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Explaining the Europe Terror Alert

By / 10.5.2010

When the US State Department issued a terror alert for European travel this week, it raised the inevitable questions: Should I travel to Europe?  Where should I avoid?  Is this thing really serious?

To make sense of this alert, a history lesson is in order.

This history lesson takes us back to Christmas, 1988 in Frankfurt, West Germany. Back in the days before the classified interwebs, information didn’t flow particularly quickly between US government entities.  Photocopying and physical circulation were standard practices.  So, when something big came up, specific information might not be widely distributed.  Government workers weren’t exactly Tweeting it to one another on SIPRnet (the SECRET-level USG computer network).  It’s hard to believe, but back in the day, everyone didn’t know everything about each other all the time.

In the days before the holiday, the U.S. consulate in Frankfurt received vague threat information about a potential terrorist attack targeting American citizens.  The information didn’t state much, other than that the strike would emanate from Germany or possibly London.  The Regional Security Officer posted the threat information on a public bulletin board in the consulate, and many American government workers changed their Christmas travel plans.

As you’ve probably figured out by now, the travel warning turned out to be credible – the Lockerbie bombing of December 21, 1988 killed 190 American citizens, 270 total, traveling from London to JFK airport.  The flight had originated in Frankfurt, where the bomb was originally smuggled aboard.

While it was of course good that certain American government employees had avoided the catastrophe, a policy problem arose.  In short, there was a double standard in place:  Americans (and their families) who happened to work for the government in Frankfurt as everything from intelligence officers to economic advisors to custodians avoided the tragedy due only to their preferential position.  Americans elsewhere in Europe, whether in government or not, weren’t warned.

The resulting “No Double Standard” policy emerged.  Generally, it says that when the U.S. government receives what it deems credible threat information, it has a duty to alert all Americans, not just those who work for the government.  The State Department alert issued about travel to Europe over the weekend fulfills the “No Double Standard” requirement.

So, does this mean that the current intelligence is as specific as that which preceded the Lockerbie bombing?  No.  However, it does mean that the government has credible, but possibly vague, information about a possible attack.

What does “credible” mean, then?  Media reports indicate that the information was gleaned from an individual detained in Pakistan.  Based on his access to information, officials have assessed that his reporting likely contains a grain of truth – that a group of operatives is interested in conducting a Mumbai-style attack in Europe.

However, they do not know when, where, or – quite critically – how developed the plot is or whether the alleged plotters have the operational capability to pull something off.  Authorities just believe their source is telling the truth.

Issuing the alert also puts potential plotters on their heels – European security services’ guard is raised and targets will be harder to access, which might just dissuade an attack in the first place.

Bottom line is that U.S. and European governments have vague but credible information about a discussion of a terrorist plot.  Whether the alleged plotters are serious and capable of executing it is likely yet to be determined.  Issuing the alert is a legal requirement designed to raise awareness among the public at large, not necessarily an indication that a terrorist attack is certain to occur.

Photo credit:  Daniel Horacio Agostini