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Britain/U.S.: London And Washington Batten Down The Hatches Over Terrorist Threat

London is in the midst of a high-security alert that has put an extra 1,700 police and hundreds of soldiers onto the streets of the city. British officials say the alert is in response to a terrorist threat against the country. At the same time, U.S. officials have strengthened security in Washington, including deploying antiaircraft missiles to protect against suicide pilots. RFE/RL looks at the alerts in both capitals and what is known about the threats behind them.

Prague, 13 February 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Hundreds of British soldiers in armored vehicles are ringing London's Heathrow Airport today as a security alert against a possible terrorist attack moves into its third day. Security also remains tight at other key airports in the country, including in Liverpool and Manchester.

And in Washington, U.S. authorities have deployed several jeep-borne Stinger antiaircraft missiles around the capital, particularly near the Pentagon.

The measures constitute the highest security alert in Britain and one of the most conspicuous in the United States since the 11 September 2001 attacks. Officials in both countries say the heightened security is in response to specific intelligence information they have received.

But no precise details have emerged in either London or Washington as to just what kind of attack might be planned. That has left the media to speculate widely on the nature of the threats, the timing, and the motives.

In Britain, some tabloid newspapers have reported that police are racing against time to find an Al-Qaeda gang armed with missiles that is trying to shoot down a plane flying in or out of Heathrow, Europe's busiest airport. Police have refused to comment on those reports.

Today, British Prime Minister Tony Blair repeated that his country is under threat but provided no information to clarify the situation. He called on reporters to understand that the government cannot reveal what it knows about terrorist activities, despite demands from many political leaders in Britain that it do so. "Now, you'll understand why we cannot and shouldn't start disclosing details of everything we know or may know [about security threats], but it is important we take every precaution we can in order to keep people safe," Blair said.

Meanwhile, the chairman of Britain's ruling Labour Party, John Reid, has retracted a statement he made yesterday in which he said Britain is facing a threat on the scale of the 11 September attacks, which killed some 3,000 people. He said yesterday that "this is about a threat of the nature that massacred thousands of people in New York."

Terrorism experts say the U.S. and British governments are responding to several signs that an attack could be imminent.

Jonathan Stevenson, an expert on terrorism at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, said that intelligence services have detected increased amounts of communication between suspected Al-Qaeda cells in recent weeks, suggesting an attack may be in its final planning stages.

Stevenson also said that intelligence services believe the motivation for an attack may be particularly high among Islamic extremist groups now, on the eve of a possible war against Iraq. "There is a general inference drawn that there could be greater motivation to commit terrorist acts as war on Iraq becomes more imminent. And there are suggestions that the specific intelligence has something to do with the pendency of the hajj and the Muslim festival Eid [Eid al-Adha, which started on 11 February and celebrates the end of the annual pilgrimage to Mecca," Stevenson said.

Stevenson does not believe the release this week of a purported audio recording from Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden contributed to the present security alerts in Britain and the United States. In that message, a voice resembling bin Laden's exhorts Muslims worldwide to help defend the Iraqi people from any U.S.-led campaign. "Bin Laden's tape is consistent with the notion that looming war with Iraq might inspire more Al-Qaeda attacks insofar as it uses prospective war with Iraq to make the same exhortation. But this particular alert really started before the bin Laden tape surfaced," Stevenson said.

Amid the security alert, some U.S. officials have reiterated arguments that Al-Qaeda may share operational ties with the Iraqi regime. If the two are linked, the current threat could be seen as a joint effort to discourage Washington and London from going to war with Baghdad.

A spokesman for U.S. President George W. Bush, Ari Fleischer, earlier this week called bin Laden's message evidence of an "unholy partnership" between Baghdad and the global terrorist group. Fleischer added that, "This is the nightmare that people have warned about, the linking up of Iraq with Al-Qaeda."

Such statements have sparked some press debate in Britain regarding whether Washington and London may be heightening this week's terrorist alert in order to help build public opinion for military action against Iraq.

But some terrorism experts say any attempt to heighten the dangers of an Iraq-Al-Qaeda link at this time is unlikely to increase public support for attacking Baghdad. Stevenson sees it this way: "If there is an increase in terrorist activity, what that does is confirm the fears of a lot of skeptics about an Iraqi war, that it will produce more terrorism. That runs completely contrary to the suggestion made by a number of British journalists yesterday that the British government was actually making terrorist threats seem more salient in order to promote war in Iraq."

Baghdad has denied any links with Al-Qaeda, and the terrorist group itself refers to Saddam Hussein's secular government as an "infidel" regime. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell presented evidence to the United Nations Security Council earlier this month that he said proves that Iraq and Al-Qaeda have ties, but many other governments say they are not convinced.

As fear, anger, and frustration run high in Britain, this week's terrorism alert may mark the moment when Britons -- and others in Europe -- become convinced they are as much targets for Al-Qaeda as Americans are.

Previous alerts in Europe followed the release of another purported bin Laden audiotape in November, a foiled suspected Al-Qaeda attack on an Israeli airliner in Kenya, and the deadly bombing of a nightclub frequented by Western tourists in Bali. But none of those alerts saw the kind of stepped-up police presence visible in London today.

Experts on terrorism say that sites in Europe may indeed now be primary targets for Al-Qaeda. They say one reason is that tightened security in the United States after 11 September has made the United States more difficult to attack.

Another reason is that the destruction of Al-Qaeda's command centers in Afghanistan has forced the organization to rely more on local cells organizing local attacks using their own resources.

In the West, Al-Qaeda cells are believed to be located largely in Europe, where operatives and sympathizers can hide easily among larger Muslim communities, particularly in Britain, France, and Germany.