U.S. issues terror warnings in Baltic and Nordic areas

Posted in Terrorism | 02-Nov-04 | Author: Katrin Bennhold| Source: International Herald Tribune

Shoppers at Helsinki airport. The US warned citizens living or passing through Nordic and Baltic states of possible imminent terrorist attacks in crowded public places in those countries.
PARIS On the eve of the American presidential election, the U.S. State Department has warned U.S. citizens in Nordic and Baltic countries of a potential imminent terrorist attack in the region.

In the Latvian capital, Riga, the U.S. Embassy issued a statement on its Web site advising Americans to avoid busy transport hubs and shopping centers on Monday and in the days after. A similar warning was issued in neighboring Estonia.

The U.S. Embassy in Finland published an advisory from the State Department, urging U.S. citizens in the Nordic and Baltic countries to "be vigilant as to their surroundings, especially in centers of ground-based mass transit."

The text, posted on the Web site over the weekend, disclosed no details of the threat. But it followed a warning by the Latvian security service Saturday that said it had received intelligence from Norway, Estonia and the United States that suggested a terrorist strike may be planned inside its borders.

In the final phase of an election campaign that has in large part centered around America's war on terrorism, the weekend warning intensified concerns that terrorists may increasingly try to sway the election by planning attacks shortly before voters go to the polls.

The Madrid train bombings in March killed more than 190 people three days before Spain had a national vote. On Friday, the Al Qaeda leader, Osama bin Laden, addressed the United States in a videotape, alluding to further Sept. 11-style attacks. None of the embassy warnings, however, mentioned a suspected link with Al Qaeda.

The warnings also lend weight to worries that Europe, which is relatively less prepared for a large-scale terrorist attack than the United States, could become a chief target for militant Islamic groups like Al Qaeda.

According to Jonathan Stevenson, a terrorism expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Washington, for the past year and a half Islamic groups like Al Qaeda have had their eye on Europe with its open borders, disparate security services and vulnerable train networks.

"The harder it has become to target the U.S., the more attractive a target Europe has become," Stevenson said. "And the alignment of the Baltic countries with U.S. policy in Iraq and their presumptive vulnerability makes them particularly attractive targets."

While a history of homegrown terrorism has made for an effective counterterrorism strategy in France and Britain, the smaller countries on Europe's northern fringe are potentially easier to hit, Stevenson said. And all three Baltic states - Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia - have been staunch supporters of the American-led invasion of Iraq last year. Together they have about 200 soldiers on the ground in Iraq.

Finland, like Norway and Sweden, opposed the Iraq war. Among the Scandinavian countries, only Denmark has troops in Iraq.

In a sign that the perception of terrorist threats still differs on the two sides of the Atlantic, few concrete measures were taken to boost security in the region beyond reinforcing security around U.S. embassies.

At a meeting of Nordic heads of government in the Swedish capital of Stockholm, Prime Minister Goran Persson said there was no need to change security arrangements.

"One is always worried when one gets this type of information, particularly when it comes from such a large security service," Persson told reporters. "But I don't think there is any reason to dramatize things unnecessarily."

The Finnish Security Police said that Nordic citizens had no reason to worry at this stage.

"The United States has a lower threshold when it comes to warning its citizens, but we have no concrete information that would warrant such a warning," Paavo Selin, head of the Finnish counterterrorism unit, told The Associated Press.

While news agencies reported no visible signs of increased security in Riga, the country's national security council was due to meet late Monday to assess the threat.