The classified report could not have been scarier: A merchant ship with 40 Al Qaeda terrorists hidden aboard was believed steaming toward Southern California.
Their plan: Unload near Santa Catalina Island in late May and then strike downtown Los Angeles.
The report was not made public until Tuesday, when the FBI in Los Angeles confirmed that it had investigated the report, even boarding incoming merchant vessels in search of terrorists.
After several weeks of searching, “Nothing so far has substantiated the intelligence information we received,” said FBI spokeswoman Cheryl Mimura.
Nonetheless, Catalina Island officials and merchants were struggling to reduce the impact of the intelligence tip--originally reported in the Washington Times--on tourism at the start of the critical summer season.
The Catalina Island Chamber of Commerce quickly distributed a carefully worded “mission statement.”
“Based on the information currently available from law-enforcement and intelligence sources,” the statement said, “it is believed that there is no immediate danger to Catalina Island visitors or residents.”
Chamber President Wayne Griffin was also reminding anyone who would listen that the report indicated the alleged plan was to unload terrorists “near Catalina Island. That doesn’t necessarily mean on the island. They could have just as easily have said near Long Beach.”
But they didn’t.
“Tuesday morning’s television sound bites didn’t mention any of that,” Griffin said. “They made it sound like Al Qaeda had already landed here.”
Within minutes of one TV report, Catalina Express, which ferries about 20,000 people each week to and from the island, received four cancellations.
“This is exactly what terrorists hope for,” Griffin said. “They put these threats out there--real or not--just to get people all stirred up.”
One such person didn’t wait long to phone Jim Pike, owner of the Trader Winds, an Internet cafe and gift store in Avalon. “I had a lady call me at 7 in the morning,” he said. “She wanted to know, ‘What’s this about a ship wanting to land on Catalina with Al Qaeda on board?’ ”
“It’s just a precautionary warning,” Pike told her. “Nobody’s landing.” But then Pike offered the caller a sobering thought: “On the other hand, something could happen and we need to be vigilant.”
Good point. It was one of many points--both good and fanciful--being tossed around Tuesday by locals and visitors in Catalina’s cafes, T-shirt shops and glass-bottomed boats. Some urged caution, others calm--all aware that it was impossible to know the truth.
While emphasizing that they had not discounted the report, federal authorities said it did not rise to the level of credibility that justified a public warning. It was more akin, they said, to the purported threat last November against California bridges than the terrorism threatened against Hollywood studios.
The Hollywood threat led the FBI last fall to issue a public alert, while the warning about a possible attack against bridges was made public by Gov. Gray Davis and resulted in some public criticism of his decision.
Intelligence experts have long been sensitive to issuing public alerts about internal terrorism investigations, fearing they can serve the terrorists’ goal of spreading fear. If Al Qaeda did hope to spread fear with a Catalina rumor, to some degree it succeeded.
Elana Webb, manager of Catalina Shirt and Shade, said an Avalon resident made a point of stopping her in the street.
“I thought it was light-hearted news he wanted to share with me,” Webb said. “Then he asked, ‘Did you hear about terrorists that are going to be landing within the next few days?’ ”
She didn’t quite believe him. “Great,” she replied. “Just great.”
Vicki Hubert, front-desk clerk at the 73-room Pavilion Lodge, also took the report in stride. “Everyone’s talking about it, but I think it will all die down in a few days,” she said. “Besides, we’re full tonight and tomorrow night.”
Catalina merchants hope business stays that way. The island’s population of 5,000 swells to 20,000 on weekends. For merchants, July would normally be the busiest time of year. Will the report on Al Qaeda change that? For some folks, it won’t.
“I tell them that the report was based on information received quite awhile ago, and that it was not found to have credibility,” said Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Lt. Gary Olson of callers to the sheriff’s substation in Avalon. “They’re relieved to know things are still fine in paradise.”
On Tuesday at least, other Avalon residents were less sure.
Joan Tiihonen, banquet and beverage manager at Antonio’s Pizzeria, said she heard about the report all day--at the post office, in the street, at work. People were worried.
“Avalon is one mile square,” she said. “It has a few sheriff’s deputies who tool around in golf carts. There’s only one fire engine.”
The result: Tiihonen and her staff stationed themselves in her office overlooking Avalon Bay, surveying incoming pleasure boats with binoculars.
“We’re taking this seriously,” she said.
The U.S. Coast Guard was inundated with calls from wary citizens reporting sightings of “large ships operating in the vicinity of Catalina Island,” said Coast Guard Lt. Steve LaLonde.
“I’ve been telling folks not to worry,” he said, “because freighters headed for the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach have to swing past Catalina to get there.”
What’s more, since Sept. 11, federal officials have established a 500-yard security zone around all Navy ships. The U.S. Customs Service remains on “code red alert” status. Multi-agency teams led by the Coast Guard have been boarding all incoming freighters and cruise lines, and patrolling the waterfront around the clock.
It is all part of what port authorities call the “new normal routine” at the adjacent ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, where about 5,000 vessels from around the world dock each year.
Yet another theme surfaced on Catalina on Tuesday--the possibility that the rumor didn’t come from Al Qaeda. What if the U.S. government, locals asked, spread the rumor? What if Catalina were caught in some giant espionage campaign?
“I think we’re entering an era of disinformation,” said a shop clerk. “It’s hard to tell what’s true. If I were an FBI agent, I’d let them think I think they’re in Southern California, knowing all the while they’re someplace else, like Canada.”
Times staff writer Greg Krikorian contributed to this report.