The U.S. warned Americans traveling in Europe to be vigilant following weeks of discussion within the Obama administration about threats of an attack by an al- Qaeda-affiliated terrorist group, officials said.
The advisory isn’t related to threats against the U.S. and is intended to raise awareness among Americans traveling or living in Europe , White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said today.
The alert “is based on information about potential threats in Europe,” Gibbs said. “We certainly know that al-Qaeda and its affiliates seek to do us harm” and “we remain vigilant.”
Gibbs and State Department spokesman Philip J. Crowley said the government isn’t advising Americans to cancel travel plans.
The State Department issued an alert rather than a higher level “travel warning” for the continent. A warning would have cautioned Americans to avoid Europe, their most popular foreign travel destination, with the potential for a much larger impact on airlines and hotels. Twelve million Americans traveled to Europe last year, spending more than $20 billion, according to Commerce Department data.
Impact on Airlines
“There may be a little dip in bookings, especially on the leisure side,” Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition in Radnor, Pennsylvania, said in an interview after the alert was issued. “All bets are off if the threat is more specific or, God forbid, something happens.”
The Bloomberg U.S. Airlines Index of 11 carriers dropped 2.6 percent at 2:20 p.m. New York time..
The State Department has been monitoring the threats in Europe for weeks and made the decision to issue the advisory this weekend based on the “cumulative effect of all types of information” it had, Undersecretary of State Patrick Kennedy told reporters.
Terrorists often target tourist attractions, subways and rail systems, and travelers should “take every precaution” to protect themselves, the alert said. French police have evacuated the Eiffel Tower in Paris twice in the past three weeks because of threats.
The U.S. is “not, not, not” advising Americans to delay or cancel visits to Europe, Kennedy said. Instead they should take “common-sense precautions,” and also register with the consular offices in countries they visit. The alert is set to expire at the end of January.
‘Business as Usual’
U.S. airlines “are operating their business as usual, with the same continued security vigilance in the interest of safe travel,” David Castelveter, a spokesman for the Air Transport Association, said in an e-mail. The Washington-based group represents airlines such as Delta Air Lines Inc. and Southwest Airlines Co.
While U.S. airlines are continuing normal flight operations, they likely have stepped up security, and won’t tell the public about it, George Hamlin, president of Hamlin Transportation Consulting in Fairfax, Virginia, said in an interview.
“They may be on a higher state of alert, they may be making more random security checks, they may be even looking more closely at specific flights, but they aren’t going to tell us that,” he said.
Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs said it is “closely monitoring the situation in Europe,” and urged its citizens to “be aware of their surroundings.” The United Kingdom upgraded its terrorism warning for France and Germany.
“As we have consistently made clear, we face a real and serious threat from terrorism,” British Home Secretary Theresa May said in an e-mailed statement yesterday. “Our threat level remains at severe -- meaning that an attack is highly likely.”
Australian advisories asking citizens to exercise caution in Germany and France haven’t changed since last month, according to an e-mailed statement from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. New Zealand isn’t changing its risk assessment in light of the U.S. alert, after already cautioning travelers about the possibility of attacks in France and the U.K., according to the foreign ministry.
Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs hasn’t issued a travel alert for European countries, spokesman James Chang said today.
Militants based in Pakistan are planning coordinated attacks in the U.K., France and Germany, prompting the recent increase in U.S. drone strikes in the region, Sky News reported, citing U.S. officials it didn’t name. Reports have focused on attacks similar to the 2008 ones by the Pakistani-based Lashkar- e-Taiba on a hotel in Mumbai that left 166 people dead.
In the attacks in Mumbai militants armed with grenades and rifles stormed into the Taj Mahal Palace and Tower hotel and the Oberoi Trident complex, singling out foreign nationals and taking hostages in a three-day siege.
Pakistan’s intelligence services are acting on information from the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency to try to foil any terrorism plots against Europe, Pakistan’s Ambassador to the U.S., Husain Haqqani, said on CNN’s “State of the Union” yesterday.
ABC News, citing U.S. and European officials, said the tipoff came from a German terror suspect held in Afghanistan who told interrogators that teams of attackers with European passports have been dispatched.
“Security agencies are investigating closely all information and are continually monitoring security measures,” Markus Beyer, a German Interior Ministry spokesman, said in an e-mailed statement.
France sees the U.S. alert as “in line with the general recommendations we ourselves make to the French population,” foreign ministry spokesman Bernard Valero said in an e-mail.
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Silva in Washington at email@example.com