BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Al Qaeda is planning attacks in the United States, Britain and Europe around Christmas, one year after a failed attempt to bomb a U.S.-bound passenger plane, a senior Iraqi official said Thursday.
Major General Dhiya Hussein, the interior ministry’s counter-terrorism chief, said a captured militant from the Iraqi wing of al Qaeda revealed the plot during interrogations. The insurgent was among a group of 39 men arrested in a widespread swoop on top militants last month, he said.
Authorities say last month’s raids, which led to the arrest of one of al Qaeda’s top officers in Iraq as well as its leadership in the western province of Anbar, dealt a blow to the group’s local affiliate, the Islamic State of Iraq.
“One of the (men) confessed that ISI will execute attacks inside the United States, Britain, and Europe,” Hussein said. “They were making preparations for this goal.”
He said Iraq had informed the affected countries, and said U.S. interrogators had already spoken to the insurgent.
“We are aware of the announcement ... regarding alleged terrorist plans for attacks against the U.S. and Europe,” said Kelli Lane, a U.S. military spokeswoman in Baghdad. “The U.S. Mission in Iraq will work closely with the Government of Iraq and our interagency partners to help determine the extent of any potential threat.”
In the United States, the FBI and Department of Homeland Security sent an alert on Wednesday to local law enforcement authorities to be on the alert for potential terrorist threats during the holiday season, a federal law enforcement official said.
While there was no specific or credible information about a possible attack, the bulletin was based on intelligence from abroad, the official said.
More than seven years after the U.S.-led invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein, Iraq remains in the throes of a stubborn insurgency that still unleashes daily attacks.
Many of those arrested in the latest crackdown had been previously held in U.S. custody and rejoined the insurgency after being released, Iraqi officials have said.
Hussein said the Islamic State of Iraq saw itself as next in line to conduct a Christmas attack after last year’s failed airplane attack on December 25, for which Yemen’s al-Qaeda branch claimed responsibility. In that incident
“They have kind of competition among them (al-Qaeda groups),” Hussein said.
The counterterrorism chief said the arrested militant did not specify which other European countries the group planned to attack during the holiday season. But he said indications pointed to Sweden.
A Swedish national of Middle Eastern decent was killed in a botched suicide attack in Stockholm Saturday. Shortly beforehand, a car containing gas canisters blew up in the capital.
Officials from several American and European law enforcement and intelligence agencies told Reuters that while they had no information that any specific attack during the holiday period was in the works, they were aware such a plot could surface at any time.
A Nigerian-born militant, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, is accused of trying to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner on December 25 last year with a bomb that he obtained from al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen and hid in his underpants.
Reporting by Khalid al-Ansary, and Mark Hosenball and James Vicini in Washington; editing by Caroline Drees and Frances Kerry