State Department Issues Travel Alert To Europe

The alert does not advise against travel, but warns Americans to be extra vigilant — especially around transportation centers. The move comes after reports that militant groups in Pakistan might be planning to send gunmen to attack targets in a number of European cities. The reports and the U.S. alert have offered the public little specific information.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.

The United States issued a travel alert over the weekend for Americans traveling to Europe. Now, this alert does not advise against going, but it warns Americans to be vigilant, especially around transport centers. This move comes after reports that militant groups based in Pakistan might be planning to send gunmen to attack targets in a number of European cities.

These reports and the American alert have offered the public little specific information. But we're going to talk about what is known with NPR's Eric Westervelt. He's in Berlin.

Hi, Eric.

ERIC WESTERVELT: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What is this alert based on?

WESTERVELT: Well, Steve, first, it's a step below an outright warning against traveling to Europe, but they're asking people to take some extra care. And it's believed to be based on recent intelligence that Islamist militants with European citizenship and passports who - they think are in the tribal areas, in Northwest Pakistan and the Afghan border region - may be planning attacks across European cities.

NPR has confirmed the sort of outlines of the threat, but officials I and my colleagues have talked with stressed that, you know, there was nothing believed to be imminent and that this plot, such as it is, is really in the early planning stages when intelligence officials found out about it. The fear, Steve, is that militants affiliated - loosely, perhaps - with al-Qaida are moving away from large-scale bombings and those kind of tactics, and may emulate the tactics of the Mumbai, India commando-style attack two years ago, in which small teams of heavily armed militants used hand grenades and automatic rifles with deadly effect. And they went against these so-called soft targets, such as hotels and a train station. You know, it worked there, and there's fear militants will try to emulate that tactic in European cities.

INSKEEP: Well, this warning comes from the United States. How nervous, if at all, are Europeans?

WESTERVELT: Well, I think they've taken it with a bit of a shrug, frankly, Steve. I mean, this alert is not top news in Europe this morning. People are going about their business. Big public events are going off as planned, as scheduled. It's the last day of Oktoberfest in Munich, for example. The NBA is continuing events in pre-season games across several European cities, so no real big impact at all so far.

INSKEEP: Have European intelligence agencies or security agencies increased their threat levels for people?

WESTERVELT: No. French and German security officials say, you know, they understand the reasons for the U.S.-American travel alert. But, you know, they don't have any plans at this time, they say, you know, to raise their alert levels. Britain's Home Secretary, Theresa May, on Sunday, said the State Department's decision to change its advice for Europe was quote, "consistent with our assessments." But Britain kept its domestic threat level unchanged, while warning its citizens of a heighten risk in France and Germany.

INSKEEP: Well, Eric Westervelt in Berlin, you go to airports a lot and train stations a lot across Europe. It's your job. What are you doing to do differently, if anything?

WESTERVELT: Well, that's the frustration, I think, for me and many Americans either living in Europe or traveling here. I mean, this alert is vague. It offers the advice to, you know, be aware of your surroundings and transit and tourists areas and to quote "adopt appropriate safety measures." Well, you know, what does that really mean?

I mean, the idea, they say, is that an alert public could help prevent or head off an attack, but this alert covers such a wide area, Steve, all of Europe, and offers almost no specific information that you really wonder how useful it is at all.

INSKEEP: Is there any indication that it's actually scaring people away from traveling at all, even though it is not specifically a warning against travel?

WESTERVELT: There's no indication of that so far. I mean, people have to take trains, planes and subways. And I think the vagueness and frustration of this alert underscores the dilemma governments and security agencies face in trying to determine, you know, just how much information on potential risks and attacks to make public. And they keep emphasizing that this threat in Europe, Steve, is credible, but not specific. So you end up getting alerts like this.

INSKEEP: And I suppose there's certainly been a debate in the United States over what to do when some information about a possible attack is known in advance. If there was an attack and if it turned out the U.S. had some information and didn't warn people, we might be asking why they didn't warn people.

WESTERVELT: That's right. Governments, you know, want to give as much warning as they can to the public, yet they also don't want to tip their hand on intelligence tactics and what they know, and so you get incidents like this.

INSKEEP: NPR's Eric Westervelt is in Berlin.

Eric, travel safely.

WESTERVELT: Thanks, Steve.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.