Warning: U.S. Unsure About Terror Threat

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Over the weekend, the U.S. State department warned Americans living in or traveling to Europe that “al Qaeda and affiliated organizations continue to plan terrorist attacks” there. This is not news: scarcely a day has passed in nine years without someone from the White House, Homeland Security or the State department telling Americans that al Qaeda is still a threat. So why the warning now?

The rest of the department’s travel alert is no more explicit about what is going on. “Terrorists may elect to use a variety of means and weapons and target both official and private interests,” the author tells readers. “U.S. citizens are reminded of the potential for terrorists to attack public transportation systems and other tourist infrastructure… U.S. citizens should take every precaution to be aware of their surroundings and to adopt appropriate safety measures to protect themselves when traveling.” To recap: terrorists use different weapons to attack different targets and Americans should be careful.

The official purpose of travel alerts like this one, says Under Secretary of State Patrick Kennedy is, “to disseminate information about relatively short-term conditions that pose potential serious risk to the security of American citizens traveling in a country or in a region.” However, a few conversations with officials around the administration support the idea that this alert is as much about what the State department doesn’t know as what it does know.

New intelligence came in to the administration in recent weeks that suggested a plot was being hatched by al Qaeda associates in Europe. The intelligence was “cumulative” says one official, and the plot appeared to be more organized and threatening than just a few armed militants attacking public sites: it would combine several elements of previous terrorist attacks. But the administration doesn’t have a sense of specific timing or targets for this plot. Which means that as things stand, if al Qaeda or an associated group tries to carry it out the U.S. and European authorities will have to get lucky to stop it.

So a more candid travel alert would read: “al Qaeda and affiliated organizations continue to plot terrorist attacks in Europe; the State department thinks a new attack may be coming but doesn’t know enough to prevent it.” It’s not clear what good “being aware of your surroundings” will do you under those circumstances. But if an attack does occur, Americans living in or traveling to Europe can’t say they weren’t warned.