NBC News and news services
updated 10/4/2010 7:16:38 PM ET 2010-10-04T23:16:38

Japan issued a travel alert for Europe on Monday, joining the United States and Britain in warning of a possible terrorist attack by al-Qaida or other groups.

Security officials say terrorists may be plotting attacks in Europe with assault weapons on public places, similar to the deadly 2008 shooting spree in Mumbai, India, that killed 166 people, and they urged travelers to be vigilant.

In Washington, U.S. officials said Osama bin Laden and the top al-Qaida leadership were likely behind the plot, adding that the decision to issue the alert was based on an accumulation of information, rather than a specific new revelation.

The U.S. State Department travel alert said public transportation systems and other tourism-related facilities could be targets, noting that past attacks had struck rail, airline and boat services.

'We're not saying don't travel'
The U.S. alert falls short of a more severe one in which the State Department might have warned citizens against traveling to Europe. Instead, the alert urges them to take precautions when they do travel.

"We're not saying don't travel to Europe. We are not saying don't visit ... major tourist attractions or historic sites or monuments," Patrick Kennedy, undersecretary of state, told reporters on a conference call.

"We have a gradation of travel alerts," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Monday. "We have specifically said continue with your travel plans, but be cautious because we are aware of active plots against the United States and allies."

According to an intelligence bulletin obtained by The Associated Press, the FBI and Homeland Security say they have no indication that terrorists are targeting the U.S. or its citizens in particular as part of the new threat against Europe.

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On Monday, French authorities arrested a man in his 50s who is suspected of several bomb threats in Paris, including one at a railway hub, a police official said. The man, who was not identified, was detained southwest of the capital on suspicions of links to a phoned-in threat at the Saint-Lazare train station.

French authorities have recorded nine bomb alerts in the capital last month, including at the Eiffel Tower — a threefold increase from a year earlier. No explosives were found.

Amid increased security in Paris, 61 soldiers from an Alpine regiment were deployed over the weekend at two sites in Paris, Notre Dame Cathedral and the Sacre-Coeur Basilica, the joint staff of the Paris defense zone said.

Britain has raised the terrorism threat level in its advice for citizens traveling to Germany and France to "high" from "general." It left the threat level at home unchanged at "severe," meaning an attack is highly likely, and said it agreed with the U.S. assessment for the continent as a whole.

Video: Terror attacks may be ‘impossible to thwart’ (on this page)

In Rome, speaking on state-run RAI TV, Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said the U.S. alarm about the potential for a terror attack in Europe was "realistic" for Italy because it has troops in Afghanistan. Frattini said there were no specific Italian targets.

Con Coughlin, terrorism expert and executive foreign editor for Britain's Daily Telegraph newspaper, said on NBC's TODAY show Monday that a Mumbai-style attack would be difficult to stop.

"It's impossible to prevent these attacks if you've got these low-intensity terror cells that just want to pick up a gun and start shooting people," he said.

Coughlin also emphasized that travelers should be careful but realistic.

"We can't let the terrorists dictate our lives, and people need to get on with their plans and just be a lot more vigilant," he said.

European authorities tightened security in the wake of the weekend's warnings. However, the German government played down the threat on Monday, saying there were no immediate signs of a plot against Germany.

"There is no reason whatsoever to be alarmist at the moment," Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere told reporters.

Former U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff urged Americans in Europe to take commonsense precautions.

"Don't walk around with the American flag on your back," Chertoff told ABC's "Good Morning America." "(Consider) where would you take shelter if something happened."

Vacations plans unchanged
Business travelers and tourists arriving at Paris' Charles de Gaulle airport from the United States on Monday said they were aware of the new warnings from authorities but weren't changing their plans.

"I'm very happy to be here in France. I think we're very safe, and I trust the French government to keep us safe," said James O'Connell, a 59-year-old from Pittsburgh, arriving in Paris for a 7-day vacation.

Karen Bilh, a 39-year-old traveler from Cincinnati, arrived Monday in Paris for a vacation. "We'll pay extra caution and if there's terror threats, we'll listen to police in the area. We're excited about the trip," she said.

Travelers taking the Eurostar trains between London and Paris were similarly determined not to let the warnings disrupt their plans.

Jennifer D'Antoni, who owns a retail clothing store in Britain, was in Paris to celebrate her birthday.

"I had a wonderful time and I'll come back again. In fact, I wish I was here for another day because I didn't get to see everything. We are just going to be a bit more cautious getting on the train," she said.

The last successful large-scale militant attacks in Europe were 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.

The Associated Press, Reuters, msnbc.com staff contributed to this report.

Video: Vague terror warnings lead to tightened security

  1. Transcript of: Vague terror warnings lead to tightened security

    WILLIAMS: Good evening.

    BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor: The US State Department has issued a formal travel advisory for all Americans traveling to Europe. It says to be vigilant, be aware of your surroundings, be aware of the possibility of commando-style attacks, for example. Beyond that, beyond being on the lookout, being cautious, there isn't much to tell the thousands of Americans who make that trip every day. And in this still fairly new post-9/11 era, that's often all there is: snippets of intelligence, reports, so-called chatter and occasional alerts like this one. We have it all covered tonight from here to London , beginning with our chief foreign affairs correspondent Andrea Mitchell . Andrea , good evening.

    ANDREA MITCHELL reporting: Good evening, Brian . This travel alert is based on information that intelligence agencies around the world have been collecting for weeks about possible terror attacks in Europe , but they don't have any specifics about time or place. And that left US officials trying to balance just how to advise travelers to be cautious without causing panic. In Paris today Americans like the New York Knicks , practicing for a preseason game against the Minnesota Timberwolves this week, are not being warned against going to Europe , just to be careful in places like train stations and airports.

    Mr. AMAR'E STOUDEMIRE (Knicks Forward): We know where to go and places to visit. And, again, you have to cherish the moment because how often do you get a chance to place an NBA game in Paris ? So we got to make sure we enjoy it and have fun.

    MITCHELL: Officials tell NBC News the alert is based on many streams of information, including a prisoner the US has been interrogating in Afghanistan , and intercepted conversations indicating Europeans trained in Pakistan may have now gone underground in Europe. With so little to go on, the government's advice?

    Mr. ERIC HOLDER (Attorney General): When using mass transit to be cautious. When in marketplaces to use caution, perhaps to avoid political demonstration, things of that nature.

    Unidentified Man:

    MITCHELL: Japan also issued a travel alert today, an unusual step for their government, telling Japanese tourists to be careful in Europe following the US lead.

    Mr. MICHELLE BERNIER-TOTH (State Department Official): We have information that al-Qaeda and its affiliate organizations are planning something and, again, people should be very careful.

    MITCHELL: US officials say several of the plots originated in Pakistan , where the US has stepped up its Predator unmanned attacks on terror camps in the tribal region where Osama bin Laden is believed to be hiding, including another strike today that Pakistani officials say killed a number of Germans training with the militants.

    Mr. MICHAEL SHEEHAN (NBC News Terrorism Analyst): They're feeling the heat. They're probably looking to their foot soldiers to respond. They're probably cranking up the level of activity.

    MITCHELL: Still, tonight US officials say they are not telling Americans to stay out of Europe , and tightened security probably makes the Eiffel Tower the safest place in Paris . Andrea Mitchell , NBC News, Washington.

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