Intelligence experts warned Wednesday that the massive terror plot involving simultaneous assault-style attacks in London, Paris, and Germany represents a serious escalation in al-Qaida's war with the West, and poses a clear and present danger to the United States.
European counterterrorism officials are describing the plan of attack as being modeled on the November 2008 assault in Mumbai, India. In that attack, several teams fanned out across the city and used explosives and automatic weapons to kill over 170 people.
Der Spiegel is reporting a 36-year-old Hamburg man who was arrested in Kabul in July provided authorities with intelligence about a series of attacks planned for Germany and neighboring European countries. He stated several teams of attackers bearing European passports had received training in remote Waziristan and Pakistan.
The plot is believed related to heightened security around the Eiffel Tower, which has been closed to tourists twice in the past week.
"It's completely certain that at some point, something like that will happen here," Michael Scheuer, former CIA counterterrorism expert who headed the unit assigned to capture or kill Osama bin Laden. "It's not only because you have increasing numbers of young Muslim males who are U.S. citizens who want to act violently, but we have completely neutered our police forces because they have 12 million undocumented aliens that they have to worry about, and they don't know a thing about them.
"So it's a huge problem," Scheuer says, "and not an easy one by any means."
ForeignPolicy.com reported the plot disrupted Tuesday involved "simultaneous Mumbai-style attacks — with coordinated attackers taking hostages, using guns and grenades — on cities in the U.K., France, and Germany."
Author Steve Emerson, one of the nation's leading experts on terror, and the executive director of The Investigative Project on Terrorism, tells Newsmax that if al-Qaida is shown to be behind the series of attacks that were planned in Europe, "It would represent an escalation, as well as of course an expansion and diversification of their tactics, considering the success achieved in Mumbai."
Several sources say the plot to attack Europe recently shifted into an operational stage in Pakistan. The CIA has conducted a record number of drone strikes in Pakistan in the past month in an apparent bid to disrupt the attackers.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano would not address specific threats but told Fox News Wednesday, "We are working constantly to make sure the American people are safe, and that includes plots against soft targets like hotels."
"We certainly have to be on the lookout for Mumbai-style attacks with bombs or assault rifles, at simultaneous institutions or commercial facilities in the United States," Emerson tells Newsmax. "That certainly could be pulled off."
The Wall Street Journal is reporting that U.S. counterterrorism officials are working urgently to determine if the European plots also involve an immediate threat to the United States.
"You have folks increasingly concerned about: Is it not just Europe that needs to be careful, but is there a threat here as well?" one U.S. counterterrorism official told the Journal.
Intelligence sources are saying it has been years since a plot on the scale of the European assault has been uncovered.
"This isn't just your typical Washington talk about how the threats have evolved," a counterterrorism official told the Journal. "People are very concerned about what they're seeing."
In some ways, experts say, the latest plot suggests terrorists learned from the relatively simple, brutally effective assault carried out in Mumbai.
Experts continue to believe al-Qaida's chief objective is to carry out an attack on American soil using weapons of mass destruction. But the apparent shift to simultaneous assaults with explosives and automatic weapons, presumably targeting "soft targets" such as hotels, tourist attractions, and mass transportation hubs, shows the organization is also interested in attacks that aren't as lethal, but can be much more difficult to detect.
Andrew McCarthy, the former assistant U.S. attorney who led the 1995 prosecution of "Blind Sheik" Omar Abdel-Rahman, points out the 9/11 attacks took over 18 months to carry out.
"An armed assault, while it's not likely to result in the same number of casualties, is easier in the United States to train for. There are lots of remote areas to train in. The training curve is not as high to get someone ready to carry out an attack like that," he says.
McCarthy also tells Newsmax: "Even if the attackers are not particularly competent, we saw in Fort Hood that one guy shooting a high-powered weapon in kind of a haphazard fashion can still kill a lot of people in a very short period of time."
Kent Clizbe, a former CIA counterterrorism operative, agrees with McCarthy that one reason terrorists may be shifting their tactics to armed assaults is that larger plots have proven too difficult.
"I think the only thing that's surprising is that they have not done it here yet," he says. "You look at the relative ease with which you can acquire firearms. You can buy a semi-automatic AK-47 pretty easily here."
Clizbe adds that it may be no coincidence the plot occurs as the Iraq war winds down. That conflict, he says, acted like "fly paper" to keep many violent extremists occupied in the Middle East.
"We have a supply and demand problem," Clizbe says. "You have supply building up and up, and they want to do an attack. So the further and further away we get in time from the Iraq war, the more supply of jihadis there is."
Mark Lowenthal, former CIA assistant director and president of Intelligence & Security Academy, a national security training and consulting firm, tells Newsmax that the nature of the thwarted European attacks may actually indicate progress in the war on terror.
"We're driving these guys to smaller, less coordinated, less catastrophic action," he says. "That doesn't mean it's over. But it shows we're making their lives more operationally difficult.
"It also means that the intelligence problem becomes more difficult. But clearly at this point the intelligence is working, or you wouldn't have all these warnings."
Fred Burton, the vice president of intelligence for the STRATFOR intelligence group in Austin, Texas, agrees wholeheartedly.
"It's our assessment that al-Qaida no longer poses a strategic threat to the United States," he tells Newsmax. "Now that doesn't mean that they still can't kill. But if you look at their target sets, and if you look at the series of attacks that we've had in the United States — such as the Little Rock National Guard shooter, Major Hasan at Fort Hood, the attempt to blow up the airplane on the inbound flight into Detroit — you've got very isolated lone-wolf operations that are clearly jihadi inspired. But you're not going to be able to carry out that kind of WMD attack on U.S. soil."
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