BERLIN/LONDON (Reuters) - A militant plot to stage coordinated attacks in Europe has been disrupted in its early stages by drone strikes in Pakistan, but it is not clear if the threat has been completely eliminated, security sources said on Wednesday.
Germany said it knew of information pointing to possible al Qaeda attacks in Europe and the United States, and intelligence sources said security agencies had disrupted plans by Pakistan-based militants for simultaneous strikes in London, as well as in major cities in France and Germany.
The conspiracy involving al Qaeda and allied militants was in the early stages and would have involved groups of assailants taking and killing hostages, possibly along the lines of the 2008 raid in Mumbai in which 166 people died, the sources said.
But it was unclear if all the plotters had been eliminated in recent attacks by U.S. drones in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area and Western security agencies were working closely to counter any threat that remained, they said.
The last successful major militant attack in the West was the 2005 bombings on London’s transport system that killed 52.
Al Qaeda and south Asian militant groups have threatened to attack Western targets in retaliation for U.S. military action in Afghanistan and for the U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan.
Intelligence sources said an increase in strikes by unmanned U.S. drone aircraft on suspected militants in Pakistan in the past few weeks was part of Western efforts to thwart the plot.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, one security official in Germany said word of the plot had probably originated from the interrogation of a German-Afghan terror suspect in Afghanistan.
The suspect believed to be behind the intelligence was identified by media as Ahmed Sidiqi, a German of Afghan origin. German media said he came from Hamburg and had been held in the U.S. military prison of Bagram in Afghanistan since July.
In Washington, U.S. officials stressed there was no evidence that the plot or plots had been thwarted. A U.S. official told Reuters: “It’s simply incorrect for anyone to think that current threat concerns have permanently subsided. Not at all.”
A U.S. national security official agreed, saying: “No one in this (U.S.) government is saying ‘game over’”
A British security source told Reuters intelligence agencies in the United States, France, Germany and Britain had been working to investigating the plot “for quite a while.”
The source said the planned attacks would have involved “suicide terrorists” and resembled the commando-style raids in Mumbai.
A separate British police counter-terrorism source told Reuters that no arrests had been made or were on the cards, indicating the threat was not thought to be imminent.
“It was an aspiration that they were working on but I don’t think they’d tooled themselves up in any way or may not even be in the countries,” the source said, adding Prime Minister David Cameron was briefed on the threat a couple of weeks ago.
Pakistan’s army dismissed the information, reported on Tuesday evening by Sky News, as “very speculative.”
Military spokesman Major General Athar Abbas told Reuters: “We don’t have any information or intelligence that militants had gathered there (in North Waziristan) and were plotting attacks. There is absolutely no intelligence on that.”
Germany’s interior ministry said it knew of the information on possible attacks and that this had been exchanged with other countries with “the requisite sensitivity and intensity.”
Four U.S. security officials, who requested anonymity, said initial intelligence reports about the threat first surfaced roughly two weeks ago, around the time of the anniversary of the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.
In Britain, the MI5 security service said on September 16 there remained “a serious risk of a lethal attack taking place.”
French Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux said on September 20 France faced a real terrorism threat due to a backlash from al Qaeda militants in North Africa, with fears growing of an attack from home-grown cells within French borders.
The Eiffel Tower and the surrounding Champ de Mars park were briefly evacuated on Tuesday because of a bomb alert, the fourth such alert in the Paris region in as many weeks, but a search turned up nothing, police said.
U.S. intelligence chief James Clapper said: “We know al Qaeda wants to attack Europe and the United States. We continue to work closely with our European allies on the threat from international terrorism, including al Qaeda.”
One U.S. official said militants in Pakistan were “constantly” planning attacks in the region and beyond, and the United States would react to that.
“It shouldn’t surprise anyone that links between plots and those who are orchestrating them lead to decisive American action. The terrorists who are involved are, as everyone should expect, going to be targets,” the official said.
Remotely piloted drones have carried out 21 strikes in September, the highest number in a single month.
On Sept 26, a senior al Qaeda leader, identified as Shaikh al-Fateh, also known as Shaikh Fateh al-Masri, was believed to have been killed, Pakistani intelligence officials said.
Additional reporting by Sabine Siebold in Berlin, Karolina Tagaris, Estelle Shirbon and William Maclean in London, Phil Stewart and Mark Hosenball in Washington and Zeeshan Haider and Chris Allbritton in Islamabad; writing by Mark Trevelyan; editing by Janet McBride and Noah Barkin