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Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, are living comfortably in northwest Pakistan under the protection of members of the nation's intelligence service, a top NATO official has reportedly told CNN.
The claim comes amid fresh warnings by Saudi intelligence of terror attacks targeting Europe – especially France – by the Yemen-based Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, an offshoot of Mr. bin Laden's group. A British official said Monday that the United Kingdom faces a "very serious threat" of terrorist attacks, reported Agence France-Presse, while the United States and Japan earlier this month both issued travel alerts for Europe.
CNN quoted an anonymous NATO official saying that the top two leaders of Al Qaeda were living close to each other, but not together, in houses in northwest Pakistan, protected by locals and members of Pakistani intelligence. "Nobody in Al Qaeda is living in a cave," the official told CNN.
The official said the general region where bin Laden is likely to have moved around in recent years ranges from the mountainous Chitral area in the far northwest near the Chinese border, to the Kurram Valley which neighbors Afghanistan's Tora Bora, one of the Taliban strongholds during the US invasion in 2001....
The area that the official described covers hundreds of square miles of some of the most rugged terrain in Pakistan inhabited by fiercely independent tribes.
Pakistan's interior minister denied Monday that bin Laden and Zawahiri are on Pakistani soil and said such reports had proven false in the past, according to CNN.
But their group, Al Qaeda, has remained active around the world. Saudi intelligence officials have issued fresh warnings of a possible attack in Europe, warnings that will likely add to weeks of jitters triggered by vague reports of possible attacks planned for Europe.
The latest warnings were made public in a radio interview Sunday with French Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux, who said that "several days" earlier, Saudi intelligence informed France that the Yemen-based Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula was "active or about to become active in Europe," according to Al Jazeera.
"This is not about overestimating the threat or underestimating it," he told France's RTL Radio. "I am indicating, based on all these elements, that the threat is real."
Hortefeux said, in the spirit of "informing, not alarming" the public, that the government had received a warning days earlier from Saudi intelligence about a terrorist threat to "the European continent, especially France," according to Le Figaro. "Our vigilance remains intact," he said, according to Le Figaro.
Hortefeux said the latest alert from Saudi intelligence followed other alerts, including a Sept. 9 Interpol warning, and a Sept. 16 alert warning of attacks by female suicide bombers, according to Le Monde. Hortefeux said an average of two terror plots against France were broken up per year, and 61 people were now in French prisons for involvement in terrorism.
France's current threat level is "reinforced red" (rouge renforce), the second-highest level after "scarlet red" (rouge ecarlate), according to Le Monde.
The Eiffel Tower was evacuated twice in recent months over terror fears. France has issued travel warnings to its citizens for the United Kingdom. Britain on Sunday updated travel advice for France and Germany, saying that there was a "high threat of terrorism" in those countries, "including in public places frequented by expatriates and foreign travelers," according to Agence France-Presse. Britain's threat level is "severe," its second highest level.
Al Qaeda's Yemen-based offshoot has been reaching out to Muslims based in the Europe and the US with an English-language online magazine that encourages random attacks and instructions on bombmaking and do-it-yourself terror ideas such as welding steel blades onto a pickup truck and driving into a crowd, according to Agence France-Presse.