How do you calibrate fear? that was the challenge that faced leaders on both sides of the Atlantic last week as they faced a flood of intelligence from human and electronic sources that told them Osama bin Laden is plotting a comeback, and may even have set the plan in motion. The most likely targets, as always, are symbols of Western faith, freedom, wealth, and power—the great tourist destinations of Europe. These are places where innocent people congregate by the hundreds or by the thousands, places where a few men with guns, swarming onto the scene like the attackers who hit hotels in Mumbai in November 2008, could wreak carnage and hold the world's rapt attention.
But, as so often happens in the shadowy world of terror and counterterror, the vital specifics were unclear. How far advanced was the plot? How many people were involved? Were they all still training in the remote mountains of Pakistan's Waziristan tribal areas? Or had some returned to Europe--where many of them had grown up, and where many were citizens—to set in motion their stratagems for slaughter?
The U.S. State Department, exercising what former CIA official Rolf Mowatt-Larssen calls its "duty to warn," issued a "travel alert" informing U.S. citizens that Europe has often been the scene of terrorist attacks and could be again. But the alert was so vague that even State Department officials drew a comparison with cautions about the hurricane season. The British and the Japanese, meanwhile, warned of the risks of travel to France. The French government, almost petulantly, warned against travel to Britain. French Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux, grilled by skeptical parliamentarians, insisted, "There is currently a terrorist threat in Europe and in France," but then added, "It shouldn't be overestimated or underestimated."
One thing is clear: terror is back on everyone's mind. But, in fact, the danger is not limited to a single plot being hatched in the Hindu Kush, even if bin Laden himself has a hand in it. The broader threat now and for the immediate future comes from several different factors converging to provide the motive, the means, and the moment for another major attack in the West. In a sense, the State Department's hurricane analogy is apt. If you'll pardon the cliché, there's a perfect storm of terror brewing on the horizon, and if it does hit the West, it's going to be hell to ride out.
First, consider the question of motive. The centerpiece of Al Qaeda and other jihadist propaganda is always the struggle against "foreign occupation" of Muslim lands, with Afghanistan now front and center as the battleground. If Britain, France, and Germany are at the top of the terrorist hit list, as Western intelligence reports suggest, then one obvious reason is that they all have troop contingents serving with NATO forces in Afghanistan. What's intensifying the threat at the moment is a combination of desperation among the core leadership of Al Qaeda and growing alienation among Muslims in the West, particularly in Europe.
Over the last few weeks and months the U.S. has mounted a relentless series of drone attacks against Al Qaeda in Pakistan. Almost daily, Hellfire and Griffin missiles are snuffing key operatives or blowing up members of their support networks--and sometimes innocent civilians along with them. In those increasingly mean mountains, Qaeda fighters keep their spirits up by telling each other they are about to have their revenge. "It's like they've just been waiting for news, as if they were all excited about something big about to happen in the West," says an Afghan Taliban intelligence officer known to NEWSWEEK who operates as a liaison between his organization and Al Qaeda. (For security reasons, he would not allow his name to be published.) The source said one senior Qaeda activist told him that Europeans and Americans think "our minds and bodies are in the mountains of the tribal areas, but soon we will carry out a visible offensive with long-term consequences in their own Western homes and cities."
The key to such a terrorist operation is almost certainly small groups of relatively recent recruits to Al Qaeda ranks who were born or brought up in Europe and either come from Muslim family backgrounds or are converts to one of the more radical strains of the faith. The German press reports that a captured German of Afghan origin, Ahmed Siddiqui, was the original source of information about the broad Qaeda plot to launch a wave of terror in Europe. Since July, Siddiqui has been under interrogation at Bagram Air Base outside Kabul. The special intensity of recent drone attacks in North Waziristan is, at least in part, a response to information he provided about the plot.
Germany has been an especially important source of recruits for Qaeda training in the Pakistani hinterlands. At least four German passport holders were killed in one American drone attack last week, according to Pakistani officials. Konrad Frolbert, president of Germany's main police syndicate, estimates there are more than 100 dangerous Islamists from Germany involved with violent jihad, about 40 of whom "have received explosives training in foreign camps and are now living in Germany again. Both the British and the French have also known for years that small groups of their nationals went to train for jihad in Afghanistan and Pakistan. A few Americans have taken the same route. Sometimes they're put under surveillance when they come back home, but sometimes they slip below the radar.
