Japan, Sweden Issue European Terrorism Alert

Japan and Sweden have now joined the U.S. and Britain in warning citizens about a possible terrorist attack in Europe. NPR's Mary Louise Kelly talks to Ambassador Daniel Benjamin, the coordinator of counterterrorism for the U.S. State Department, about the travel alert.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:

And Im Mary Louise Kelly.

Japan is now the latest nation to join the U.S. and Britain in warning citizens about a possible terror attack in Europe. Over the weekend, the State Department issued an unusual travel alert, sighting heightened threat conditions in Europe and urging Americans to take precautions. No specific countries were mentioned, nor any specific target.

I spoke with Ambassador-at-Large Daniel Benjamin. He is the State Department's point man on counterterrorism and he told me the alert is the result not of one specific threat but an accumulation of intelligence over the last few months.

Ambassador DANIEL BENJAMIN (Counterterrorism Coordinator, U.S. State Department): We're all aware of the fact that there is a certain amount of plotting going on at all times. And there's also a certain amount of what you call chatter going on at all times.

But this is based upon the judgment of the professionals that the information looks credible, that it's corroborated by other bits of information, that is we're not just going up a tree on the basis of something here or something there, but that we see a sufficient amount of material that suggests that the situation is, at least at this point, more serious than it had been in the recent past.

KELLY: There are reports that some of the information you may be acting on came from a German man. This is a man named Ahmed Sadiki who had travelled to Pakistan and allegedly received weapons training. Can you tell us anything about him or confirm whether his information has in fact played a role?

Amb. BENJAMIN: I really can't comment on intelligence matters. I'm sorry.

KELLY: And may I ask, we've seen some early reports out today about a U.S. missile strike killing five German citizens in Pakistan. Any connection there?

Amb. BENJAMIN: Again, this is the sort of thing that, as you know, we just don't comment on.

KELLY: Ambassador Benjamin, broadly speaking, I mean, there has been some criticism of the decision to issue this alert, as I'm sure you know, in part because it is so vague. It's not a specific country. It's the whole continent and there's no specific target information. What purpose does it serve to issue an alert that is so vaguely worded?

Amb. BENJAMIN: Well, obviously, if we had more specifics, we would be more specific. And I would point out that this is in keeping with a tradition of warning. I should say not warning but alerts from the State Department. The key thing here is that we're letting Americans know that it's - that there is a higher chance, perhaps, of an attack somewhere in Europe and that they should modify their behavior accordingly.

I want to emphasize, we're not telling people not to travel. I'm actually travelling to Europe very soon. General Jones, I believe, is there right now, the national security adviser. The secretary of state will be travelling. Lots of people are going to Europe.

This is not about deterring people from traveling. But it is suggesting that they take some precautions, some safety measures when they're there. For example, that they don't spend an awful lot of time in very crowded places associated, for example, with transportation.

KELLY: That's hard, though, for a traveler to Europe. I mean, crowded places associated with transportation would include airports, train stations. I mean, if people are there, they got to get around.

Amb. BENJAMIN: Well, they do have to get around. We're just suggesting that perhaps they shouldn't linger. I'll be going through airports as well, so I'm perfectly aware of the situation here.

But nonetheless, you know, people are focused and thinking more about the environment they're in then we hope they'll be a little more expeditious and get on with their business and, you know, focus on the environment.

KELLY: It must be such a fine line that I know you're trying to tread between raising awareness about a potential threat and spooking people and sowing panic.

Amb. BENJAMIN: I think that's well put. We certainly don't want to cause anyone to panic. That's, you know, wholly counterproductive. But at the same time, remember, we as a government feel that we have an obligation to the American people to let them know when we are in conditions like this. And we would be derelict if we didn't do that. So, yes, whenever the government does this it's walking a fine line. But again, we strongly feel that this is the appropriate thing to do right now.

KELLY: Okay. Thanks very much.

Amb. BENJAMIN: Sure.

KELLY: That's Ambassador Daniel Benjamin. He's the coordinator for counterterrorism at the State Department.

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