Japan issues Europe travel alert, joining US

While Al Qaeda has not targeted Japanese nationals, the rare travel alert is a sign of how seriously Japan and other governments are taking the Europe terror threat.

Sang Tan/AP Photo
Tourists pose by a telephone box by Parliament Square in London, Sunday, Oct. 3. Japan has warned its citizens to be vigilant while traveling in Europe because of the threat of an al-Qaeda commando-style attack, in a new travel advisory.

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Japan on Monday issued a travel alert for visitors to Europe, reflecting widening concerns over terror strikes in Europe by militants trained in Pakistan, some of them possibly European citizens.

Tokyo's alert followed a similar one from the United States on Sunday, which drew support from the United Kingdom and France. The UK raised its terror warning to "high" for its nationals in France and Germany after the US announcement. But Germany has said it sees no danger of imminent terror attacks, and German intelligence is skeptical of the warnings, reports Agence-France Presse today.

Japan's alert, issued by its Foreign Ministry, "made no mention of a specific country, but advised its citizens to be cautious when using public transport and visiting popular tourist sites," according to The Guardian. "An official at the ministry said that the highly unusual warning was not prompted by any specific intelligence but by the previous British and American alerts."

A Japanese official also told the Associated Press it was very unusual for Tokyo to issue such an alert, a sign of how seriously the threat is being taken by governments the world over.

Neither Japanese nationals nor Japan itself have have been major targets of Al Qaeda terrorism. The attack in August on a Japanese oil tanker was said to be the first Al Qaeda attack on a Japanese target – and though an Al Qaeda-linked group claimed responsibility, the veracity of that claim is still in question. In 2004, a French citizen with alleged Al Qaeda connections was arrested by Japanese police, according to a report at that time from the Associated Press, although French authorities said claims were "exaggerated" that the suspect was trying to start an Al Qaeda cell in Japan.

In 2008, Al Qaeda's number two, Ayman al-Zawahri, implied in taped responses to questions from Japan's Kyodo News service that Japan was an Al Qaeda target because of its alliance with the US and its assistance to the invasion of Iraq. Japan had sent a 600-member non-combat contingent to Iraq to help the country's reconstruction, and also helped fly equipment between Kuwait and Iraq.

"Why did the Japanese start the aggression on us within the alliance of the Americans?" Zawahri said, according to Kyodo News. "Our Islamic faith incites us to resist the despots and tyrants, even if they were the most powerful force on Earth so will Japan learn a lesson from this?"

The US alert, published Sunday, warns US citizens to the "potential for terrorist attacks in Europe" targeting "official and private interests" including "public transportation systems and other tourist infrastructure."

"US citizens should take every precaution to be aware of their surroundings and to adopt appropriate safety measures to protect themselves when traveling," according to the State Department alert, which is less severe than an official "travel warning."

The New York Times, in a Sunday report, quotes terrorism expert Bruce Hoffman complaining about the vagueness of the alert.

“Usually they’re at least country-specific,” Dr. Hoffman said. “This one is an entire continent. I’m not sure what it says, beyond the fact that the world’s a dangerous place, and we already knew that.”

But the Times also quoted an anonymous US counterterrorism official saying the threat of attacks on Europe was credible, but that not enough details were known yet about the plot to issue more specific advisories.

The German intelligence community is skeptical of warnings about imminent attacks on Europe. German daily Der Spiegel reports today that one main source of the intelligence that has worried US officials is Ahmad Sidiqi, a German jihadist currently in US custody in Afghanistan and being questioned by "special units of the CIA and the American military."

His statements apparently alarmed Sidiqi's American interrogators. Still, it remains unclear whether the reports can be considered reliable or whether Sidiqi's claims are the typical Al Qaeda brew, consisting of one-third truth, one-third lies and one-third omission. Although the CIA is taking Sidiqi seriously, German authorities are more reserved in their analysis.

A German diplomat met with Sidiqi on Sunday, and German intelligence officials are preparing to travel to Afghanistan to question Sidiqi themselves, Der Spiegel reports.

In France, the daily Le Monde reports today that the French public deemed labor strikes a more pressing problem than terrorism, according to a France Info-20 Minutes poll. But 79 percent of the French public did say terrorism was a "serious" or "very serious" threat, the poll found.

Meanwhile, American tourists interviewed by the Associated Press in Paris on Monday said the alert had not disrupted their travel plans. And NBA teams in Europe for pre-season exhibition games will continue their tours as scheduled, the Associated Press also reported.

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