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Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Europe is facing a triple threat

JPost:

At a recent security conference in Munich, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates told European nations that they were under direct threat from Islamist extremists and that this phenomenon would not go away. Gates tied European security to NATO success in Afghanistan. In fact, Western intelligence services have recently established operational links between al-Qaida in Afghanistan and al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) whose goals include striking at the heart of Europe.

Al-Qaida has not made any secrets of its eagerness to target Europe. Indeed, al-Qaida's number two, Ayman al-Zawahiri, has repeatedly threatened Europe. In 2007, numerous al-Qaida-linked plots were foiled in Europe and several cells were dismantled in France, Spain, Denmark, Belgium, Germany and the UK. This led Gilles de Kerchove, the EU's anti-terror chief, to say last November that al-Qaida was the biggest threat to Europe.

Thanks to the outstanding job of counter-terrorism services, al-Qaida's only major success in Europe in 2007 was the June 30 attack on Glasgow airport that killed one and injured five. That attack had followed two foiled car bombs in the center of London that could have killed hundreds if successful. The scheme was nicknamed the "doctors' plot," because it was planned by foreign doctors who resided in Britain.

In September, thanks to information provided by US intelligence, Germany arrested three members of an al-Qaida cell that planned to bomb Frankfurt airport and the US military air base at Ramstein. This network allegedly had ties to other European countries, since the explosives seized were similar to those used in the London plots. The investigation also showed that the alleged terrorists had connections to both Pakistan and Syria. Another important fact is that two of the three were Muslim converts. In fact, al-Qaida has for long advocated using European nationals, and if possible converts, in terror attacks.

Incidentally, German intelligence confirmed that in recent months Islamist recruiters have targeted new converts to Islam, because they are less conspicuous and are familiar with German culture and habits. German authorities are particularly worried by the rise in the number of young German Muslims traveling to study in Pakistan. In July, Pakistani authorities arrested seven Germans who sought to join a terrorist training camp.

THE PAKISTANI connection does not stop there: indeed, Pakistani extremists recently arrived in Algeria to train with AQIM members. This is all the more worrisome in that of all al-Qaida's affiliates, AQIM is most capable of striking at Europe. Last year AQIM pulled off a number of spectacular and deadly terror attacks in Morocco, in Mauritania - killing French tourists - and in Algeria, notably the multiple suicide attacks in Algiers on April 11 and Dec. 11.

But the real challenge for AQIM is how to inflict massive damage in Europe. Zawahiri has frequently instructed them to do so. In order to keep its credibility alive and please its "masters," AQIM has been trying hard to orchestrate a terror attack on the continent. At the end of last year, the level of "chatter" increased dramatically, and has continued unabated through January. France, in particular has been specifically threatened. This led for the first time to the cancellation of the very popular Paris-Dakar motor rally and also compelled Belgian authorities to cancel the New Year's Eve fireworks in Brussels.

Today, al-Qaida threats seem even more imminent and European security services are on high alert.

On Jan. 19, Spain dismantled an al-Qaida cell that was almost exclusively Pakistani, except for an Indian member. It was planning a terror attack in Barcelona, El Pais reported, and a wave of attacks in Germany, France, Britain and Portugal. Earlier, Le Figaro reported that there are allegedly "moving cells" of militant extremists of Pakistani origin traveling around Europe. That article also pointed out that 50,000 Pakistanis live in France - half of them illegally.

A very worrisome trend in 2007 was the emergence of the "lone jihadist" loosely linked to al-Qaida. One was arrested on May 2 in Nancy, France. He was planning attacks against the US consulate in Luxembourg and a McDonald's restaurant.

For months, the man had been in contact with AQIM militants via the Web, requesting material support. Sometimes these "invisible Islamists" decide to act on their own. "An isolated individual can inflict as much damage as an organization," said Christophe Chaboud, head of Uclat (Unité de Coordination de la Lutte antiterroriste), the French counter-terrorism czar.

Europe is facing a triple threat: AQIM, "al-Qaida Pakistan" and the lone jihadist. This makes counter-terrorist experts nervous that the likelihood of a successful attack on European soil in 2008 remains quite high.

The writer, an adjunct fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and a foreign affairs and counter-terrorism consultant, is the founder of the newsletter The Croissant www.thecroissant.com

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