Saudis Warn Europe of New Terror Threat

October 18, 2010 - 6:17 AM

Eiffel Tower Paris

A French soldier patrols at the Eiffel Tower in Paris on Thursday, Sept. 16, 2010 as France faces an elevated threat of terrorism. (AP Photo/Francois Mori)

Paris (AP) - Saudi intelligence services have warned of a new terror threat from al-Qaida against Europe, particularly in France, Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux said Sunday.

He said the warning of a potential attack by al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula was received "in the last few hours, few days."

European officials were informed that "al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula was doubtless active or envisioned being active" on the "European continent, notably France," Hortefeux said during a joint TV and radio interview.

"The threat is real," he said on RTL-LCI-Le Figaro's weekly talk show.

The warning from Saudi Arabia is the latest in a series of alerts that have put French security forces and others in high-vigilance mode.

On Sept. 9, Interpol, the international police organization, signaled an "Islamist threat on a world scale, and notably on the European continent," Hortefeux said without elaborating. That was followed by a Sept. 16, report of a woman suicide bomber who could take action in France -- later judged not fully credible.

Intelligence sources in North Africa also contacted France about a potential threat as did the United States, he said. He said he had spoken at length with U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.

It was the first time a French official has offered details about potential threats since mid-September, when officials first publicly invoked the possibility that France could be a target of radical Islamist groups.

"We must not overestimate the threat or underestimate it," the minister said. "We are directly concerned."

No one could be reached at the Saudi Interior Ministry late Sunday.

The U.S. State Department advised American citizens living or traveling in Europe earlier this month to take more precautions following reports that terrorists may be plotting attacks on a European city, possibly a shooting spree or other type of attack similar to the deadly 2008 Mumbai attacks in India.

France began boosting security last month at busy tourist sites like Notre Dame Cathedral and the Eiffel Tower, which was twice evacuated after false claims of an attack. French authorities recorded nine bomb alerts in the capital in September, including the two at the Eiffel Tower -- a threefold increase from a year earlier. No explosives were found.

Speculation on the source of a potential terror threat has centered on al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, another al-Qaida offshoot active in Algeria and Africa's Sahel region, which took five French citizens hostage Sept. 16 from a heavily guarded mining town in Niger. Two workers from Togo and Madagascar also were captured.

French fears that it could be a target of the Maghreb affiliate of al-Qaida are based on Paris' historic ties to the region, where it is a former colonial ruler, and recent enmity caused by such things as the French law banning burqa-style veils in streets. Al-Qaida had spoken against the measure before it became law. France also has soldiers in Afghanistan.

A threat from al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula would be unusual for France and Europe. The group is made up of radical Islamists from Yemen and Saudi branches who merged a year and a half ago.

However, the group has already showed its will to reach beyond the Middle East, claiming responsibility for the failed attempt to down a Detroit-bound jetliner with a suicide bomber in December.

Whether various al-Qaida affiliates coordinate action or communicate with each other is unknown, but experts tend to doubt that is the case.

Meanwhile, a Yemeni official said Sunday that warplanes bombed al-Qaida hide-outs in the country's south, killing five militants.

Security measures were tightened around foreign interests and Western embassies in San'a for possible terrorists acts, a security official said. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the media.

Police closed the main road leading to the U.S. embassy and security measures were tightened around the British embassy and the French embassy.

On Friday, the Department of State warned U.S. citizens of the high security threat level in Yemen due to terrorist activities and France urged families of French workers there to leave the country on security concerns. Britain has urged its citizens to remain vigilant in Yemen.

On Oct. 6, attackers fired a rocket at a convoy carrying Britain's No. 2 diplomat in Yemen and a separate attack on the same day by a security guard killed a French oil worker. Britain's deputy chief of mission Fionna Gibb was unharmed in the rocket attack but another embassy official suffered minor injuries.

The British Foreign Office had no comment.

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Ahmed al-Haj in San'a, Yemen contributed to this story.