Has the European Terrorism Threat Been Overhyped?

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Indranil Mukherjee / AFP / Getty Images

Flames and smoke gush out of the Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai on Nov. 27, 2008

O.K., let's all calm down, take a deep breath and try this again.

For two days straight this week, media outlets blared the alarming news that U.S. security forces uncovered al-Qaeda plans to stage a trio of terrorist attacks in European cities — some involving "Mumbai-style shooting sprees" modeled on the horrific three-day, multitarget siege in 2008 that killed 166 people. To add to the drama, reports of the plot suggested that it was the reason for the heightened terrorism concerns in France, which has experienced a spate of bomb alerts this month, like the one that caused the Eiffel Tower to be evacuated on Tuesday for the second time in as many weeks.

But the facts available aren't nearly as sensational as the reports suggest. The uncovered plot, which was based in Pakistan, was apparently so early in the planning stages that it might better be termed a concept or project. Nor does it have any link to the French terrorism threat, which has roots in North Africa. What's more, the primary lesson in the news was all but ignored: in discovering a Pakistan-based plot planned for export to Western countries early on, intelligence agencies once again successfully disrupted terrorist preparations long before they could evolve into dangerously operative stages. It seems that effective counterterrorism — like trains running on time — just doesn't make for catchy headlines.

So what is the reality of the plot that U.S. security forces uncovered? Based on reports detailing information from intelligence sources — and comments by French counterterrorism officials to TIME — the "three-nation" plot was revealed by Ahmed Sidiqi, a 36-year-old German national captured in July in Afghanistan after receiving combat and explosive training with jihadists allied with Taliban forces. Sidiqi has reportedly given U.S. interrogators information that he knew of a multiple-attack plan in Europe — specifically France, Germany and Britain — that al-Qaeda's Pakistan-based Haqqani network had decided to mount. At least one of those attacks was to involve a small group of well-armed militants laying siege to a "soft" public target, similar to the Mumbai attacks, which hit hotels, a hospital and a railway station, among other locations. Operatives were to be dispatched to Europe for the strike, or selected from jihadist loyalists already living there.

Scary and serious as that is, the plan doesn't seem to have gotten much further than intention, security officials say. Little if any concrete steps appear to have been made toward putting it in motion. Given that, in an attempt to prevent the plot from moving forward, U.S. forces made it a priority to disrupt — or better yet, kill — the Haqqani leaders behind it. This, authorities say, is one reason that the U.S. has conducted an unprecedented (and, in Pakistan, controversial) number of drone strikes in the tribal areas of Pakistan, which al-Qaeda networks like Haqqani use as headquarters. It's uncertain whether the U.S. operation has killed the chief plotters or would-be operatives, but experts say it has almost certainly thrown the project into disarray.

"This is another example of an activity we're all focused and working together on: watching that region, looking for signs there that plans of attack for here are taking shape, and moving to prevent that before they can advance too far," says a French security official, adding that European nations have a rising stake in that activity, given the growing numbers of young Muslims heading for Afghanistan to wage jihad there or back home. "There are more successes in that effort than the public hears about."

The world heard about it this week — even if many accounts tended to make the Haqqani plot sound like a near miss rather than something that was nipped in the bud. Meanwhile, the French official says the terrorism alerts in France were provoked by closer enemies. Though France continues to monitor plots coming out of Pakistan carefully, its most immediate concern is the North Africa–based group al-Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb, which has increased its threats against France in recent months, and on Sept. 15 kidnapped five French nationals. It is that menace that has led French authorities to warn of an increased terrorism risk — which, in turn, is the main reason for September's dozen or so false bomb alarms or outright hoaxes in France.

Security officials note that independent experts and media accounts comparing the embryonic Haqqani plot with the Mumbai attacks are doubtlessly over-reaching. Unlike in Pakistan, where guns are rife, jihadists in Europe would have a hard time procuring large stocks of weapons for use in a siege. They'd also face greater challenges transporting them to targets in bustling European cities than the boat-borne Mumbai assailants did sneaking in from Pakistan.

Authorities also point out that this isn't the first time a multitarget plot has been thwarted. In July, Norwegian police arrested three extremists on the evidence that they were preparing bomb attacks — one as part of a scheme ordered up by a central al-Qaeda planner in Pakistan that also included strikes on a Manchester, England, shopping center and the New York City subway. When police progressively busted that trio of attacks, they apprehended operatives and, in two cases, bombing materials. Curiously, that story caused far less consternation in the media than this week's news that the nascent Haqqani plot had been identified and, apparently, dealt with.