The US warning that stirred public panic in Europe over a possible Al-Qaeda attack at tourist hotspots has given a sense of victory to Islamist extremist networks, intelligence experts said.
Even though the threat of terror strikes should not be underestimated — it is a real, ongoing threat — warnings such as the recent US travel advisory of a high risk of an attack in Europe make for frightening headlines and television news broadcasts.
As ominous images of soldiers in combat gear in Paris patrolling at the foot of the Eiffel Tower flickered across TV screens around the world, experts said it must have delighted the jihadist leaders to see the West gripped with fear.
“All this free publicity is like manna from heaven for Al-Qaeda,” said Alain Chouet, former head of security information at the French DGSE intelligence agency.
Chouet noted that one of the suspected sources of the recent terror alert was a German prisoner of Afghan origin being held at the US military base in Bagram, Afghanistan.
“Al-Qaeda does not even have to do anything, all it needs is a prisoner somewhere” to stir things up, he said.
“You cannot verify what he (prisoner) says, and if someone puts a grenade in a garbage bin somewhere in Europe, he can always say: ‘See, I warned you’,” Chouet said.
Another expert, Richard Barrett, head of the team monitoring Al-Qaeda and Taliban activities at the United Nations, also questioned the reliability of such sources.
“If this guy in Afghanistan is talking, there is not any way they can verify what he is saying and he may be telling them what they want to hear,” said Barrett.
“They want to hear that they stopped something serious.
“For Al-Qaeda, it’s a very effective thing to have this story go around,” added Barrett, who was formerly in charge of counter-terrorism at Britain’s MI6 intelligence agency.
“They got the world’s attention, that’s what they want. Their business is terrorizing, not killing. They are not stupid. They can achieve a lot with nothing.”
The two former spy chiefs said that you had to be on guard against manipulation when dealing with such extremist groups — and that could take many forms.
Some jihad extremist networks for example, knowing Western spys are listening to their phone conversations, would deliberately steer investigations in false directions.
Or fake information might be given to European would-be jihadists at training camps in Pakistan: so if they got captured back in France or Germany they would reveal stories of devastating, though false, plans of attacks.
And then there are politicians in the West who are tempted to play to people’s fears for their own electoral or other ambitions.
“That is somewhat in evidence in the manoeuvre by some American neo-conservatives to accuse President Barack Obama of being weak in the face of terrorism on the eve of mid-term elections in the United States,” Chouet said.
For Magnus Ranstorp, a research director at Sweden’s national defence college, the West needs to beware of politicising terror warnings, which should not be facilely issued.
“These warnings should be a last resort. What we have now is that the threat, as it has taken on its own life, has become politicised and it’s a very negative thing,” he said.
“If nothing happens, the governments that have issued warnings will have to explain what happened. If they have these kinds of warning too often, it’s not going to be good.”