3 Oct 2010

Terror alert to US citizens abroad in Europe

After a State Department terror warning to US citizens in Europe, the Foreign Office tells Britons abroad there is a “high threat” of attacks in France and Germany.

The Foreign Office has raised the terrorism threat level in its advice for citizens travelling to Germany and France to “high” from “general”, after a week of media reports suggesting new intelligence has indicated the possibility of attacks on mainland Europe.

The Foreign Office move follows a statement issued by the US State Department this afternoon, which states: “Current information suggests that al-Qaida and affiliated organizations continue to plan terrorist attacks.

“European governments have taken action to guard against a terrorist attack and some have spokes publicly about the heightened threat conditions.”

The warning continues: “US citizens should take every precaution to be aware of their surroundings and to adopt appropriate safety measures to protect themselves when travelling.”

It recommends that US citizens should register their travel plans with the consular section of the US embassy through the State Department’s travel registration website.

State Department warning 'will really have an effect'
Today's warning is thought to result from a terror plot foiled last week in the mountains of south Waziristan, writes Tom Clarke for Channel 4 News. Pakistani intelligence sources reported a US drone had attacked and killed and al-Qaeda cell planning a "Mumbai-style" terror attack either in the UK, France or Germany.

That style of attack, involving a group of terrorists armed with assault weapons, could be launched at any target. The advice to US travellers is similarly vague: "Citizens should take every precaution to be aware of their surroundings and to adopt appropriate safety measures to protect themselves when travelling."

The Home Secretary Theresa May, has backed the warning, insisting the message was "consistent" with the UK Government's views. In the UK the terror threat level has remained at “severe”, which means a terror attack is highly likely.

"I would urge the public to report any suspicious activity to the police in support of the efforts of our security services to discover, track and disrupt terrorist activity,” she said.

Although the warning is non-specific and doesn't caution against travel to Europe it could have a significant impact on tourism, thinks travel broadcaster Simon Calder.

"This is the first time I'm aware they've said specifically, be careful in London, in Paris, in Berlin, and that's really going to have an effect because Americans tend to be far more susceptible to what their government tells them than we Brits are."

Given the close relationship between the US and their western European allies, the State Department would have thought carefully before issuing any kind of warning, given the impact it may have on travel.

Even a mild warning could be costly, warns Calder: "There are plenty of tourists around today but it's the forward bookings that's going to concern the British travel industry. American tourists stay longer and spend more money than any other nationality."

Today’s warning comes after British intelligence officials intercepted an Islamist-linked terror plot last week.

The plot would have involved commando-style raids in London and other cities in France and Germany, similar to the Mumbai terror attacks in November 2008 in which at least 166 people died.

Today’s move by the State Department could have significant implications for tourism in Europe, with tourist sites likely to be identified as possible targets.

However, a senior official is quoted as saying: “The bottom line is travel, but be vigilant.”

Last Tuesday the Eiffel Tower in Paris was evacuated after a bomb threat which, it later transpired, was a hoax.

The terrorism threat rating in the UK has been at “severe” – the second highest level – since January.

On Friday Sweden announced it had raised its threat alert to its highest level ever because of an increased threat of terror attacks.

In August the State Department renewed a “worldwide alert” warning against the terror attacks on Americans overseas.