Those Who Would Choose Security Over Disneyland Paris, Deserve Neither

It’s all still rather sketchy, but US and British authorities have warned of the “imminent” terror threat of a Mumbai-style attack on Europe in multiple places, possibly on the UK, Germany, France and Sweden. This information was apparently based on wiretaps and the interrogation at the controversial Bagram base in Afghanistan of German-Pakistani Islamist Ahmad Sidiqi. The threat is apparently quite serious because President Barack Obama himself has had several meetings about it over the weekend. According to the State Department the US has been having “intensive discussions with allies,” including at the “head of state, head of government level.”

This follows several terror threats in France since mid-September. Last month, Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux cited a “real” threat on French soil while French intelligence officials talked of an “imminent threat”. There was even an evacuation of the Eiffel Tower and a Paris metro station because of a false bomb threat. Terrorism against France in particular is linked to military operations against Islamist groups in the Sahel region of West Africa who have been kidnapping of French nationals in recent months (including the murder of one).

Did State Advise Use of Canada Flags for U.S. Tourists?

The non-specificity of these threats has led to some rather awkward attempts to communicate them to the public. On October 3, the US State Department issued at a blanket Travel Alert to all Americans travelling or living in Europe. It includes:

  • “The State Department alerts U.S. citizens of the potential for terrorist attacks in Europe.”
  • “Current information suggests that Al-Qa’ida and affiliated organizations continue to plan terrorist attacks.”
  • “Terrorists may elect to use a variety of means and weapons and target both official and private interests.”
  • There is “potential for terrorists to attack public transportation systems and other tourist infrastructure” and “[t]errorists have targeted and attacked subway and rail systems, as well as aviation and maritime services.”
  • “U.S. citizens should take every precaution to be aware of their surroundings and to adopt appropriate safety measures to protect themselves when travelling.”

Nothing specific on country, cities, location, organizations or anything, but at least it is a useful display of State’s mastery of the obvious.

To make matters worse, according to EUObserver, senior State Department official Patrick Kennedy “advised US travellers to register their whereabouts with US consulates, to avoid putting US stickers on their bags and to ensure that people do not overhear their conversations about holiday plans.” Well, time to get your old Canadian flag sticker out and better not let Uncle Osama hear about your trip to Disneyland Paris. “Loose lips sink ships,” and whatnot. Kennedy added, “We’re not saying don’t travel to Europe. We’re not saying don’t visit tourist, major tourist attractions or historic sites or monuments”. All clear? Good.

Meanwhile, The Independent was upset with the US action calling the alert “an unhelpful overreaction and a kick in the teeth for the European tourist industry.” This was because there was nothing in intelligence reports that “suggested US citizens were a specific target” and “the fact that no arrests were made after the report was leaked indicates how nebulous and undeveloped [and, presumably, information of] these plots must be.” The State Department has since made clear that American travel plans should continue and the threat to Europe does not directly concern Americans or the U.S.

The Threat-Down

These latest developments have of course led to changes, or not, as to the respective color-coded “threat levels” of various countries. The US domestic terror threat level remains at “yellow” or “elevated”, a position it has rarely wavered from since March 2002. It also remains at “orange” or “high” (“high” obviously being worse than “elevated”) for domestic and international flights, this hasn’t changed since August 2006. There are no changes specific to European flights or being in Europe.

The UK, in contrast, has upgraded the threat in German and France from “general” to “high” while the domestic threat remains “severe”. The Independent notes that the British Foreign Office’s advice is “even more misguided [than the U.S.], since the UK is surely just as much a target as France or Germany.” In fact, if “severe” sounds worse than “high”, probably Brits should make plans to see to go the continent for some croissants or sauerkraut. Belgium and Germany have not changed their respective threat levels.

As for me, as I passed through the metal detectors of the European Parliament, I decided to set my personal terror threat level to mauve which means no falafel or kebabs until things settle down.

Very Fine Print: This little bit of black humour may look a little heartless if there is an attack. I am not making fun of counter-terror efforts, but merely of the fact that the information that is provided to the public remains as confusing as ever, probably to the point of being counter-productive.

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