It's important to remember how few people are involved in any of this. Most have South Asian, North African, or Turkish backgrounds, but they represent a minuscule percentage of the tens of millions of Muslims who now live in Europe. Unfortunately, the focus of public fear and anger is not limited to the terrorists themselves. The atmosphere has grown increasingly ugly for many Muslims as xenophobic politicians have gained ground in recent elections all over the continent. "The far right and the jihadis need one another," says anthropologist Scott Atran, who is frequently consulted by U.S. government agencies about the social and organizational characteristics of terrorist organizations. In Europe especially, there's a growing impression that Muslims with immigrant backgrounds are "being thrown to the wolves," says Atran. That fear plays directly into the jihadists' propaganda.
The poster boy for Muslim bashers is Dutch Freedom Party parliamentarian Geert Wilders. Although he is currently on trial for hate speech in Amsterdam, his party also holds the key to power for the Netherlands' new conservative minority government. The reaction of Muslims inside the country has been relatively muted, and the previous government announced earlier this year that the Dutch would be pulling all their forces out of Afghanistan. But members of the Netherlands' intelligence services see Wilders as one of the reasons the country is still a prime target for jihadists—and that sentiment is echoed in the wilds of the tribal areas. Waliur-Rehman, a Pakistani Taliban leader linked to the attempted Times Square bombing on May 1, has been watching Wilders's rise. "The path that the Dutch government is following is very dangerous," Rehman told a television interviewer this August in Waziristan, as drones circled overhead. "They will have to pay the price for putting a ban on Islamic values and ridiculing them."
Wilders claims he's got nothing against Turks or Moroccans as such, but that he opposes Islam as a totalitarian ideology. He's trying to build international support for that idea, and with some success. At Ground Zero in New York on Sept. 11 to oppose the building of a Muslim community center, Wilders claimed that Islam would take away New Yorkers' liberal values and turn their city into "New Mecca." In Berlin at the beginning of this month, Wilders warned "the specter of Islamism is haunting Europe," echoing the famous first line of The Communist Manifesto.
Others are not so coy. Strasbourg, France—the seat of the European Parliament and a city that likes to pride itself on a mix of cultures and faiths—has seen a sickening wave of vandalism in recent weeks, including attacks on both Muslims and Jews, with swastikas painted on their walls, and their cemeteries defiled. In one especially ugly bit of Web-based vandalism, a resident of one of Strasbourg's suburbs filmed himself tearing pages out of a Quran, burning the holy book, then urinating on the cinders, all in the name of "freedom," he said.
In the face of such provocations, the instinct of many Muslims is to lie low and hope the hysteria passes. But they find themselves being dragged into the debate anyway. In September, French counterterror chief Bernard Squarcini sounded the alarm about possible attacks in France. "All the warning lights are flashing red," he said. He focused on the threat from a Qaeda spinoff in North Africa that has taken several French hostages, but added that proposals to stop Muslim women from wearing a full-face veil, called a burqa or niqab, also incited jihadists to target the country.
Within days, the French press was quoting anonymous government sources saying a woman suicide bomber was believed to be in France, possibly wearing a niqab. Ostensible target was unclear. Dalil Boubakeur, the moderate imam of the largest mosque in Paris, was sent a special security detail. Yet until that happened, Boubakeur told NEWSWEEK, he had no special sense of threat. "It was like a thunderclap in a clear blue sky," he said. And, indeed, after a couple of news cycles, responsible French officials said the reports of the woman bomber had been inaccurate. In any case, the French Senate approved the "burqa ban" by a large majority.
Amid such hyperbole and hyperventilation, governments tend to lose the credibility they need to get on with the job of stopping terrorism. "This should never be politicized," says Jean-Louis Bruguière, who for many years took the lead in France's counterterror investigations. "When it comes to fighting terror, we have never seen this happen. Politics stays out of it." But that's no longer the case. French President Nicolas Sarkozy's approval ratings are at such an abysmal low (26 percent) that opponents from every corner of the political spectrum now feel free to claim he's exploiting terror fears to distract public opinion. American President Barack Obama came in for some of the same sort of criticism after the awkward travel alert for Europe.
Such spectacles of political weakness and division are exactly what Al Qaeda's core leadership has learned to look for, and may well hope to exploit. The March 2004 bombing of commuter trains in Madrid, which took 191 lives, led to the electoral defeat of the Spanish government that had sent troops to Iraq. What effect would an attack that size have on Sarkozy's government now? How would it affect the will of France and Germany and Britain to keep their troops fighting in the deeply unpopular Afghan war? Even under the pressure of constant attack by American drones, those bin Laden and his top people make those kinds of calculations when they plan an attack. The power of their organization should not be overestimated, indeed, but the power of their cunning should never be underestimated.
With Sami Yousafzai in Islamabad, Tracy Mcnicoll in Paris, Stefan Theil in Berlin, William Underhill in London, and Nadette De Visser in Amsterdam
This story has been updated and modified from the original piece that appears in the Newsweek magazine issue #14 dated Oct. 11, 2010.