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Western intelligence officials have reportedly uncovered an Al Qaeda plot to carry out coordinated Mumbai-style terrorist attacks in major cities in Britain, France, Germany, and possibly the United States, according to unnamed counterterrorism and intelligence sources in Western governments.
The would-be attackers reportedly planned to operate in small teams of heavily armed gunmen who would capture and execute Western hostages in Europe, similar to the attacks carried out in Mumbai in 2008 where 10 gunmen killed 166 people and injured more than 300 more.
Al Qaeda militants in the lawless tribal areas of Pakistan were said to be planning the attack. In an attempt to thwart them, Western authorities say they have been targeting the planners in CIA drone strikes in Pakistan. The BBC’s security correspondent Frank Gardner said the attack had recently moved from the “aspirational stage to actual planning.” Britain's Sky News, citing unnamed sources, said the plan was "in an advanced but not imminent stage."
Germany's Interior Ministry released a statement today saying it was aware of information pointing toward the possible attacks, but it was not changing its terrorism threat level. "At present there are no concrete pointers to imminent attacks in Germany stemming from this. The current pointers do not warrant a change in the assessment of the danger level," the ministry said, according to Reuters.
France, in particular, has experienced an unusual number of threats this month, reports Radio France International. Bomb hoaxes have caused French authorities to evacuate the Eiffel Tower twice this month. The bomb threats appear to be unconnected to the Al Qaeda plot.
Investigators are still working to understand the details of the attack. One US counterterrorism official told The Wall Street Journal that it has been years since intelligence agencies have seen a terror threat this serious.
“This isn't just your typical Washington talk about how the threats have evolved. People are very concerned about what they're seeing,” an anonymous US counterterrorism official told the Journal. “You have folks increasingly concerned about: Is it not just Europe that needs to be careful, but is there a threat here as well?”
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said in a statement Tuesday, reported by The Washington Post, that, "We know Al Qaeda wants to attack Europe and the United States. We continue to work closely with our European allies on the threat from international terrorism, including Al Qaeda."
Information about the attack may have first come from a German terror suspect detained in July. Authorities detained the suspect, a 36-year-old man known as Ahmad S. from Hamburg, while he was allegedly trying to fly from Kabul to Europe. He is currently being held in a detention facility at Bagram Airfield, one of the biggest NATO bases in Afghanistan, reports Germany’s Der Spiegel.
He has allegedly spoken extensively about a series of attacks in both Germany and neighboring European countries and is said to belong to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, a group that has been able to attract a significant number of recruits from Germany recently.
Reuters also reports that articles about the alleged terror plot "had probably been sparked by the interrogation of a German-Afghan terror suspect in Afghanistan."
The CIA has conducted at least 20 drone strikes this month, the most monthly attacks carried out within the past six years. In the midst of the onslaught of attacks, Al Qaeda operatives were reportedly eager to strike back at the West, reports Britain's Daily Mirror.
“For some time European countries have been under threat of a small arms attack like Mumbai but now there is evidence of a clear plot to do something like that,” a Western intelligence official told the Mirror. “Al Qaeda has suffered greatly at the hands of the drone strikes and its leadership wants a spectacular [attack].”
The BBC also quotes former CIA officer Robert Baer as saying the plot may be "a reprisal from the [Taliban-allied] Haqqani network against the United States and Britain for the stepped-up aerial campaign in the tribal areas of Pakistan." If such were true, it would imply a dangerous cycle where militants are constantly plotting revenge attacks on the West, while the West is constantly plotting attacks on militants to thwart their plans.
Editor's note: This article was amended after publication. RFI stands for Radio France International, not Radio Free France.