The US special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan said the September 11 2001 attacks “wouldn’t have happened” if Americans had been forewarned to be on the lookout for terrorism.
Richard Holbrooke, speaking in Paris yesterday, was defending a warning to American travellers to be vigilant for the possibility of terrorism in Europe.
France and Britain are among many European countries that have stepped up terrorism alert vigilance recently. Germany, meanwhile, has said it remains watchful but there is no reason to be alarmist.
Germany has accused Ahmad Wali Siddiqui, a 36-year-old German of Afghan descent arrested by US troops in July in Afghanistan, of belonging to a foreign terrorist group – the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.
US officials say Siddiqui provided details on alleged al Qaida-linked plots against Europe that prompted Washington to issue the travel alert this month. Other countries issued similar warnings.
Mr Holbrooke pointed to “a series of indications” that merited telling Americans to be more watchful.
“I think it’s telling the public the truth. Nobody said, ’Cancel your travel plans’. They just said, ’Be more alert’, and I like that approach,” he said.
“If somebody had said that before 9/11 it wouldn’t have happened because you would have had more people paying more attention to what was going on.”
French officials have said recently that the terrorism threat is the highest it has been in years in France and they have boosted security at busy tourist sites like Notre Dame Cathedral and the Eiffel Tower in Paris. French authorities have recorded nine bomb alerts in the capital last month – a threefold increase from a year earlier. No explosives have been found.
Mr Holbrooke said the main purpose of his European visit had been to drum up support for relief efforts in Pakistan, which was hit by devastating floods starting in late July in which 2,000 people died. The floods eventually covered nearly one-fifth of the country and affected some 20 million people.
The US was helping Pakistan cope with the floods for humanitarian reasons – not for strategic or political ends, he said. He said he had seen “no evidence” the floods had benefited the Taliban.
Al Qaida leader Osama bin Laden issued a humanitarian appeal earlier this month urging Muslim governments to do more to help Pakistan’s flood victims and expressing worry about climate change.
A copy of the 13-minute, nine-second audiotape was made available by the US-based SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors jihadi forums. Its authenticity could not be independently confirmed, but the voice resembled that of bin Laden in previous confirmed messages.
“What I see is that the flood was an equal opportunity flood: It hit everybody and a lot of the Taliban were dislocated, their communications were disrupted...,” Mr Holbrooke said.
“The most interesting to me was that Osama bin Laden – for the first time ever - issued a tape on the humanitarian appeal. Now I don’t know what that meant, but my first reaction was, ’Wow, that must mean that he realises that the Western assistance is making an impact”, he said.
“I can’t prove this, but I was very struck by it, because everybody knows that Osama bin Laden does not care about people in flooded areas – he has different set of goals.”