How Serious Is the Terror Threat in Europe?

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Soldiers stand in guard in front of Notre Dame Cathedral on October 18, 2010 in Paris, France

Given the recent spate of worrying and often conflicting reports of new terror threats targeting Europe, it would be understandable if the chorus of alarm has left people a little confused. After all, in the last month alone officials have warned of increased risks of attack emanating from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, North Africa, and even from inside Europe itself, with resident extremists thought to be plotting imported strikes.

Those concerns inspired U.S. authorities to issue warnings on Oct. 3 to Americans traveling to Europe, and European countries to slap one another with similar travel alerts. Most recently, French Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux revealed on Oct. 16 that Saudi intelligence services had warned France "that al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula was without doubt active, or planned to be active" in terror activity in Europe, "notably France." It all sounds very sinister, but what is the actual state of the terror threat in Europe now?

In private talks with TIME recently, European security officials said that while the threat of terror strikes remains high and pressing, there's very little detailed information within the recent warnings to suggest that an attack is imminent. The heads-up from Saudi officials to French peers that extremists working out of Yemen are increasingly keen to strike Europe was offered as a good example. "The Saudi tip is very serious in telling us al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has already begun or is set to start planning an attack for Europe — but that's an eventuality we've been watching out for for a while," says one French counter-terrorism official. "It tended to suggest what kind of things we should be on the lookout for, not provide a picture of something on the way."

But the multi-polar nature of the threats to Europe do reflect the complementary efforts of al-Qaeda-affiliated groups seeking to attack the West — especially from within. After years of viewing Iraq as the primary theater of jihad, radicals from around the globe — Europeans in particular — have locked back on to Afghanistan as their primary focus, as they had in the pre-9/11 era. German news reports have quoted intelligence officials saying over 200 citizens or residents of Germany have received combat or terror training in recent years — often provided by extremists in the Afghan-Pakistan region. More than 100 of those trainees are now believed to be back in Germany. British authorities have also noticed an increase in the flow of young, budding radicals to the Afghan-Pakistan region, and the French official speaking to TIME said between 15 and 20 people living in France are known to have made the same trip for training purposes in the past two years.

Intelligence agencies endeavor to keep tabs on the movements of terror trainees and share information with each other, but the detection of potential attackers isn't easy. "The standard route now is traveling to Turkey — a popular tourist destination Europeans don't need visas for — then eastward via Iran, which turns a blind eye to jihadist recruits to thumb its nose at the West," says a European security official. "That takes longer, but is far less visible than flying between Europe and Pakistan."

As most plots thwarted or detected in the past two years have shown, those European Islamists usually turn up back home, at times tasked with terror planning. Which, according to reports, was the general goal behind the news that grabbed headlines in September, when it was revealed that U.S. forces had obtained information about a triad of strikes in France, Britain and Germany that had been ordered up in Pakistan. But that information only confirmed the long-standing thinking among counter-terror forces in Europe. "We know that most if not all serious plots targeting Europe will involve people who live here returning from Pakistan," the European official says.

While not exactly breaking news, that knowledge has allowed France in particular to adapt to what it sees as the biggest and most immediate terror threat: the Algerian group al-Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). AQMI has repeatedly kidnapped French nationals, and recently ramped up broadcasts of its intention to strike the French at home. "But AQIM just doesn't have the capacity to operate on its own outside of Algeria and the Sahel region, meaning it will need partners to attack [in France]," confides the French official. "Their best chance for getting those partners is by working with al-Qaeda organizations in the Pakistani border zone to designate French and European jihadists who can return home to plot attacks that AQIM will finance and take credit for." The official gave no known examples of that effort, but said French services know that contacts to that end have been initiated between AQIM and Pakistani groups.

Though different groups tend to prioritize different countries within Europe as targets — the U.K., France, Germany, Italy or others — their combined efforts leave Europe looming large in the crosshairs. An embodiment of that general threat is an extremist from Belgium who remains at large in Pakistan after joint efforts by Belgium, France and Italy led to the December 2008 bust in Brussels of 14 of his co-network members, who had been recruiting people to train for and wage jihad in Afghanistan — and plotting terror strikes in Europe. "That suspect has really climbed the ladder of command among al-Qaeda groups in Pakistan since," the European official says. "We also know he's very eager to strike at Europe. But it's hard to speculate which country he'd target because he's got different motives for wanting to attack us all."