Islamist terrorists have acquired four shoulder-launched Soviet-made surface-to-air missiles on the black market in Chechnya, European intelligence sources tell CBS News.
Two of the missiles were destined for cells operating in France, where French government security sources say terrorists planned to carry out attacks on planes at Paris' main airport, Charles de Gaulle. The other two missiles, say intelligence sources, were to be sent to a Palestinian group operating in Lebanon.
The missiles were tracked by intelligence agencies as far as Turkey. In circumstances that are not clear, the trail was lost, and intelligence and security agencies do not know what has become of the missiles or who might have control over them.
Islamist terrorist groups have used similar missiles in the past, in part because they are easily obtained on the black market and relatively easy to operate. In June 2002, a shoulder launched missile was fired at a Saudi Air Force jet as it approached Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia. In December of that year, another missile was fired at an Israeli charter jet as took off from the Kenyan resort of Mombasa.
Al Qaeda claimed that attack, which was timed to coincide with a suicide car bomb attack on a Mombasa beach hotel popular with Israelis. The missile misfired and didn't hit the jet, but 10 Kenyans and three Israelis died in the hotel attack.
In 2001, a similar missile and its launcher was found near the perimeter of the airport of the Czech capital, Prague, shortly before a plane being used by then-Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres was due to take off.
News that Islamist terrorist groups have once again succeeded in acquiring shoulder-launched missiles, and successfully moved them to at least the borders of Europe, comes at a time when European analysts, intelligence and security agencies and governments agree the threat of another terrorist attack is a question of when, not if.
"My assessment is that the risk is quite high, and that it is actually increasing," said French anti-terrorism Judge Jean Louis Bruguiere, adding that he believes the threat of another major terrorist attack is greater now than in the months before 9/11.
In recent weeks, as investigators in the United Kingdom continue to follow the trail of the bombers who attacked London's transit system on July 7, senior officers of the Metropolitan police have also issued public warnings.
On the other side of the globe, Australia's prime minister — a strong supporter of President Bush and the war in Iraq — has said that his government has "specific intelligence" of a terrorist threat. While he did not provide details, Australian media and European intelligence sources say the threat is directed against public transit in one of Australia's major cities.
Analysts also warn that recent al Qaeda communications suggest a new focus on economic targets, and fear that an attack on financial markets in Japan could leave the global economy shaken.
Bruguiere is France's leading anti-terrorism investigator. The French legal code, said Napoleon Bonaparte, made examining magistrates such as Bruguiere among the most powerful men in the country. Bruguiere is not only powerful, but respected internationally for his expertise acquired after more than 20 years of investigating Islamist terrorist groups operating in France and beyond.