The travel alerts issued by the US, UK and Japan are vague on details, but intelligence reports and analysts agree that there is a clear possibility of a Mumbai-style “swarm” attack on soft targets in a European city. (Photo: France's GIGN)
The US, UK and Japan have all issued travel advisories in the last few days to their citizens, warning against the possibility of a terrorist attack in Europe.
The US state department’s alert reminds citizens of the “potential for terrorists to attack public transportation systems and other tourist infrastructures”.
According to reports, electronic surveillance by one of the UK’s intelligence services, GCHQ, has located British citizens training in Pakistan to carry out a Mumbai-style “swarm” attack.
A terrorist attack of this nature in the West would not only be physically devastating, but also psychologically. In fact, Western governments have feared exactly such an event ever since the Mumbai attacks in November 2008.
Mumbai-style swarm attacks
This “swarm” attack model in Mumbai saw highly trained gunmen from Pakistan using small arms and grenades to “swarm” hotels, a hospital and a railway station all at the same time, killing and taking hostages.
This is different from the kind of terrorist bombings Europe has faced in the past, such as in London or Madrid. The swarm model ties up police and security forces for hours or even days. In Mumbai, it took a specialised counter-terrorist force several days to kill all the attackers; meanwhile the casualties piled up.
Analysts believe the Mumbai attack impressed al Qaeda, which is why it intends to now use it in Europe. “It was a slow motion 9/11… 7/7 (the 2005 terrorist attack in London) was over in seconds,” says Shiraz Maher, terrorism expert at ICSR/King’s College, London.
“If you have a gang of ruthless well armed, well trained terrorists going into a city in an open society, they can do terrible harm to people, armed with machine guns and grenades. And it would be difficult for the local police, in any city, in the west as well as in Asia and Africa, to deal with that type of attack” argues Paul Wilkinson, Chairman of the Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence.
Increase in drone strikes
The US has increased its drone strikes in Pakistan over the past few days, something that experts argue points to an immediate danger in Europe.
“If you remember, a few days before the Christmas day bomber – the underpants bomber – there were increased drone attacks in Yemen. So a surge in drone attacks in Pakistan does reveal the US received credible intelligence [of a threat in Europe],” says Maher.
But issuing an alert could have two very opposite effects. The alert could either “precipitate events,” says Maher. Or “it may have thwarted this kind of attack,” feels Wilkinson.
A threat to Europe vs a threat to the US
Europe is higher on the threat list than the US for two reasons. Firstly, European countries contribute troops to ISAF, the international contingent fighting the Taliban and extremists in Afghanistan. Furthermore, Maher points out that France was specifically threatened in an al Qaeda video because “of the headscarf issue”.
Secondly, is the “supply issue”, says Stephen Tankel, Visiting Scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “There are people going [to train in Pakistan] from Britain, from Germany – there’s even a ‘little Germany’ section there”.
“Getting these people into the EU is easier than into the US. It’s easier to re-infiltrate [EU citizens] back into Europe. The US is one self-contained country, whereas in the EU you can move around”, says Tankel.
One issue that seems clear, however, is that Western governments need to prepare for a very different type of terrorism.
“One of the features of the Mumbai assault was the seizure of hostages at a number of sites”, says Wilkinson. “The Indian authorities were overwhelmed by the scale of the attack on Mumbai… it was specially trained commandos who brought the sieges to an end and took control of the buildings”.
As Maher notes, the “next few weeks will be crucial”.
Date created : 2010-10-05