Video: U.S. prepares to issue new travel caution

  1. Transcript of: U.S. prepares to issue new travel caution

    LESTER HOLT, anchor: This has been an anxious couple of weeks for counterterrorism officials on both sides of the Atlantic amid gathering signs that al-Qaeda may be planning to attack targets in Western Europe . And now, a day after another Osama bin Laden audio message, NBC News has learned that US officials may issue a precautionary alert for Americans traveling to Europe as early as tomorrow. Intelligence agencies are said to be hearing increased talk among terror networks suggesting attack plans are in the works. But absent hard information about the nature, timing and location, American officials have apparently decided to stop short of taking the more serious step of issuing a travel warning. Let's get the very latest now from London and NBC 's Tazeen Ahmad .

    TAZEEN AHMAD reporting: Paris was on high alert this week. The instruction to Americans to be vigilant overseas, which has not yet been issued, will follow two evacuations of the Eiffel Tower in the past two weeks, bomb threats on trains and at subway stations, and German intelligence warnings al-Qaeda could be preparing Mumbai -style terror attacks in major European cities . NBC learned this week there's also been a great deal of chatter, e-mail and phone conversations about a possible imminent attack. According to the Associated Press , the language in the US alert is expected to be vague. It won't address a specific country or specific landmarks. But possible targets include Europe 's main tourist sites, as well as airports, trains and other public transportation hubs. Counterterrorism officials here believe bin Laden himself is behind this latest plot, and in the last 24 hours there have been two new bin Laden audiotapes, although he doesn't make any specific threats. The alert is not meant to keep Americans at home, officials say, but it could have a real impact on Europe 's tourism industry. Tazeen Ahmad , NBC

Image: French policemen stand guard at Airport Roissy Charles de Gaulle
Franck Prevel  /  Getty Images Contributor
French policemen stand guard Saturday at Airport Roissy Charles de Gaulle in Paris, France. Western intelligence agencies have uncovered an Al-Qaeda plot to launch attacks in Britain, France and Germany by extremists based in Pakistan, security sources and media reports have said.
NBC News and news services
updated 10/2/2010 8:47:31 PM ET 2010-10-03T00:47:31

The U.S. State Department on Sunday will issue a travel "alert" urging American citizens to be vigilant as they travel in Europe, government officials told NBC News on Saturday.

The alert is due to new al-Qaida threats although officials have not identified specific targets that terrorists might be considering, NBC News said.

Senior U.S. diplomats who report to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met in Washington Saturday today to discuss the wording, The Sunday Telegraph of London reported.

Such a move could have significant implications for European tourism.

Vote: Would a travel alert keep you from going to Europe?

The alert is expected to advise U.S. travelers to deploy extra caution when visiting tourist destinations, transport hubs and other likely terror targets, The Sunday Telegraph said.

The State Department is not expected to issue a warning advising Americans against travel to Europe, the newspaper said. However, officials from Britain and other major European countries have been briefed on the alert, it said.

"This travel alert is a cumulative result of information we have received over an extended period," one senior administration official said. "We are constantly monitoring a range of threat streams and have monitored this and others for some time."

State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley declined to comment on the matter. But he told The Associated Press the administration remains focused on al-Qaida threats to U.S. interests and will take appropriate steps to protect Americans.

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A European official briefed on the talks said the language in the U.S. alert is expected to be vague. It won't address a specific country or specific landmarks, the official said.

Officials have called the threat credible but not specific.

The U.S. has told European leaders that the State Department alert would be intended to raise the warning level to match the information about the would-be attack that surfaced last week, a European official said.

The European official said there had not been strong opposition to the proposed alert from European leaders.

On Friday, Sweden announced it raised its threat alert to the highest level ever because of an increased threat of terror attacks. But Swedish security officials said there did not appear to be an immediate threat, nor did they cite any possible targets. In Britain, the security level stood at "severe" — the second highest in a five-step scale — and there were no plans of raising it further, according to a British security official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

Behind plots: Al-Qaida
Intelligence officials believe Osama bin Laden is behind the terror plots to attack several European cities. If this is true, this would be the most operational role that bin Laden has played in plotting attacks since Sept. 11, 2001.

Eight Germans and two British brothers are at the heart of an al-Qaida-linked terror plot against European cities, but the plan is still in its early stages, with the suspects calling acquaintances in Europe to plan logistics, a Pakistani intelligence official said Thursday.

One of the Britons died in a recent CIA missile strike, he said. The Pakistani official said the suspects are hiding in North Waziristan, a Pakistani tribal region where militancy is rife and where the U.S. has focused many of its drone-fired missile strikes.

"We remain focused on al-Qaida's interest in attacking us and attacking our allies," Crowley said. "We will do everything possible to thwart them and will take steps as appropriate."

The Pentagon declined to say Saturday whether it had increased security levels at any of its European bases.

The implications of a blanket "travel warning" instead of an alert would be big. There are hundreds of thousands of Americans in Europe at any one time, including tourists, students and businesspeople.

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While the government cannot stop people from traveling there or force them to return home, a warning would result in canceled airline and hotel bookings as well as deter non-U.S. travelers from going to Europe. In addition, many U.S. college and university study-abroad programs will not send students to countries for which a warning is in place for insurance and liability reasons.

For that reason, officials said, there was internal debate over how strong to make the warning. The State Department has several grades of travel notice, ranging from low-threat advisories to more severe alerts and a formal "travel warning." There is also a "worldwide caution" in place that warns Americans of ongoing global terrorist threats.

Vote: Would a travel alert keep you from going to Europe?

Some U.S. allies in Europe have expressed concern about the proposed warning, saying it is an overreaction to the threat information, a position shared by some in the administration, the officials said.

Under a "no double standard" rule adopted after the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, the government is obliged to share threat information that it has given diplomats and other officials with the general public.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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