An al-Qa'ida plot to launch co-ordinated "Mumbai-style" terror attacks in Britain, France and Germany involving shooting sprees on civilian targets by small groups of roaming gunmen has been uncovered in Pakistan.
The planned assault is said to have had the personal approval of Osama bin Ladenand its emergence has coincided with a surge in unmanned US drone attacks in areas of northwestern Pakistan abutting the Afghan border where terror groups are believed to be encamped and training recruits. British security sources said the plot was considered to be at an "embryonic" stage but had moved to actual planning and was still active despite American raids which US officials said were designed to disrupt the al-Qa'ida militants behind the plot.
The emergence of the plot, details of which were made public by US military officials, coincides with heightened security in France, where officials have said there is a particular risk from north African-based Islamists. The Eiffel Tower was evacuated for the second time in two weeks on Monday night following a bomb threat from a telephone booth. No device was found and the tourist attraction was reopened after a two-hour closure.
Western intelligence agencies have been concerned about the prospect of a copy-cat commando attack by cells of militants since the 2008 Mumbai plot in which 10 Pakistani gunmen went on a three-day rampage around India's commercial capital, killing 166 people and injuring more than 300. British police and security services recently held an unpublicised exercise in Birmingham to rehearse scenarios to deal with a similar attack on the UK.
The breakthrough on the latest plot, which bears the hallmarks of an al-Qa'ida-inspired "spectacular", is understood to have come from the interrogation of a German national arrested last month while en route to Europe and currently being held by US forces at Bagram airfield in Afghanistan.
The captive reportedly told US officials that the plot involved the training of several commando-style teams in Waziristan, part of Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas that fall outside the control of Islamabad. The men, all European passport carriers, were to target "economic or soft" targets in major cities and Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Kashmiri separatist group accused of being behind the Mumbai attacks, was also said to have been involved.
A British security source said the plot was being taken seriously but had not progressed sufficiently to merit the raising of the UK terror threat level beyond "severe" – the second-highest state of alert before "critical", meaning an attack is imminent. The source said: "This plot was in its embryonic stages. This one has preoccupied us more than others in the past few weeks – and it is still active – but it has not raised enough alarms to change our security threat level."
The release of details of the plot may be a source of frustration to counter-terrorism officials in Europe, who may have been hoping to gather further evidence and make arrests.
On the record, top US anti-terror officials were remaining coy and have not confirmed that the sudden uptick in drone attacks is directly linked to the latest terror threat or represents an operation to thwart them. "We are not going to comment on specific intelligence, as doing so threatens to undermine intelligence operations that are critical to protecting the US and our allies," said US Director of National Intelligence James Clapper in a statement. "As we have repeatedly said, we know AQ 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-Qa'ida."Reuse content