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Terror threat

October 4, 2010

The US media have extensively covered the US State Department's travel alert for Europe, even naming specific targets in Berlin and Paris. But Germany says the threat of a terror attack is no higher than usual.

Police monitor Oktoberfest
Oktoberfest has been a potential target beforeImage: AP

The US State Department issued a rare travel advisory to American citizens living and travelling in Europe on Sunday.

"Current information suggests that al Qaeda and affiliated organizations continue to plan terrorist attacks [in Europe]," the alert on the State Department's website said.

Great Britain quickly followed suit, issuing its own warning for travel in France and Germany specifically, and Japan made a similar announcement for all of Europe on Monday morning.

The US media have been quick to jump on the story, and reports have emerged listing specific targets and scenarios in European cities.

Police at the Eiffell Tower
American media listed the Eiffel Tower as a potential targetImage: AP

US television broadcaster Fox News, citing intelligence sources, reported that the Brandenburg Gate, the notable television tower at Alexanderplatz, and the central train station were specific targets of potential terror attacks in Berlin. The Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris were also on the Fox News list as targets of a Mumbai-style attack.

No specific threat

But despite specific targets being mentioned, the interior ministry in Berlin sees no reason to increase Germany's terror threat level and has said it will continue its current state of vigilance.

In a statement to reporters on Monday afternoon, German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere said that although there continues to be a general "high abstract threat" of terrorism in Germany and other European countries, he warned against overreacting to the travel advisory and media reports.

"There are currently no indications of any immediate threat of attacks planned against Germany," said de Maiziere. "There is no reason whatsoever to be alarmist at the moment."

De Maiziere also said that the German targets specifically mentioned in media reports had been known as potential terror targets for some time, and that there was no new information regarding the vulnerability of these sites.

Thomas de Maiziere
De Maiziere said there were no specific threats in GermanyImage: DPA

Common sense abroad

The US State Department said that it was not advising citizens against travelling to Europe, but simply advising them to be "aware of their surroundings and to adopt appropriate safety measures to protect themselves when traveling."

In a teleconference with reporters on Sunday, US Under Secretary of State for Management Patrick Kennedy said that "these are common sense precautions that people ought to take - don't have lots of baggage tags on your luggage that directly identify you as an American, know how to use the pay telephone, know how to contact the American embassy if you need help."

Oliver Bendixen, who has covered security and terror related topics for German broadcaster Bayrischer Rundfunk since the 1970s, says a general awareness abroad coincides with the general threat of a terror attack that exists.

"If you put your ear on countries like Afghanistan, or Pakistan, or India, you have threats like this nearly every day," he told Deutsche Welle in an interview.

Germans capable of reacting

Last September, a video surfaced on the internet foreshadowing terror attacks around Germany's federal elections. The man in the video was a German with ties to al Qaeda, and the specific threats included Munich's Oktoberfest celebration and the Cologne Cathedral.

At that time, Bendixen said, German authorities had a specific threat to respond to and acted accordingly, beefing up security at airports, train stations, and large public gatherings like Oktoberfest. In this case, there have been no additional measures taken by German security forces because there is no specific threat to respond to, he added.

"There have been some conferences between the law enforcement agencies, and there was no reason to react in any way," he said.

Information exchange between security forces of allied countries, such as Germany, France, Great Britain and the United States, is common. This communication was alluded to on the State Department's website:

"Information is routinely shared between the US and our key partners in order to disrupt terrorist plotting, identify and take action against potential operatives, and strengthen our defenses against potential threats."

Bendixen added that it was in the best interest of the US or Great Britain to share information with foreign authorities if there was a concrete threat against its citizens abroad.

a scene from the al Qaeda video
Last year, a video attributed to al Qaeda threatened attacksImage: AP/IntelCenter

Travelers' reactions

Without a specific threat - and with no instructions from the US or Great Britain beyond vague warnings to increase vigilance - Bendixen asked what exactly a traveler abroad is supposed to do to avoid being targeted.

"Do you have to look behind you every 10 steps if someone is following you? Or do you have to look under the bed when you enter a hotel room?" he asked rhetorically. "You must use the airports. You have to go by train. There's no chance to protect yourself. The warning is not followed by any real advice. For me, it's a little stupid, to be honest."

Author: Matt Zuvela
Editor: Nancy Isenson