Is Europe Next?

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Maybe it was U.S. homeland Security chief Tom Ridge's visit to London last week. Or maybe it was just more aftershocks from last month's bombing in Bali. But suddenly Europe started feeling a lot like the U.S., where Ridge and Attorney General John Ashcroft issue terror alerts on what seems like a weekly basis.

Britons were getting decidedly mixed messages from their government. On Thursday, the Home Office issued a statement saying that terrorists may "try to develop a so-called dirty bomb or some kind of poison gas. Maybe they will try to use boats or trains, rather than planes" in an assault. But within an hour the statement was withdrawn, replaced by a less frightening one. "If al-Qaeda could mount an attack upon key economic targets, or upon our transport infrastructure, they would," it now read. "If they could inflict damage upon the health of our population, they would."

Other European intelligence agencies were less equivocal. In Berlin, Germany's normally reticent intelligence chief, August Hanning, made the case in a frank interview on prime-time television: "The fear is very concrete that we must reckon with a further attack ... of perhaps great dimension." Hans-Josef Beth, who heads the international counterterrorism unit of the foreign intelligence agency, was even more specific, fingering Abu Musab Zarqawi, a one-legged terrorist with known al-Qaeda connections, as the likely mastermind of chemical attacks on European targets. Zarqawi has ordered trained operatives into Europe, Beth told a meeting of the German-Atlantic Society in Berlin: "He has experience with poisonous chemicals and biological weapons ... and has become highly active. Something big is in the air."

Such apprehensions are shared by Milan's lead antiterror prosecutor Stefano Dambruoso, who told TIME that "the network is beginning to move again. Enough time has passed for them to reorganize and re-establish contacts across Europe." The French too were alarmed. "We're absolutely scrambling here," said a harried top French terrorist judge. "Every light in every service in France is full red."

Europeans have long known that terror groups are active in their midst — whether in elaborately organized groups like the Hamburg cell that supported Mohamed Atta or the smaller, less formal network that investigators believe assisted the attempted shoebomber, Richard Reid. But what has officials spooked right now is an emerging pattern of threats that suggest an attack may be imminent. Far less clear is what governments expect people to do about it: wake up from their complacency, prepare for the worst, or not blame the authorities for being caught by surprise if something terrible does happen?

An early indication that al-Qaeda might be turning its sights on Europe came in an audio recording of Ayman al-Zawahiri broadcast by the Qatar-based television network al-Jazeera on Oct. 8. The Egyptian doctor, Osama bin Laden's right-hand man, said his network had already sent messages to Germany and France but that "if these doses weren't enough, we are prepared with the help of Allah to inject further doses." Hanning's analysts figured he was referring to the April 11 synagogue bombing on the Tunisian island of Djerba that killed 21, including 11 German tourists; and the May 8 ambush in Karachi that killed 11 French naval engineers. The attack on the French tanker Limburg off Yemen just days before the broadcast only heightened suspicions. Al-Zawahiri seemed to be describing a campaign to punish Europe — specifically, France and Germany — for supporting the U.S. in its war against al-Qaeda.

Several websites with links to al-Qaeda have in recent weeks published new threats aimed at Europe. The messages are routinely picked up and reported in the Arabic media. The London-based Al Hayat daily on Oct. 16 printed an article about a communiqué in which al-Qaeda had sent a message to the allies of Washington's war on terror: Help America and you "will not remain forever far from the revenge of the mujahedin."

Some intelligence experts believe messages like these could be mere posturing. Al-Qaeda may for now be content to use Europe as a safe haven for planning attacks against U.S. interests elsewhere in the world, as Atta's Hamburg cell did. But most investigators know they can't be complacent, especially because there are so many other indications of heightened al-Qaeda activity. French independent terror expert Roland Jacquard says he has seen recent intelligence reports suggesting that "networks previously thought to be struggling are at the very peripheries of much larger, better organized and fully operative structures." There have been key arrests — six Tunisians suspected of plotting a bomb attack in northern Europe were picked up in Italy, France and Malta last month; in Eindhoven last week a Dutch citizen of Moroccan origin was apprehended for allegedly plotting a suicide strike — but nothing crippling to the terrorist enterprise as a whole. The evidence was compel- ling enough for the former director of the German intelligence service, Hans-Georg Wieck, to conclude that Hanning's warning was justified. "You don't make a statement like that just to make people vigilant, otherwise you lose credibility," he says. "They've got something."

But what? And is it enough to determine when and where al-Qaeda might strike? According to Omar Bakri Muhammad, the London-based leader of the radical Muslim al-Muhajiroun youth movement, the time is now and the place could be anywhere. The Muslim month of Ramadan, which began Nov. 6, is "the month of jihad," he told TIME, when "the inspiration of fighting against occupiers and invaders will be very high. So that is why I would not be surprised if al-Qaeda strikes in the month of Ramadan."

While they try to anticipate the next attack, security forces are sifting through previous ones for clues. Last Tuesday French investigators resumed interrogation of six family members of the Djerba suicide bomber Nizar Naouar, whose last phone call before his death was to suspected Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed. The satellite phone he used was purchased in Paris by his supposedly impoverished 22-year-old brother, Wahid, for [EURO] 1,900. The cost, and the complicated manner in which the phone was sent to Tunisia, suggest the backing of an organized group.

But even if officials unearth the network behind Nizar, that may not stop another one from launching an attack. Investigators can't be sure whether al-Qaeda is plotting one spectacular, centrally organized attack or a series of small-scale ad hoc strikes. Or both. Several months ago intelligence services discovered that dozens of Europe-based Arabs trained in al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan were wending their way back to the Continent via Azerbaijan, Chechnya and Turkey. But "there seems to be a lot of debate on where those fighters are right now, and that, too, is scaring authorities," French expert Jacquard claims.

How do governments prepare citizens for so diffuse a threat? Perhaps by scaring them, as the British Home Office did last week. Like many security experts, Garth Whitty, of London's Royal United Services Institute for Defence Studies, believes Europeans have been too complacent about terrorist attacks. "There is an assumption that we are all right, but I think we are riding for a fall," he says. A little scaremongering may be just what Europe needs.