelligence develops in any case, and is compounded by the lenses through which sources who speak to the media view the subject they are studying. Thus, some of the information in these reflections may still be imperfect — but this represents the best description of what we know as of this writing.

First, this was a real plot-or perhaps it is more accurate to say plots. The key source of information was Ahmed Sidiqi, an Afghan German, who was detained in Kabul in July and subsequently questioned at the Bagram Airfield. Sidiqi told interrogators that he met with senior al Qaeda leader Younis al Mauretani in the tribal areas of Pakistan; Mauretani was planning multiple “Mumbai-style” attacks on European countries. Sidiqi was part of a group of jihadis sometimes called the “Hamburg group” but referred to as “The Tourist Group” by German intelligence. The Associated Press reports: “Siddiqui left Hamburg in March 2009 together with a group of 10 other jihadis known to German intelligence officials as the ‘The Tourist Group’ to seek paramilitary training at a terror camp in Pakistan’s lawless border region with Afghanistan, German authorities said. The group, which included two women, met in [Hamburg’s] al-Quds mosque before they decided to leave for Pakistan and Afghanistan.”

German investigators were able to check Sidiqi’s claims against information provided by another member of the Hamburg group, Rami Makanesi, who was in custody in Germany. According to CNN, “some of Sidiqi’s information matches; some does not.” There were also corroborating arrests. On Oct. 5, for example, suspected terrorists were arrested in Marseilles, Avignon, and Bordeaux in France with “enough guns and ammunition to launch a ‘Mumbai-style attack’ anywhere in Europe.” And in assessing the risk of an attack, investigators also measured SIGINT, including terrorist chatter.

The European plots have been the subject of manufactured controversies, the most obvious of which are two articles appearing in the Guardian on Oct. 7 dealing with European criticism of the Obama administration’s decision to issue a terror alert. The Guardian reported: “A US terror alert issued this week about al-Qaida plots to attack targets in western Europe was politically motivated and not based on credible new information, senior Pakistani diplomats and European intelligence officials have told the Guardian.”

It is true that the Guardian quoted a Pakistani diplomat, Wajid Shamsul Hasan, who was indeed very critical of the US’s terror alert. But Hasan’s claim that the US issued the alert as an excuse to carry out more drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal areas has its causality reversed: the heavier drone campaign was a response to the recent flood of information rather than an excuse to carry out strikes. Moreover, Hasan told the Guardian: “If the Americans have definite information about terrorists and al-Qaida people, we should be provided [with] that and we could go after them ourselves.” This touches on one of the sensitivities in the relationship between the US and Pakistan: often information about al Qaeda targets that goes to Pakistan’s intelligence services or military ends up in enemy hands. I have written about religious militancy in Pakistan’s military and Inter-Services Intelligence agency elsewhere (see chapter 3); this is one of the reasons that the US does not just leave the situation to the Pakistanis to deal with.

The Guardian‘s reporting also quotes unnamed European officials who were unhappy with the US’s terror alerts. The problem with the claims of European dissatisfaction is that the paper’s on-the-record quotes of European officials are blatantly out of context. For example, one Guardian story claims: “In Berlin, they are even more sceptical, voicing barely disguised contempt for what they view as American spin.” This “barely disguised contempt” allegedly comes from German interior minister Thomas de Maizière, who, the Guardian explains, “publicly expressed his scepticism about the US terror warning, saying he saw no sign of an imminent attack on Germany. He described the danger to Germany as ‘hypothetical.'” The problem with the reporting is that this was not a criticism of the United States, but rather of the more alarmist claims in the media. This is all the more clear because the US terror warning did not claim an imminent attack, which is the specific line of criticism advanced in de Maizière’s statement.

Moving beyond the seriousness of the plot, there are five implications I would like to point to regarding this new information. The first relates to al Qaeda’s senior leadership (AQSL). Contrary to the claims made in some quarters, AQSL is not on its deathbed, and it seems to be looking to expand rather than contract. New leaders like Ilyas Kashmiri and Younis al-Mauretani assembled the recruits (including British, French, and German nationals, and perhaps one former Turkish Air Force officer) to perpetrate multiple Mumbai-style attacks. Bin Laden, according to multiple credible sources, authorized this plot himself. Even if the attack has been disrupted (which we still do not know), it serves to underscore the fact that AQSL remains lethal. One man killed in the recent drone strikes, Abdul Jabbar, was being groomed to serve as emir for Jaysh al-Islami fi al-Britanniyyah prior to his reported death; Abdul Jabbar has been linked to both the fertilizer bomb plot and also the 7/7 attacks in London, as well as to Faisal Shahzad. This is an indication of a group that, rather than falling apart, is looking to expand.

Second, it is worth noting the advantages of urban warfare attacks over traditional terrorist attacks. Steven Simon and Jonathan Stevenson had a good piece in the Washington Post addressing these advantages. Not only do urban warfare attacks have a longer duration of impact (the Mumbai attacks paralyzed the Indian city for about 72 hours), but are relatively easy to execute. Moreover, they might do more to erode faith in government than other kinds of attacks. As Simon and Stevenson write, “it could eventually bring about an ongoing, direct, ground-level armed engagement of Western security forces — think of Belfast or Beirut in the 1970s and 1980s. That sort of campaign could ultimately shake the public’s confidence in the state to a greater extent than have less frequent, larger-scale operations such as the 9/11 attacks.” However, let us not assume — as some pundits have done prematurely — that this emphasis on urban warfare attacks means al Qaeda has given up on either targeting airplanes or using old-fashioned bombs.

Third, this plot highlights the threat to military personnel. In response to the threats, it has been reported: “Even the military has been placed on alert. A curfew was ordered this weekend at Ramstein U.S. Air Force Base in Germany. Soldiers were cautioned to stay at home and to avoid wearing their uniforms off base.” I recently had a long conversation with a colleague in the US military who is stationed in Stuttgart about this very phenomenon: we face an enemy that wages total warfare against us, making it likely that this will not be the last time that such precautions would be wise.

Fourth, there is the issue of the media’s coverage of the recent warnings. David Ignatius noted in an Oct. 7 column that intelligence officials “clammed up on details of the terrorism threat in Europe,” with one official warning him that media leaks will be studied by al Qaeda, which will in turn adjust its plans. Indeed, al Qaeda does study the media coverage. But another interesting dynamic is very much the reverse of FDR’s famous statement that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Many observers do indeed seem to be frightened that other Westerners might be scared of terrorism — more worried about this than they are about terrorism itself. There are of course many reasons for this perception, including the idea that the US descended into a “politics of fear” during the past decade. Thus, I do not make this observation pejoratively, but it is an interesting dynamic to note.

Fifth, I have written repeatedly about the relevance of the religio-political ideology of al Qaeda and other Islamist terror groups. Aspects of this case seem to underscore the fact that ideology is not — as some commentators claim — simply irrelevant to contemporary terrorism. Relevant aspects of the case include Shahab Dashti, a member of the Hamburg group, who began to attend the Taiba mosque after converting from Shia to Sunni Islam. Dashti’s family members told CNN they believed he was “fooled and tricked” by extremists into going to Pakistan — which refers to a process of radicalization. Moreover, a senior ISI officer, speaking to the Associated Press, mentioned that among the array of foreign extremists who came to Pakistan were four Russian jihadis. He commented: “It was very surprising for us but they come thinking this is the pure (Islamic) ideology that they are seeking.” This also is suggestive that ideology remains relevant to the enemy.

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