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A policeman signals Thursday that a road in central London is closed after a suspect vehicle was abandoned near Downing Street. A terrorist plot to launch Mumbai-style attacks on Britain and other European countries has been intercepted by intelligence agencies.
Intelligence officials and people familiar with an unfolding terrorist plot to target Europe tell NPR that Osama bin Laden is involved.
Several months ago, sources say, bin Laden used couriers to send a message to al-Qaida's affiliates and partners: He told them that he would like to see a Mumbai-style attack on at least three strategic targets — the United Kingdom, Germany and France.
Osama bin Laden's directive is meaningful because it suggests that the core leadership of al-Qaida still has influence over its followers and that the group has added a new style of attack to its repertoire.
In Mumbai, India, in 2008, 10 heavily armed gunmen took over hotels and opened fire in a crowded train station. They were able to bring the Indian financial capital to a standstill for three days. More than 150 people were killed and more than 300 were injured.
While the details of the new plots are unclear, it appears gunmen planned to open fire in European tourist centers and take over hotels in much the same way.
America Also Targeted?
Al-Qaida hasn't, until now, ever ordered an attack carried out by gunmen. What's more, intelligence sources say, they believe bin Laden also called on affiliates to target the United States.
U.S. officials are trying to confirm that now.
"We know that Osama bin Laden issued the directive," said an official familiar with the intelligence surrounding the plot. "And if he issued the directive, we just don't believe that the U.S. wouldn't be on his short list of strategic targets. It has to be."
Sources confirm that the initial intelligence about the attacks came from a German national named Ahmad Siddiqui, who is now being held at Bagram Air Base in Kabul, Afghanistan.
Siddiqui had been flagged as someone of interest to counterterrorism officials. He allegedly knew Mohamed Atta, one of the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackers, in Germany and worshipped at the same mosque.
Links To Pakistan
Officials say Siddiqui is a member of an al-Qaida affiliate called the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. They say Siddiqui told them that he trained in Pakistan and was given sanctuary by a Pakistani group called the Haqqani network while he was there.
The Haqqani network is a group based in Pakistan with close ties to the Taliban and, by extension, al-Qaida. Its members are considered well-trained and battle-tested.
The network has been behind a number of successful attacks against U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan. The group took at least partial credit for the attack last December on CIA officials in Khost, Afghanistan, killing seven of the agency's operatives, including some of its top experts on al-Qaida.
U.S. drone attacks in the border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan have been targeting Haqqani members.
"If Siddiqui is with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and he was going to help carry out Mumbai-style attacks, that's a big deal," one official familiar with the investigation said. "This would mark the first time that IMU has launched something internationally. And if the Haqqani network is involved? That would be a departure for them, too."
The Associated Press reported Thursday that eight Germans and two British men are thought to be behind the plot. One of the British brothers is believed to have been killed in a recent airstrike in North Waziristan, the Pakistan border region near Afghanistan.
The concern is now what counterterrorism officials don't know, and information is sketchy.
There is some confusion about whether there is a plot to strike the U.S.
Some intelligence officials say they believe some of the people who were supposed to take part in the shootings are already in Europe.
In some cases the officials have names of possible suspects; in others they have only physical descriptions or nationalities. Officials also worry that other members of the commando-style terrorist teams could be traveling to the West under European passports, which would make them more difficult to find and harder to stop.
A manhunt of sorts is under way in Europe, the U.S. and Pakistan.