Image: Suspect vehicle closes Whitehall in Central London
Dan Kitwood  /  Getty Images
Pedestrians are held back by police after a suspect vehicle was left in the middle of Whitehall in Central London on September 30. A terror plot to launch Mumbai-style attacks on Britain and other European countries is now said to have links to Osama bin Laden.
NBC News and news services
updated 10/2/2010 7:38:56 AM ET 2010-10-02T11:38:56

Osama bin Laden emerged Friday as possibly a key figure in the European terror plot, and officials said he may be flexing his muscles in a move to show a besieged al-Qaida remains strong and able to launch major attacks on western targets.

U.S. counterterrorism officials said they believe that senior al-Qaida leaders, including bin Laden, were involved in the plan to strike several European cities in a coordinated assault. If bin Laden had a direct hand in the planning, it would be the most active role he has played in a terror plot since the 9/11 attacks, according to U.S. officials and analysts.

Counterterrorism officials said that they are now working under the assumption that bin Laden played a role in the plotting, but they would not detail what indications they've seen that led them in that direction.

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Still, some also believe that bin Laden's orders may have been delivered by one of his top commanders, since the al-Qaida leader is known to avoid close contact with anyone except his closet confidants.

While bin Laden's name is still a powerful reminder of the World Trade Center's twin towers and the Pentagon engulfed in flames, U.S. officials have for months asserted both in private and in hearings on Capitol Hill that his core al-Qaida group is weakened, struggling to raise money and attract recruits.

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"Clearly there is a great deal of pressure on al-Qaida to do something to show that it is still alive and kicking," said Richard Barrett, the head of a U.N. group that monitors the threat posed by al-Qaida and the Taliban. "They need to show they're strong, they're a force multiplier, that they've still got some beef, that they've got operators abroad, that they can do things."

Barrett said al-Qaida's Pakistan-based network has not launched a successful attack since the London subway bombing in 2005. "In order to attract the younger new recruits, I think they have to do a bit better than that," he said.

The multi-pronged scope of the emerging terror plan — which aimed to launch coordinated shooting rampages or attacks in Britain, France and Germany — is an al-Qaida hallmark.

U.S. officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters, declined to reveal what evidence they have that bin Laden took a more prominent role in this plan. And one U.S. intelligence official cautioned that the details of how the plan was directed or coordinated by the group's core leaders is not yet clear.

The involvement of bin Laden and his devoted leaders, believed to be in hiding in Pakistan, underscores continuing U.S. concerns about that country's role as a safe haven for al-Qaida and other Islamic extremists.

And it reflects al-Qaida's persistent effort — through video and online messages — to inspire its followers to wage attacks against the West. The threat to Europe was highlighted when bin Laden issued a call to arms in March 2008 after a Danish newspaper printed controversial cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad.

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He warned Europeans in an audio message that there would be a "severe" reaction to come.

Rep. Pete Hoekstra, R-Mich., the senior Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, said that bin Laden may simply be trying to re-exert himself. And his role in the European plot could suggest a lack of confidence by al-Qaida central in the ability of other affiliated groups in Yemen or Africa to carry out a successful attack on their own, Hoekstra said.

Over the past year, several terror attacks in the U.S. have either failed or been foiled, including the botched attempts to bring down a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day and to set off a bomb in New York's Time Square.

"They've let other people take the lead on attacking the West," said Hoekstra, adding that bin Laden may now be thinking, "these guys can't do it, we've got to become more involved again."
Bin Laden's presumed role in the European plot was  first reported by NPR.

A senior U.S. counterterrorism official told NBC News that details of the European terrorist plot are probably known to senior al-Qaida leadership in northwest Pakistan. The U.S. and other Western intelligence officials say the information available suggests that the plot goes back to "al-Qaida Central", the term U.S. officials use to describe bin Laden's operations. Therefore, it's possible that bin Laden is aware of at least some elements of the plot.

Still, the official noted that the timing and target of the purported attack remain unknown.

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One senior U.S. official, meanwhile, discounted any involvement in the Europe terror plot by al-Qaida's North African affiliate. While al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb is dangerous in its region and may want to export its terror operations to Europe, there are no indications that it is able to do that at this time, said the official.

A Pakistani intelligence official said Thursday that eight Germans and two British brothers are at the heart of the European terror plot, which is still in its early stages. One of the Britons was killed in a recent CIA missile strike, he said.

Pakistan, Britain and Germany are tracking the suspects and intercepting their phone calls, the official told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information to the media.

U.S. officials have pressed Pakistan to increase its efforts to root out the militants hiding in the mountainous border region.

