Beware of Governments Trumpeting Terror Threats

Carousel - An Air Force MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aerial attack vehicle prepares to land in an undisclosed location in Afghanistan in this November 2007 file photo. 5417872 military drone aircraft Staff Sgt. Brian Ferguson/USAF

Fans of the movie Men in Black will be smirking quietly at the European terror plot story currently circulating.

According to reports attributed to security forces, al Qaeda affiliated groups have been planning Mumbai-style commando attacks in western Europe - and only strikes using unmanned U.S. drones in the lawless tribal areas of Pakistan have derailed those attacks by targeting the terror cells which have been planning them. The Mumbai attacks, organized by a terror group in Pakistan, killed more than 170 people in 2008.

In the film, the Will Smith character, unhappy at the lack of urgency being shown in dealing with the latest alien threat to Earth says, "But there's an Arquillian battle cruiser that's about to destroy the planet!" He's told to calm down.

"There's always an Arquillian battle cruiser, or a Corillian death ray, or an intergalactic plague that is about to wipe out all life on this miserable little planet," the Tommy Lee Jones character tells him. It's the same with terror. The threat is always there. There are ways to measure whether it is really increasing.

Tellingly in this case, neither Britain nor Germany - two of the allegedly targeted countries - have raised their security alert levels. France raised its level half a click (to "reinforced red") earlier this month because of the perceived increased threat from North African jihadists angry over French attempts to ban the wearing of the burqa by Muslim women. French authorities have received several phoned-in bomb threats in the past weeks, including two at the Eiffel Tower. All were hoaxes. There's even speculation in the French press that President Nicolas Sarkozy, currently unpopular over other domestic issues, knows the suggestion of a public security threat can do wonders for your poll ratings.

In any event, al Qaeda doesn't generally issue warnings.

There has been an increase in unmanned drone strikes in Pakistan lately and that is being tied to the story of this new threat. But others in the security establishment are wondering, again quietly, whether the new alleged threat is being used as a cover for a drone offensive in Pakistan, one that is understandably unpopular with the Pakistani population (which often becomes collateral damage in the strikes) and with the unstable Pakistani government.

Germany's interior minister said Wednesday that there are "no concrete pointers to imminent attacks in Germany ... the current pointers do not warrant a change in the assessment danger level." German intelligence sources have told news outlets there that the plot was an "aspiration" but "no substantial plans and no explosives."

Meanwhile, a well-informed British source went so far as to tell CBS News he's been told by law enforcement officials that the reports of a foiled plot are, "a load of old rubbish which have been planted to justify the increased drone attacks taking place in the tribal areas" of Pakistan.

The information on the plots is reportedly coming from three German-Pakistani dual nationals who have been arrested and are being questioned. The reliability of their information is suspect. People wanting to kill you is different from people are actively planning, organizing the teams, securing the weaponry and implementing plans to kill you.

Another thing: moving to higher threat alert levels would start to cost money. More security personnel would have to be put on duty. Closing train stations and airports even temporarily costs a fortune. Terror groups can have a destabilizing effect without actually blowing anything up.

If you want to know whether anti-terror authorities are really worried, look at the threat alert levels. The rest is background noise.

  • Mark Phillips

    Mark Phillips returned to the CBS News London bureau as a correspondent in 1993. He has covered many major stories since then, including the war in the Balkans, the death of Princess Diana and the weapons inspection conflicts in Iraq.

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