Skip to main content

French soldiers patrol around the Louvre museum in Paris, Sunday, Oct. 3, 2010. Canada's Foreign Affairs department cautioned Canadians traveling in Europe to be vigilant because of heightened concerns about a potential al-Qaeda terrorist attackLaurent Cipriani

The Canadian government is cautioning Canadians to be vigilant in Europe after the United States and Britain warned of an increased risk of terrorist attack there.

The U.S. government issued a warning Sunday that said al-Qaeda might target transport infrastructure and the British raised the terrorist threat level in its advice for citizens travelling to France and Germany to "high" from "general." The British threat level for Great Britain itself remains at "severe" - meaning officials believe an attack is highly likely.

The Harper government has not changed or upgraded its official travel advisories but is answering media inquiries by saying that people heading to Europe should be alert.

"Our department is closely monitoring the security situation in Europe," the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade says.

"Canadians should be aware of their surroundings at all times, monitor local news reports, follow the advice of local authorities, and take appropriate steps to ensure their personal security," the note said. It encouraged Canadians to monitor the website for updated information and to register their travel plans with the Canadian government.

The U.S. State Department alert doesn't single out specific countries in Europe as higher risk but said public-transportation services and other tourist infrastructure are possible targets.

The last successful and large scale attack in Europe was the July, 2005, suicide bombings on London's transport system, which killed 52 people. Bombers killed 191 people on trains in Madrid in March, 2004.

Neither the Canadian nor the U.S. cautions are intended to deter their citizens from travelling to Europe. A full-scale travel warning - which has not been issued - would disrupt travel plans.

Public Safety Minister Vic Toews acknowledged that other countries are being more specific in their cautions but offered no explanation as to why Canada is not matching that level of detail.

"I know the Americans have made some very specific statements in respect of that," Mr. Toews said.

"We've urged Canadians to exercise caution when travelling in Europe. We don't have any specific advice to give beyond that at this time but I can assure you we are monitoring matters very, very closely."

Security expert Wesley Wark said there seems to be disagreement among different players about how soon an attack might occur.

"There seem to be slightly different readings, not on the nature of this threat, but on the imminence of it," he said.

The British Foreign Office's most recent advisory says: "Like other large European countries, the French/German authorities continue to consider that there is a high threat of terrorism.

"Attacks could be indiscriminate, including in places frequented by expatriates and foreign travellers."

The Telegraph newspaper has reported that intelligence officials in Britain intercepted a credible al-Qaeda-linked terror plot last week.

The paper said the planned attack would reportedly have been similar to the deadly commando-style raids in Mumbai, India, two years ago, with other European cities, in France and Germany, also targeted.

In France, rumours and warnings of an imminent terrorist plot have circulated since mid-September. A bomb threat called in from a telephone booth on Sept. 28 prompted a rush evacuation of the Eiffel Tower and the park around it in the early evening.

The day before, a bomb threat called in from the busy Saint Lazare train station in Paris prompted the immediate evacuation of the sprawling station. Two weeks earlier, on Sept. 12, police cleared three high-traffic areas in the French capital - the Eiffel Tower, the Saint Lazare train station and the Saint Michel underground suburban rail-line station. Media reports said the evacuation was prompted by intelligence received from a North African country about a plot involving a female suicide bomber who had been dispatched to attack the Paris public-transit system.

Bomb threats are not all that unusual in Paris or in other European capitals. Last year in the month of September, three threats against sites in Paris were received. But last month saw the number of phoned-in threats triple, to nine, compared to the same month in 2009. Since the beginning of the year, 37 bomb threats were received against Paris locations, according to a report by Agence France-Presse, quoting anonymous police sources. In all of 2009, the same sources said, 39 anonymous bomb threats concerning Paris were received.

Sunday evening, the French Interior Minister, Brice Hortefeux, said France is taking the American alert into account in its precautions against a possible terror plot. "We are working in close collaboration with all the intelligence services and the countries concerned," he said, speaking to reporters during a visit to one of the capital's biggest outdoor stadiums. "There's no need to cause people to worry, measures are being taken," he said, adding "that we should not however be in denial and so we have to remain on alert." The threat level in France is at red, one stage below emergency level.

A French Foreign Ministry spokesman said the American advisory to its citizens in Europe dovetailed with "the general recommendations we ourselves make to the French population."

Separately, in an interview published on Sunday in Le Parisien newspaper, Defence Minister Hervé Morin said that "information emanating from allied intelligence services speak of risks [of a terrorist attack]in Europe, and particularly in France."

Three weeks ago, Bernard Squarcini, chief of the French internal intelligence agency, told reporters that the threat "has never been greater." His comments came before a group calling itself Al Qaeda of the Islamic Maghreb claimed responsibility for the kidnapping of seven employees, five of them French, of the nuclear company Areva in Niger. The Qatar-based television channel Al Jazeera last week broadcast a video showing the hostages sitting on the ground, flanked by masked and armed men. It was not clear when the video was filmed.

The British Home Secretary, Theresa May, also said in a statement that the American advisory was "consistent with our assessment" of the threat of terrorist attack somewhere in Europe.

The heightened security alerts were likely the result of information gleaned from a German man who was reportedly detained when he was about to fly from Kabul to Germany in July, according to the German weekly magazine Der Spiegel. The man, according to an article to appear on Monday in the magazine, allegedly belongs to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. The magazine, which released a summary of the article on Sunday, reports that the man is being held at the American-operated Bagram air base in Afghanistan and told interrogators that a plot was in the works to attack European cities. The magazine said the detained German man named Yunis al-Mauretani, allegedly a top aide to Osama bin Laden, was the mastermind.

In Brussels, the headquarters of the 27-nation European Union, a spokeswoman for Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmstroem told AFP that EU officials are in contact with the Americans, are monitoring the situation and have asked for more information.

"We will discuss [the alert]at the level of ministers next Thursday in Luxembourg to see what response Europe will issue," said Margaux Donckier, a spokeswoman for the interior ministry of Belgium, which holds the EU's rotating presidency. But Belgium, for the moment, would not yet raise its threat alert above its present level of two out of four.

"We have received the travel advice from the United States," said Peter Mertens, spokesman for the interior ministry's crisis centre. He added that threat information had been analyzed before the State Department issued its advisory but did not see a reason to raise the Belgian alert.

German officials also said they did not plan to change the security threat level. Germany has "still no concrete indications of imminent attacks" and authorities "are constantly reviewing the need to update security measures," the Interior Ministry said in a statement, adding, "The government does not currently see any reason to modify its evaluation of concrete risks."

Last Friday, however, Sweden said it had raised its threat alert to the highest level ever because of an increased threat of terror attacks. The Swedish Security Service said it had no indication of an imminent threat of an attack and said its heightened alert was related to information about "a shift in activities" by Islamic groups in Sweden. "This is a balanced assessment of the intention to commit a crime and the ability to commit crimes," said Security Service head Anders Danielsson.

With files from The Associated Press