Snipers of the German police stand guard on a roof during the celebration… (Ingo Wagner, AFP/Getty…)
Reporting from Washington — The State Department issued a travel alert Sunday for American citizens in Europe in light of increased U.S. and European intelligence that a large-scale Al Qaeda attack may be imminent.
Intelligence officials in the U.S. and Europe have said an increase in activity in recent weeks suggests that a small cell of potential terrorists hiding in North Waziristan, a Pakistani tribal region, is preparing an attack that could be as spectacular as the 2008 raids in Mumbai, India, that killed 166 people.
Plotters could be planning to use "a variety of means and target both official and private interests," the State Department said, adding that Americans abroad should be careful on trains, subways and other transportation systems, and in visiting hotels, restaurants and tourist spots.
"U.S. citizens should take every precaution," the travel alert said.
It is thought that Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden is behind the plot, and that if successful, it could become the largest terrorist action since the Sept. 11 attacks nine years ago.
Hundreds of thousands of Americans are traveling in Europe at any given time — as tourists, college students and business professionals. But the State Department did not upgrade its alert to a warning, which could have led to widespread cancellations of airline and hotel bookings.
Nevertheless, many in Europe found themselves quickly aware of the situation.
With the Los Angeles Lakers and Minnesota Timberwolves in London preparing for a preseason game, the National Basketball Assn. promised to take "appropriate" measures to ensure their safety.
"The NBA is staying in contact with the U.S. Embassy, the CIA and Scotland Yard," said Lakers spokesman John Black. "They are keeping us informed of the situation."
European governments began warning of a possible attack last week.
In Britain, the threat of terrorism has been listed as "severe," meaning an attack is highly likely. Britain's Foreign Office also warned its citizens to be careful traveling in France.
French Defense Minister Herve Morin told Le Parisien newspaper that "the terrorist threat exists and could hit us at any moment." But Morin said law enforcement officials were continuing to pursue would-be terrorists.
"Networks organizing themselves to prepare attacks are constantly being dismantled around the world," he said. "It is good for the French to know this."
The U.S. military in recent weeks has stepped up drone missile attacks on suspected hideouts in regions of Pakistan, and the U.S. is passing its intelligence to its European counterparts.
According to intelligence sources, the threat apparently arose after the arrest and interrogation of a German man of Pakistani origin who was being held at the U.S. air base in Bagram, Afghanistan. He is said to have provided information about the activities of half a dozen other men from Germany and England who were linked through Al Qaeda and were reportedly talking to other operatives in several European cities about upcoming strikes.