Polish anti-terror center gears up for Euro 2012

Past guards, metal detectors and code-protected doors, terrorism experts in a secluded room in Warsaw are monitoring Hezbollah TV and radical Islamic websites as wall clocks keep track of the time in far-off hotspots like Kabul and Mogadishu.

It's Poland's Counterterrorism Center, an intelligence gathering agency gearing up for the daunting challenge of ensuring safety when Poland co-hosts the Euro 2012 football championship alongside Ukraine next year.

The highly secretive agency recently opened its doors to The Associated Press, rare access that comes as Poland tries to show it's ready to organize one of the world's top sporting events. Also looming is the task of keeping VIPs safe when Poland takes over the European Union presidency in July, a six-month stint in which many European officials will visit Poland.

Though Poland has never been struck by a terrorist attack, officials here are painfully aware that the country "is not an island" removed from the threat, the center's director, Col. Zbigniew Muszynski, said.

"It's better to be prepared before something wrong can happen to us," he said.

On Tuesday, anti-terror forces tested their readiness to free hostages from a commandeered bus. In the drill, a bus filled with passengers was hijacked in Germany and entered Poland, where it broke down at a border parking lot. The exercise ended with quick action by Polish security personnel freeing the hostages.

Poland gained experienced in securing large events during the 27-year papacy of Pope John Paul II, when visits by the late pontiff to his homeland drew huge gatherings of the Polish faithful to outdoor Masses.

But new fears loom with the prospect of less spiritually inclined soccer fans streaming across borders when the football championship starts in June next year.

UEFA officials have expressed anxiety over whether Poland and Ukraine are up to the task of hosting Euro 2012. Fears range from whether stadiums, train stations and roads will be built or revamped in time, to whether the countries can control hooligans.

Ukraine's Prime Minister Mykola Azarov acknowledged last month that both countries need to beef up their counterterrorism efforts.

"Developments in the world don't allow us to ignore potential threats, including terror threats, that may arise during the tournament," Azarov said during a visit to Ukraine by Polish counterpart Donald Tusk.

Border control, in particular, stands as a complex security issue given that Poland lies on the eastern edge of EU's borderless Schengen zone, with Ukraine, a non-EU member, on the other side. Extensive checks will have to be eased to allow the flow of fans crossing between the two countries.

The Counterterrorism Center was created in 2008 after a series of attacks worldwide created a new sense of vulnerability in Poland, especially given its military involvement in Afghanistan and in Iraq. Polish citizens were among those killed in the Sept. 11 attacks in New York and in the London and Madrid attacks, and a Polish geologist in Pakistan was beheaded by the Taliban in 2009.

Muszynski said his center pulls together tips from police, border guards, and other security and intelligence agencies. He would not reveal how many people work for the center, citing the sensitive nature of its work.

During the AP visit, a TV screen aired Hezbollah television, and Muszynski said experts regularly monitor extremist Internet sites and other open sources. In another attempt at secrecy, the place is nearly paperless, with almost all information kept on secured databases, Muszynski noted.

The center is burrowed in a complex of buildings housing the Interior Ministry and other security agencies in Warsaw. Getting to the center's large meeting room required passing guards at a gate, a thorough security check with metal detectors at the building's entrance, and a long walk down a seemingly endless series of corridors, each set off by doors opened only with special electronic keys.

Muszynski, a longtime counterterrorism expert, expressed some concern at allowing media access, noting that only recently did he even start allowing his face to be seen publicly.

But he said it's time for the agency to show a new openness because it wants to draw the public into the task of keeping the country safe.