WASHINGTON – Osama bin Laden emerged Friday as possibly a key figure in a European terror plot, raising speculation he may be flexing his muscles in a move to show a besieged al-Qaida remains strong and able to launch major attacks on Western targets.
U.S. counterterrorism officials said they believe that senior al-Qaida leaders, including bin Laden, were involved in the plan to strike several European cities in a coordinated assault. If bin Laden had a direct hand in the planning, it would be the most active role he has played in a terror plot since the 9/11 attacks, according to U.S. officials and analysts.
Counterterrorism officials said that they are now working under the assumption that bin Laden played a role in the plotting, but they would not detail what indications they’ve seen that led them in that direction.
Still, some also believe that bin Laden’s orders may have been delivered by one of his top commanders, since the al-Qaida leader is known to avoid close contact with anyone except his closet confidants.
While bin Laden’s name is still a powerful reminder of the World Trade Center’s twin towers and the Pentagon engulfed in flames, U.S. officials have for months asserted both in private and in hearings on Capitol Hill that his core al-Qaida group is weakened, struggling to raise money and attract recruits.
“Clearly there is a great deal of pressure on al-Qaida to do something to show that it is still alive and kicking,” said Richard Barrett, the head of a U.N. group that monitors the threat posed by al-Qaida and the Taliban.
Barrett said al-Qaida’s Pakistan-based network has not launched a successful attack since the London subway bombing in 2005. “In order to attract the younger new recruits, I think they have to do a bit better than that,” he said.
U.S. officials declined to reveal what evidence they have that bin Laden took a more prominent role in this plan. And one U.S. intelligence official cautioned that the details of how the plan was directed or coordinated by the group’s core leaders is not yet clear.