New focus on Europeans who have traveled to Pakistan to train at militant camps

By Peter Finn and Greg Miller
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, September 30, 2010; 12:16 AM

The detention in Afghanistan of a German citizen of Afghan descent - reportedly a source of information about potential terrorist plots against targets in Europe and possibly the United States - has renewed focus on a stream of Europeans who have traveled to Pakistan in recent years for training at militant camps.

Just as American officials have been sounding an alarm about the radicalization of U.S. citizens involved in plots against the homeland, European Union officials have warned that a new generation of Western citizens, including whole families, have traveled to Pakistan and that some appear determined to return home to carry out terrorist attacks.

"A not insignificant number of radicalized E.U. nationals and residents are traveling to conflict areas or attending terrorist training camps and returning to Europe," said Gilles de Kerchove, the E.U.'s counterterrorism coordinator, in a report to be released Friday.

In part to disrupt possible plots against Europe, the CIA this month escalated its drone campaign in the North and South Waziristan regions of Pakistan, where many of the expatriate militants are thought to be based. U.S. officials declined to discuss whether information provided by Ahmed Siddiqui, the German in custody at the U.S. air base at Bagram, has heightened concern about attacks.

There was, however, a heavy police presence in parts of London on Wednesday, including around Buckingham Place and Trafalgar Square. Victoria Station was briefly evacuated. In Paris on Tuesday, the Eiffel Tower was evacuated for the second time in two weeks.

A U.S. official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters said that various conspiracies at different levels of development are driving the anxiety.

Bruce Hoffman, a counterterrorism expert at Georgetown University, said drone strikes could disrupt a plot by "making the terrorists more concerned about their own safety than the teeing up of this operation," particularly if the plan is modeled on the assaults that occurred in 2008 in Mumbai, where gunmen attacked hotels, a railway station and other targets.

"In these operations it's not like you put the terrorist in a boat and then push the boat away and they're completely on their own," Hoffman said. "In Mumbai, the terrorists are making phone calls to get further instructions from their commander. If you're putting tremendous pressure on commanders back home, it can have an enormous disruptive effect."

U.S. and European officials fear that al-Qaeda and its affiliates are increasingly intent on exploiting Western passport holders who are able to travel within Europe and between Europe and the United States without visas.

Siddiqui, 36, was picked up in Kabul in early July. A resident of Hamburg until 2009, he left the city with his wife, brother and another couple, among a dozen departures of people associated with a mosque used by the Sept. 11, 2001, conspirators led by Mohamed Atta. German authorities closed the mosque last month.

According to the German magazine Der Spiegel, which first reported on the Hamburg resident and his detention at Bagram, Siddiqui drove the father of Mounir Motassadeq, one of Atta's circle in Hamburg, on visits to the jail where his son was held. Motassadeq, a Moroccan, was sentenced to 15 years in prison for his role in the Sept. 11 attacks.

Jörg Ziercke, the head of Germany's Federal Office of Criminal Investigation, said in a recent interview with the Berlin newspaper Der Tagesspiegel that there was evidence that at least 70 Islamic radicals from Germany had undergone paramilitary training in Pakistan and that 40 are thought to have gone on to fight coalition forces in Afghanistan.

Earlier this year, four members of a group known as the Saureland cell were sentenced to five to 12 years for planning to bomb Ramstein Air Base and off-base locations frequented by U.S. troops in Germany. All four members of the group, including two German converts to Islam, received training in Pakistan's tribal areas and were members of an al-Qaeda affiliate called the Islamic Jihad Union.

Some German members of the IJU went on to form the Pakistan-based German Taliban Mujahedeen in 2009.

One of it members, Eric Breininger, was killed this year in a gun battle with Pakistani forces. According to "Foreign Fighters: Trends, Trajectories and Conflict Zones," which will be released Friday by the Homeland Security Policy Institute at George Washington University and the Swedish National Defense College, his example spurred the recruitment of other Germans.

"The online publication of Breininger's memoir - riddled with popular references and cultural nuances - following his death helped reinforce his status as a jihadist rockstar," the report said.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company