Terror Alerts: False alarms?

Fears of a terrorist attack in Europe were heightened recently, after the United States, Britain and Japan issued a travel alert for Europe earlier in October, warning of a possible terrorist attacks by al-Qaida or other groups.

The State Department alert stated that the U.S. citizens were warned of potential terrorist attacks in Europe. The alert stated that “terrorists may elect to use a variety of means and weapons and target both official and private interests. U.S. citizens are reminded of the potential for terrorists to attack public transportation systems and other tourist infrastructure. Terrorists 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 traveling.”

According to the Guardian, fresh warnings of possible terror attacks in Europe issued by the US were not sparked by any new intelligence, counter-terrorism, security and intelligence. European officials made it clear they were “irritated” with the US for leaking stories before they could gather more intelligence. There was no evidence that a plot was imminent, and intelligence was described by a well-placed Whitehall official as “ill-defined.” Recent developments in such alerts have sparked debates as to whether or not terrorists alerts really serve a purpose.

“In truth, there was really nothing exceptional about this latest bit of bureaucratic boilerplate. I have seen its equivalent countless times over the years, and have even done my part in the past to help create it. And yet, for some reason, this particular governmental “alert” seemed to strike a chord and to generate a reaction,” wrote Robert Grenier, a retired, 27-year veteran of the CIA’s Clandestine Service, the director of the CIA’s Counter-Terrorism Centre from 2004 to 2006, in his article for Al Jazeera.

The warnings to be vigilant in Europe added fresh impetus to the scares. The alerts could contribute to the tense atmosphere in the region created by the recent dialogues on the multiculturalism failure. Unfortunately, terrorists are associated by many with Muslims, and increasing  fear could create an even more hostile environment in the society. Moreover, the government did not recommend Americans not to travel. It just warned them, and spread fears and panic.

“Speaking as an American who lives in Europe, I feel it is incumbent upon me to describe what people like me do when we hear warnings like this one issued on Sunday: We do nothing. We do nothing, first and foremost, because there is nothing that we can do,” Anne Applebaum, the Washington Post Op-ed columnist, wrote in her article Terror warnings: Be specific or be quiet.

The question is whether the warnings of a heightened terrorism risk is really a response to a genuine escalation in the threat level, or whether they are simply a device to divert attention from the current financial and social problems. It could also be a move to encourage a greater cooperation between the US and Europe, especially in those parts of the world where NATO is fighting to defeat terrorism. The alerts also coincided with a number of heavy, controversial attacks by US drones and helicopters on the Pakistani side of the border with Afghanistan.

“Some believe the U.S. government has issued this statement to frighten Europeans into greater intelligence cooperation, and in particular to persuade the European Union to agree to a new system of airline passenger data exchange,” Applebaum noted.

“In truth, the only people who can profit from such a warning are the officials who issue it. If something does happen, they are covered: They warned us, they told us in advance, they won’t be criticized or forced to resign… Over time, these kinds of enigmatic warnings do al-Qaeda’s work for it, scaring people without cause,” she added.

But “if threats are not foreseen, if dots are not connected, if warnings are not issued and, God forbid, something bad happens, there will be hell to pay. And while the costs of a false warning will be negligible, a failure to warn could be catastrophic,” Grenier concluded.

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