U.S. Signals ‘High Risk’ of New Attacks
The Bush administration Tuesday raised the terror alert level to “code orange,” signaling a “high risk of terrorist attack,” as authorities warned of strikes that could be launched against unknown targets in the United States or abroad.
Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft, appearing with Tom Ridge, director of homeland security, and FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III, said the code orange warning--the second highest level of alert--was authorized by President Bush.
The warning, which was the first elevation of the nation’s alert system, came on the eve of Sept. 11 in response to a host of intelligence intercepts gleaned over the last few weeks, Ashcroft said. It also was prompted by specific information provided by a top Al Qaeda operative during interrogations since Monday.
“The United States government has concluded, based on analysis and specific intelligence of possible attacks on U.S. interests overseas, to call government, law enforcement and citizens, both at home and overseas, to a heightened state of alert,” Ashcroft said at a news conference at Justice Department headquarters.
“Information indicates that Al Qaeda cells have been established in several South Asian countries in order to conduct car-bomb and other attacks on U.S. facilities. These cells have been accumulating explosives since approximately January of 2002 ... in preparation for these attacks.”
Ashcroft also said the U.S. intelligence community has received information that suicide bombers are preparing to strike U.S. facilities in the Middle East.
In an extraordinary series of comments, Bush himself--and Ashcroft, Ridge and other U.S. officials--talked of vague threats but told Americans to go about their business today as they observe the one-year anniversary of the terrorist strikes.
At the same time, Ashcroft and Ridge urged local law enforcement to step up patrols, employers to have emergency plans in the event of attacks and all Americans to be wary, vigilant and on the lookout for suspicious activity.
Ashcroft specifically singled out transportation and energy targets, such as planes, buses and power grids as well as U.S. embassies and military bases abroad. But he also specifically referred to national monuments as potential “symbolic” targets.
Speaking somberly, Ashcroft also warned of “dramatically new, unheard of” kinds of terrorist attacks, conceding that he and his counter-terrorism colleagues had no idea where such attacks might come from, except from an agitated and highly trained cadre of Al Qaeda soldiers bent on striking symbols of U.S. power and prosperity.
Ridge suggested that parents tell their children about the significance of the one-year anniversary and to prepare them for potential attacks so they too could be on the alert.
The concerns had ripple effects in Washington and around the world.
* Vice President Dick Cheney spent Tuesday night in a secure, undisclosed location as he had the night before because of general security precautions related to the Sept. 11 anniversary, administration officials said. And although there was no indication that Cheney or Bush were targets, the vice president canceled a speech he was to deliver Tuesday night in Washington and was to spend today in an undisclosed location while Bush attends three Sept. 11 commemoration events.
* Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld ordered antiaircraft missiles deployed earlier in the week around Washington be armed with live ammunition so that the military could better respond to a potential attack by hijacked airliners or other aircraft. The Pentagon said heat-seeking Stinger missiles would be deployed on military vehicles with firing and guidance units known as “Avenger” systems.
* Citing specific and credible threats of Al Qaeda-linked attacks, the State Department closed the U.S. Embassy in Indonesia, while diplomatic missions in Malaysia, Pakistan, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Tajikistan, Vietnam, Cambodia, Lebanon and Malawi either have been closed or will be closed to review security.
* The Pentagon also raised the terrorist alert level for U.S. military forces around the world, particularly in Bahrain, headquarters of the U.S. 5th Fleet, and other parts of the Middle East. Defense officials said intelligence had indicated Al Qaeda was planning attacks on military ships or even commercial tankers that transport much of the world’s oil supply out of the Persian Gulf.
In Washington, Bush said his administration is taking the new threat information “very seriously.”
“Therefore we have gone to a different level of concern, different threat level, which means our government will be providing extra security at key facilities and that we’ll be increasing surveillance,” Bush said, speaking with reporters after visiting the embassy of Afghanistan.
“We’ll do everything we can to protect the American people.... They just need to know that their government, at the federal and state and local level, will be on an extra level of alert to protect us.”
Since it was established in March, the warning system had been set at the mid-level yellow, which means an elevated risk. There are five levels, and only one higher than orange. That level, red, indicates the government has specific information about an imminent and serious terrorist attack.
Ashcroft said most of the recent intelligence intercepts that prompted the orange warning indicate that an attack would most likely occur overseas, particularly in Southeast Asia.
Nations such as Malaysia and the Philippines have long been considered a “second front” in the war on terrorism, after Afghanistan, because of the large number of Al Qaeda followers there and an active network of terrorist cells.
But while much of the information about potential terrorist attacks indicated targets overseas, Ashcroft and other officials warned that the ominous tone of intelligence chatter is eerily similar to the drumbeat heard before last September’s attacks, the worst-ever on U.S. soil.
“Last year we were sure it would be overseas,” a senior FBI official said. “But we were sadly mistaken.”
That official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that as a result, the FBI is bracing for another large-scale attack somewhere on U.S. soil, perhaps not on Sept. 11, but in the near future.
And this time, there is additional cause for concern: intelligence intercepts that specifically refer to targets within U.S. borders, said the official.
“We’ve seen chatter about that,” the senior official said in reference to domestic targets. “Why don’t we attack monuments? Why don’t we attack Wall Street?”
Robert Blitzer, the FBI’s former head of counter-terrorism, said the warnings may be general but appear to be based on specific information that has been verified and deemed credible.
“What they are doing is not revealing the depth of the information that this person provided,” Blitzer said of the Al Qaeda operative. “They don’t want the bad guys to know what they know.”
Authorities would not provide details about the Al Qaeda operative who had given them information this week that helped prompt the alert.
But Ashcroft said a wealth of other intelligence information had been gathered in recent weeks that was causing much concern at the highest levels of government.
Al Qaeda and others “in the terrorist community [have] been very active in a wide variety of terrorism potentials, and while car bombs are a very significant part--car bombs, truck bombs, explosive devices--we also know that the terrorist community has been interested, and Al Qaeda in specific ... in a wide range of terrorist devices,” Ashcroft said.
“We have seen that the terrorist community has done research in
“And those have been the subject of previous endeavors. And, frankly, when we elevate this alert we want to remain cognizant of the fact that we’re dealing with a complex capacity, with an organization of international reach ... and capacity to operate.”
Blitzer, like some other terrorism experts, said Al Qaeda does not usually pick anniversaries to strike.
“There is much more of a tendency to allow us to get much more complacent and comfortable and then hit us,” said Blitzer.
“But they are so unpredictable they might just hit us on Sept. 11, just to show us that they are still lethal.”
Al Qaeda has “had an infrastructure here in the United States for years,” Blitzer said.
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The Five Levels of Alerts
The five levels of terrorism alerts outlined by the White House Office of Homeland Security, with recommended government and private-sector responses:
Severe risk of terrorist attacks
Deploy specially trained teams.
Watch and adjust transportation systems.
Close public and government facilities.
High risk of terrorist attacks
Take additional precaution at public events.
Prepare to work at an alternate site.
Restrict access to essential personnel only at some facilities.
Significant risk of terrorist attacks
Increase surveillance of key locations.
Coordinate emergency plans with nearby jurisdictions.
General risk of terrorist attacks
Review, update emergency response procedures.
Give the public necessary information.
Low risk of terrorist attacks
Train emergency personnel.
Reduce vulnerabilities at key facilities.
Sources: White House Office of Homeland Security, Associated Press
Times staff writers Robin Wright and James Gerstenzang in Washington and Richard C. Paddock in Indonesia contributed to this report.