France unusually rattled as reports of Europe terror plots emerge

Reports of a possible Al Qaeda terror plot in Europe that would involve Mumbai-style strikes in Britain, France, and Germany come as France is on alert for unrelated threats.

Francois Mori/AP
French police officers patrol under the Eiffel Tower in Paris, on Sept. 20, as part of the city's security reinforcement. France has stepped up its vigilance against terror threats, a top official announced Monday amid reports of various new threats

In what is being described as a "commando-style" attack akin to the 2008 Mumbai massacre, Al Qaeda militants reportedly had planned to carry out spectacular strikes on cities in Britain, France, and Germany, according to European security officials.

Unnamed intelligence sources told Britain's SkyNews that militants in the tribal areas of Pakistan were orchestrating the attacks, but that the plot was disrupted after a combined operation between US, British, French, and German intelligence services.

News of the potential Al Qaeda attack follows warnings in France that an attack on the public transit system by a female suicide bomber was imminent. What's more, police evacuated the Eiffel Tower in Paris Tuesday night for the second time in 15 days after receiving bomb threats. The Gare St. Lazare train station, which connects five Metro lines and dozens of regional and national train lines, was cleared on Monday afternoon.

The terror warnings have put Europe on alert and caused France, which prides itself in taking something of a phlegmatic view of the threat of terrorism, to increase its terror alert to “red plus” – the second-highest level. France's uncharacteristic cautiousness could signal the seriousness of recent threats, say security analysts, and suggests a new attitude emerging in France toward security.

Substantial increase

Experts say the threat against France has increased substantially since July, when French commandos attacked Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), an Al Qaeda affiliate, in a failed attempt to rescue a French aid worker who had been taken hostage. The group kidnapped five French nationals in Niger earlier this month and issues regular communiques threatening France.

Mathieu Guidère, a terrorism expert at the University of Geneva, says France is following the American example by raising the threat level in order to prepare the French population for the slim possibility of an attack.

While it's unlikely that AQIM could pull off an attack inside France because of its limited resources, “The French haven’t experienced an attack on their soil for some time and people feel secure.... The government doesn’t want French citizens to be traumatized the way [Americans] were in the US after 9/11."

Paris experienced its last major terrorist attack in 1996, when a bomb exploded in a commuter train station near the Luxembourg Gardens and killed four people and injured 170.

Political motivation?

Many French, however, suspect the increasing warnings about terror threats could be politically motivated, suggesting that President Nicolas Sarkozy’s government is exaggerating the threat to distract attention from internal political problems. The government has stumbled through a series of scandals and is defending itself against accusations of Nazi-style persecution by deporting thousands of Roma to Eastern Europe this summer.

“I think the government is exploiting a number of incidents to create a climate of insecurity in France and to prepare for the next presidential elections,” says Mariete Chastan, a retired schoolteacher in Paris. “There are a lot of scandals in France right now and I think the government wants to throw the population off balance.”

Officials in France have said that reports of a possible attack by a female suicide bomber were unreliable, but the country remains on the high alert. The French government has increased patrols by armed soldiers at major train stations and tourist attractions. It has also registered nearly 100 calls about suspicious packages.

Alleged Al Qaeda plot in Europe

Sources on the Al Qaeda plot in Europe have said that the militants were planning to operate in small teams of heavily armed gunmen who would capture and execute Western hostages in London and other European cities. The BBC characterized the plot “the most serious plan by Al Qaeda in the last few years.”

Investigators said they were still trying to understand the details of the plot. But analysts said the details described so far were entirely plausible.

“Since the Indian attack, jihadist and Islamist groups have been promoting this kind of operation,” says Mr. Guidère. “They’ve been saying we can no longer use airplanes so let’s try to encourage this kind of operation because it is easy to do.”

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