Image: French soldiers patrol around the Louvre museum in Paris
Laurent Cipriani  /  AP
French soldiers patrol around the Louvre museum in Paris on Sunday. A U.S. travel alert was general in nature and not intended to focus on any specific country, location or tourist sites.
updated 10/3/2010 12:31:55 PM ET 2010-10-03T16:31:55

The Obama administration on Sunday warned Americans of potential terrorist threats in Europe and urged them to be vigilant in public places, including tourist spots and transportation hubs.

A State Department travel alert advises U.S. citizens living or traveling in Europe to take more precautions about their personal security. The alert is one step below a formal travel warning advising Americans not to visit Europe.

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

"Current information suggests that al-Qaida and affiliated organizations continue to plan terrorist attacks," it said. "European governments have taken action to guard against a terrorist attack and some have spoken publicly about the heightened threat conditions."

It noted in particular "the potential for terrorists to attack public transportation systems and other tourist infrastructure."

"U.S. citizens should take every precaution to be aware of their surroundings and to adopt appropriate safety measures to protect themselves when traveling," the department said.

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Britain's Foreign Office upgraded its travel advice for France and Germany, warning Britons going to those countries that the threat of terrorism there is high. Before Sunday's change, the government's travel advice for France and Germany was that the threat from terror attacks there was "general." Gemany's Interior Ministry said it saw no need to change its assessment of risks to the country and there were "still no concrete indications of imminent attacks" there. France's interior minister said the threat of a terrorist attack is real but that the country is not raising its alert level.

Britain's Home Secretary Theresa May said that the threat of terrorism in the U.K. remains unchanged at "severe," meaning an attack is highly likely.

'Could hit us at any moment'
U.S. and European security experts have been concerned for days that terrorists may be plotting attacks in Europe with assault weapons on public places, similar to the deadly 2008 shooting spree in Mumbai, India.

"The terrorist threat exists, and could hit us at any moment," the French defense minister, Herve Morin, said in an interview published Sunday. "Networks organizing themselves to prepare attacks are constantly being dismantled around the world. It is good for the French to know this," he was quoted as saying in the daily Le Parisien.

The U.S. notice said terrorists "may elect to use a variety of means and weapons and target both official and private interests" and noted past attacks against subways, rail systems and aviation and maritime services.

"U.S. citizens should take every precaution to be aware of their surroundings and to adopt appropriate safety measures to protect themselves when traveling," according to the alert.

The alert fell short of a formal travel warning, which could have broader implications including a stronger likelihood of canceled airline and hotel bookings, and wasn't intended to urge travelers to stay away from public places. Europeans and some members of the Obama administration had viewed that as an overreaction.

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Hurt tourism?
The alert could hurt European tourism and affect business travel. But there hadn't been strong opposition to the proposed alert from European leaders, who privately have been advised of the impending action, a European official said.

There are hundreds of thousands of Americans in Europe at any one time, including tourists, students and businesspeople. For insurance and liability reasons, many U.S. college and university study-abroad programs will not send students to countries for where a warning is in effect.

U.S.. intelligence officials believe Osama bin Laden is behind the terror plots to attack several European cities. If 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.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Threat of attack triggers caution for travelers

  1. Transcript of: Threat of attack triggers caution for travelers

    LESTER HOLT, anchor: We start tonight with that travel alert issued earlier today cautioning Americans to exercise increased vigilance while traveling in Western Europe . As we reported here last night, the State Department is reacting to intelligence reports that al-Qaeda may be planning attacks against tourist spots and transportation hubs in Europe. Security across the continent has been ratcheted up in recent days, but the lack of specifics, including which countries are at risk, is potentially frustrating to the thousands of Americans who make the journey to Europe each day. We get the latest now from NBC 's Tazeen Ahmad in London .

    TAZEEN AHMAD reporting: Tonight, the threat of terrorism looms across Europe. The State Department has alerted Americans to the "potential for terrorist attacks " by " al-Qaeda and affiliated organizations."

    MICHAEL ISIKOFF reporting: I've been told by senior counterterrorism officials that this is among the most significant plots that they have seen in quite some time. They believe that the plot has already begun.

    AHMAD: In spite of the alert, many Americans are continuing with their travel plans.

    Unidentified Woman: I don't worry about these things. I don't think we should be in a fear-based society.

    Unidentified Man: You know, alerts come and go. I live over there, so I have to go back.

    AHMAD: Today's alert comes after a week in which a number of plots came to light. German intelligence said jihadis were planning coordinated Mumbai -style attacks in several European cities on direct orders from Osama bin Laden . In France , officials believe a female suicide bomber was about to strike the Paris metro system. The subway and commuter trains came to a standstill. The Eiffel Tower was evacuated twice. NBC has also learned there is an increased level of so-called chatter, phone calls, e-mails and coded messages similar to those intercepted before previous terror attacks. And then this weekend bin Laden himself resurfaced in two audio recordings. But instead of talking about attacking the West , he spoke about climate change and aid for flood victims in Pakistan .

    ISIKOFF: It's almost as if bin Laden is going positive on the airwaves at the same time he's instructed a deadly plot take place against targets in Europe.

    AHMAD: Here in the UK , security services say they thwarted an attack that they describe as being in the early stages of planning. Today the British government has also upgraded its travel advice to Europe. No longer a general threat of attack , the British are now saying there is a high threat. Across Europe , officials have tightened security. France raised its terror threat level to red, the second highest level for the country. In Sweden , the government raised its alert to the highest it's ever been. There are no known threats against American cities . But experts warn everyone should be on alert. The threats are not specific, but officials say they


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