The U.S. has dramatically stepped up its missile attacks in North Waziristan, and is believed to have launched at least 21 this month. The covert campaign is largely carried out by CIA drones and has led to the deaths of a number of top militant leaders.

Pakistan has complained vocally about the program but is believed to provide intelligence assistance for at least some of the strikes.

The Associated Press and NBC News contributed to this report.

Video: Jitters over new European terror threats

  1. Transcript of: Jitters over new European terror threats

    MEREDITH VIEIRA, co-host: But now to heightened security at some of Europe 's most historic landmarks after security officials uncovered what they consider to be a credible terror plot. What was in the works over there, and how concerned should we be here in the US? Roger Cressey is an NBC News analyst and worked in counterterrorism in both the Bush and Clinton administrations. Roger , good morning to you. And what are your sources telling you about this terror plot and why now?

    Mr. ROGER CRESSEY (NBC News Terrorism Analyst): Well, Meredith , this is a real plot. This one dates back to the summer. The good news is US and Western European counterterrorism officials have been on top of it since then, and it's a -- and it's a significant attempt by al-Qaeda central -- and I think

    that's the important point here -- to look at targets in Western Europe: Germany , France , at the very least, potentially Denmark and the UK . There are some conflicting reports about what type of method they might be considering, but the bottom line is this is a threat that's being taken very seriously.

    VIEIRA: Yeah, one of the reports I read suggested that it would be shooting sprees in Britain and Germany and France .

    Mr. CRESSEY: Right. Styled along the way that the Mumbai ...

    VIEIRA: Mumbai , yeah.

    Mr. CRESSEY: ...attack happened in 2008 , where just a handful of individuals with AK-47s and hand grenades killed over 160 people. Many people in the terrorism community -- counterterrorism community have thought, 'Why hasn't that happened in the West yet?' That's one potential here. There's an individual providing information that points to that type of method, but it's not conclusive and it's not the only stream of threat reporting that people are following right now.

    VIEIRA: That individual you're referring to, is that Ahmed Siddiqui ...

    Mr. CRESSEY: That's correct.

    VIEIRA: ...the German who was arrested in Afghanistan , who had trained in Pakistan ?

    Mr. CRESSEY: That's right . Siddiqui is providing a lot of information. Some concern is that he might be seeking to influence as well as inform. But the bottom line is there are multiple streams of threat reporting that are pointing towards a potential threat in Europe , and Siddiqui is providing just one element of threat reporting that officials are looking at.

    VIEIRA: You also mentioned al-Qaeda central, which would mean Osama bin Laden . Do we have any idea how involved he may have been in this plot?

    Mr. CRESSEY: Well, most people in the government believe bin Laden still plays a significant role. He looks at potential plots. He blesses them, he provides strategic guidance. He's not involved in the day-to-day operational activity. So if this is an al-Qaeda central plot, it confirms something we've feared for a long time, which is al-Qaeda still aspires to attack the West . We didn't know if they had the capability. If this plot truly is real, then we now know they are still in control of the capability to do so.

    VIEIRA: Well, how concerned should we be that they may come after us here in this country?

    Mr. CRESSEY: I don't think this plot, Meredith , is related to the United States . Right now, US counterterrorism officials believe it's focused purely on Europe. But out of an abundance of caution and due diligence, they're looking at any threat reporting that might pertain to the United States .

    VIEIRA: Well, should Americans...

    Mr. CRESSEY: Bottom line is...

    VIEIRA: Oh, go ahead. I'm sorry. Go ahead, Roger.

    Mr. CRESSEY: I was going to say the bottom line is that this is one that is European-focused for now.

    VIEIRA: And should Americans be concerned about going abroad at this point?

    Mr. CRESSEY: No, not at all.

    VIEIRA: OK.

    Mr. CRESSEY: Not at all. We should travel. Always.

    VIEIRA: I want to talk to the attempted bombing here in Times Square that occurred on May 1st . Federal prosecutors -- federal prosecutors have just released a video showing what that bomb could have done if it had gone off, and we're also learning new details about what Faisal Shahzad told authorities. What are they hearing?

    Mr. CRESSEY: Yeah. So what's significant in this report is that Shahzad planned to do additional bombings. He was going to go back into the city; he was going to continue to conduct attacks until he was caught or killed. That is -- that is news. But what that video also demonstrates is that if Shahzad had been a little smarter and a little more talented, he could have successfully detonated that bomb and killed dozens. So this was a real significant plot, and Shahzad was a very significant operative.

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