Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said Wednesday that one of the biggest threats to U.S. security may now come from Europe.
In an interview with the British Broadcasting Corp., Chertoff said that U.S. authorities were becoming increasingly aware that Europe could become what he called a "platform for terrorists." His comments follow reports that an al-Qaida cell has been established inside Britain.
In the interview, Chertoff talked about the importance of close links between Europe and the United States, but he said he has concerns about that interaction.
Chertoff said a visa-waiver program allows most Europeans who come to the U.S. to travel without a visa, giving authorities a small window of opportunity to check them upon arrival.
He said he's also concerned about the acts of home-grown terrorism in Europe.
"We're obviously mindful of the Madrid bombings, the attempted bombings in Germany, and that suggests to us that the terrorists are increasingly looking to Europe — both as a target and as a platform for terrorist attacks," Chertoff said.
Visa Waivers Cause Concern
The visa-waiver program, which applies to 27 countries, presents the U.S. and European governments with a problem. Any measures targeting those of certain ethnic or religious background would be controversial, and Chertoff reassured that that was not the plan.
"We have no interest or intention to shut down the visa-waiver program. To the contrary, the president argues and we fought very hard to expand the program," Chertoff said.
The secretary said the administration wants to implement an advanced travel authorization program that would allow online registration for travelers to the U.S. Such a program would allow U.S. authorities to clear those visitors in advance without a huge inconvenience.
Al-Qaida Cells Alleged in Britain
Chertoff's comments came on the same day that British intelligence officials revealed they were studying a message on a militant Islamist Web site that said a new branch of al-Qaida has been set up in Britain.
Some security sources have dismissed the Internet posting as typical militant "background noise."
Peter Neumann, director of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence at King's College London, doubts that such postings mean that al-Qaida cells are in Britain.
"They are a call to arms, and the people who publish them hope that people are radicalized, hope to feel inspired, and are actually taking up arms and are heeding that call. It doesn't mean, I think, that there is an actual structure in place, that there are cells operating in place in this country. That would surprise me very much," Neumann said.
But Pauline Neville-Jones, shadow security minister for the opposition Conservative Party and a former head of Britain's Joint Intelligence Committee, said the possibility of al-Qaida cells in Britain is not something that should be ignored.
"Even if it doesn't represent a burgeoning organization, let alone fully fledged, it does represent a move in the propaganda game, and we shouldn't ignore it. This is an ideological struggle, after all, and this is, after all, just the kind of thing that might motivate those who are tempted to join," she said.
British Home Secretary Jacqui Smith is outlining plans on Thursday to clamp down on radical Web sites. The British government will provide more than $1.2 billion to fund security and counterterrorism measures over the next three years.