WASHINGTON - The Obama administration is considering a broad warning for U.S. citizens to avoid public places in Europe due to new al-Qaida threats, U.S. and European officials told The Associated Press yesterday.
Such a move could have significant implications for European tourism.
The State Department may issue a travel warning as early as Sunday advising Americans to stay away from European tourist sites, transportation hubs and other facilities because of fresh threat information, U.S. officials told the AP.
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley declined to comment on the matter. But he said the administration remains focused on al-Qaida threats to U.S. interests and will take appropriate steps to protect Americans.
A European official briefed on the talks said the language in the U.S. alert is expected to be vague. It won't address a specific country or specific landmarks, the official said.
European and U.S. officials have not identified any specific targets that terrorists might be considering, the official said.
Officials have called the threat credible but not specific.
The United States has told European leaders that the State Department alert would be intended to raise the warning level to match the information about the would-be attack that surfaced last week, the European official said.
The European official said there had not been strong opposition from European leaders to the proposed alert.
Intelligence officials believe Osama bin Laden is behind the terror plots to attack several European cities. If this is true, it would be the most operational role that bin Laden has played in plotting attacks since Sept. 11, 2001.
Eight Germans and two British brothers are at the heart of an al-Qaida-linked terror plot against European cities, but the plan is still in its early stages, with the suspects calling acquaintances in Europe to plan logistics, a Pakistani intelligence official said Thursday.
One of the Britons died in a recent CIA missile strike, he said.
The Pakistani official said the suspects are hiding in North Waziristan, a Pakistani tribal region where militancy is rife and where the United States has focused many of its drone-fired missile strikes.
"We remain focused on al-Qaida's interest in attacking us and attacking our allies," Crowley said. "We will do everything possible to thwart them and will take steps as appropriate."
The implications of a blanket "travel warning" for all of Europe could be big. There are hundreds of thousands of Americans in Europe at any one time, including tourists, students and businesspeople.
While the government cannot stop people from traveling there or force them to return home, a warning could result in canceled airline and hotel bookings as well as deter non-U.S. travelers from going to Europe. In addition, many U.S. college and university study-abroad programs will not send students to countries for which a warning is in place for insurance and liability reasons.
For that reason, officials said, there was internal debate over how strong to make the warning. The State Department has several grades of travel notice, ranging from low-threat advisories to more severe alerts and a formal "travel warning." There is also a "worldwide caution" in place that warns Americans of ongoing global terrorist threats.
Some U.S. allies in Europe have expressed concern about the proposed warning, saying it is an overreaction to the threat information, a position shared by some in the administration, the officials said.