, WASHINGTON, Oct 3 – The discovery of a terror plot aimed at European cities underscores the growing danger posed by Islamist militants equipped with Western passports, a coveted weapon in Al-Qaeda\’s arsenal.
US and European security services are struggling to track young Western nationals who travel to Pakistan and elsewhere to receive training from Al-Qaeda and its allies and then return to try to carry out attacks, analysts and officials say.
"All the evidence indicates that it\’s an increasing threat," Arturo Munoz, a retired veteran of the Central Intelligence Agency, told AFP. "I don\’t think there\’s any doubt about that."
A new report by American and Swedish researchers out Friday warned that Western intelligence services\’ knowledge of the threat may "only touch the tip of a much larger, undocumented and undetected problem."
Militants with Western passports and no criminal records, or a so-called "clean skin," can move about without drawing attention and evade authorities.
"These fighters\’ familiarity with the targets they select adds to these individuals\’ capacity to cause harm," said the report by the Homeland Security Policy Institute at George Washington University.
European security officials in recent days said Al-Qaeda militants were plotting to stage simultaneous strikes in London and cities in France and Germany, with information on the plan possibly coming from a German citizen now detained in Afghanistan.
Ahmed Sidiqui, of Hamburg, reportedly was part of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and told American interrogators that some operatives in the plot may already be in Europe.
"One country facing a huge concern right now is Germany," said Magnus Ranstorp from the Swedish National Defence College, one of the authors of the study.
According to Germany\’s Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, some 200 Germans or foreigners living in Germany have spent time in Pakistan with the intention of receiving paramilitary training by Islamist groups.
Authorities have concrete evidence that 65 of them underwent such training, it said.
Ranstorp told a Washington conference that Denmark also faced a serious security threat from "Western foreign fighters," with militants targeting the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, which had published controversial cartoons of the prophet Mohammed several years ago.
The "system was blinking red" in Denmark, he said, and even Sweden had raised its threat level this week, which he said illustrated that no country in Europe was immune from terrorist dangers.
Although Pakistan remained the epicenter for terror training, US and British authorities also are increasingly concerned about Western militants heading to Somalia to forge links with extremists, the report said.
Ranstorp said Kenyan authorities were working to disrupt Islamist networks based in Somalia but that Western countries could do more to bolster Kenya\’s counter-terrorism efforts.
Apart from sharing data to track militants, European authorities also needed to crack down on "bridge figures," propagandists who preach and inspire potential recruits to join the cause, he said.
"It\’s these bridge figures that one needs to target aggressively," he said.
The report cites Yemeni-American cleric Anwar al-Awlaki as an example of a dangerous advocate for extremism, who exchanged emails with a Muslim US army officer, Nidal Hasan, now charged with shooting 13 people to death at Fort Hood last year.
US officials say Awlaki is on a list for "targeted killing" after after spy agencies concluded he was involved in anti-US plots.
Ranstorp and other experts called for countering online propaganda used to recruit militants, as Al-Qaeda and its affiliates portray their campaign as a defense of Muslims in the face of Western oppression.
But the majority of victims from terror attacks were fellow Muslims, and the violence could create a backlash among some expatriate Muslim communities.
To disrupt recruitment, police and government authorities had to engage with Somali and other expatriate communities, as "the family is often the first line of defense," said Jeffrey Cozzens, one of the authors of the study.
He and Ranstorp suggested publicizing how many foreign fighters came away disappointed from their experiences, because they often set out to get a taste of the frontline and instead are told to go back home and set off bombs in their hometowns.
"Life isn\’t what it\’s cracked up to be when you come into these conflict zones," Ranstorp said.