The United States issued a travel alert of unprecedented scope and imprecision on Saturday, covering the whole of Western Europe.
The alert is ample testimony that nine years after 9/11, not only is terrorism not on the wane, it can still wreak chaos across continents with intolerable ease.
The generic nature of the alert helps sow panic. It doesn't even specify a country, much less a city. It essentially tells American (and British ) citizens that it's every man for himself.
It's true that the alert does not bar anyone from traveling to mainland Europe, but it does warn any travelers to take extra care when visiting popular tourist destinations or riding mass transit. This definition is broad enough to include almost anywhere: hotels, trains, airports, museums, bus stops and any other location frequented by tourists.
Such unfocused travel alerts are the result of very general intelligence from multiple sources, mainly from wiretaps and intercepted e-mails by suspected terrorists linked to Al-Qaida or the Pakistani Taliban on the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Another source is information that reached France on the intentions of a group called Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, which was planning to carry out a large-scale terror attack, in imitation of the Pakistani terrorists who attacked and took over a number of hotels in Mumbai in November 2008. The terrorists held sway for several days until eventually overcome by the Indian army.
That attack was reminiscent of the first attacks by Al-Qaida, which were aimed at Western tourist destinations: hotels and nightclubs in Indonesia, Istanbul and the southern coast of the Sinai peninsula, with terrorist units setting out for coordinated attacks meant to kill as many as possible.
The recent American and British anxiety was not met with official protests or outrage by European governments; if anything, it was met with a degree of understanding.
In most European Union countries, especially Britain, Germany and Italy, security and intelligence organizations increased their vigilance and efforts to foil terrorist plots, working on the assumption that terror cells may already be on the move within Europe.
But beneath the understanding, and the polite and diplomatic public statements, there's considerable fear in Europe that such alerts could hurt not just American tourism, but tourism in general, dealing a blow to a mainstay of many European economies.
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