U.S. Officials Face Array of Possible Plots
Al Qaeda operatives may be plotting several unrelated attacks in the United States, targeting not only major cities but also remote bulwarks of the “critical infrastructure” in an effort to cause mass casualties and major economic damage throughout the nation, U.S. officials said Monday.
Senior U.S. counter-terrorism officials said they have been unable to nail down specifics about a time or place for any potential attacks, despite a mad scramble to do so since receiving an alarming cache of corroborated intelligence beginning Thursday and Friday.
But the officials say the intelligence they have received -- much of it from intercepted communications among known terrorist operatives overseas -- clearly refers to at least one series of coordinated, simultaneous strikes, like Sept. 11, as well as isolated plots of varying degrees of sophistication.
“We’re concerned that there could potentially be many separate plots,” said one U.S. official with knowledge of the recent intelligence. “It’s hard to establish a certain theme to all of this because we are getting such a massive volume of reporting.”
That official and others stressed that while much of the intelligence about a coordinated attack has been corroborated, references to other unrelated plots were in many cases based on far less reliable or fewer sources.
Much of the recent intelligence makes broad references to large urban areas, including New York, Washington, Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Other pieces of intelligence cite such obscure locales as Rappahannock, a rural Virginia county with several government facilities, and Valdez, Alaska, where tankers load oil from the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, said several senior U.S. officials.
According to data received as recently as Monday, officials remain primarily concerned about Al Qaeda operatives plotting to hijack passenger and cargo planes and fly them into U.S. targets, as Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge said Sunday in announcing the decision to elevate the terror threat level one notch, from elevated, or yellow, to high, or orange.
They cite a large amount of corroborated and specific intelligence that refers to efforts to hijack planes not only outside the U.S., where security is not as tight, but also at domestic airports by using new and improved techniques that terrorist operatives believe could thwart the nation’s vast new homeland security apparatus.
But the FBI, the CIA and other authorities have also picked up intelligence about efforts to blow up chemical and hazardous materials facilities, nuclear power plants, dams, power grids, ports and airports, several U.S. officials said.
One senior federal law enforcement official said the FBI and other authorities are alarmed and frustrated because the intelligence varies so widely according to potential targets and methods of attack, as well as by its degree of specificity and corroboration. Of particular concern, he said, are vague references to coming attacks on “major metropolitan areas and events that we’re looking at ... bowl games, New Year’s events, that kind of thing.”
“There is no one specific threat here. There is no place or time to tie to this,” said the senior federal law enforcement official. “So we have to take all this information and do analysis.”
A recent FBI alert underscores such uncertainty. Citing unconfirmed intelligence reports, it warned that Al Qaeda might be preparing an attack in the U.S. before the end of the month. But, the alert adds, “we have no information on the possible operatives, target, timing or method of a possible attack.”
On Monday morning, Ridge, FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III, CIA Director George J. Tenet and several other senior counter-terrorism advisors briefed President Bush on the long list of threats, as well as on recent efforts to dispatch thousands of federal, state and local agents to defend potential targets around the country.
As part of that effort, the Department of Homeland Security has asked governors and mayors to specifically protect several hundred individual “critical infrastructure” facilities that, if attacked, “could result in a catastrophic loss of life or a devastating effect on the economy,” according to the senior U.S. official.
For instance, authorities in Southern California have been given a list of several chemical facilities and dozens of other potential targets throughout the region, but asked that they not be published to better protect them from attack. That list was compiled by combining recent intelligence with existing lists of thousands of vulnerable facilities identified over the last year by state and local officials.
The intelligence that has prompted such an unprecedented level of concern comes from conversations among known terrorist operatives of senior and foot-soldier rank, and from information gleaned from intercepted e-mails, discussions in Internet chat rooms and interrogations of Al Qaeda detainees on several continents, several senior U.S. counter-terrorism officials said.
The data, the officials said, come from intelligence gathered by the CIA and the National Security Agency, as well as from allies such as Britain “and a host of many, many other countries,” said the senior U.S. official.
Unlike past elevations of the terrorism threat level, the decision to raise the alert to orange this time was unanimous and decisive, because it was based on what senior Bush administration officials described as the most alarming, credible and specific information they had ever seen.
“I have never seen the national security leadership as tense and anxious as they are right now,” said a second senior federal law enforcement official. He said that even the timing of the raising of the threat level was moved up a day because of rapidly developing concerns over the weekend. Bush administration officials were so concerned, he said, that they sent a plane to Missouri on Saturday to bring Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft back to Washington from vacation.
“In the past, there were disagreements over whether [the elevated alert] was needed,” that official said. “This time, everyone said, ‘Yeah, let’s do it.’ It is the most specific and credible information we’ve had, period.”
In Los Angeles, FBI officials quietly reopened their command center last week for the first time since the start of the Iraq war. The move, officials said, was aimed at bringing the FBI’s third-largest office into a round-the-clock counter-terrorism footing in the event of an attack.
On Monday, the Los Angeles FBI office also convened an unprecedented meeting of about 100 federal, state and local law enforcement officials to outline strategies for safeguarding the region. “Everyone you could think of was there,” said FBI spokesman Matthew McLaughlin.
The meeting, he said, was aimed at coordinating security measures for the five-county region served by the local FBI office and other federal agencies. The area, with a population of more than 18 million, includes a number of high-profile targets such as Los Angeles International Airport, the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach and various tourist attractions.
“What’s new this time is the credibility of the threat,” said McLaughlin. “In this case, in addition to do more to safeguard locations, we are taking additional investigative steps to get ahead of this threat in a real aggressive way.”
In Los Angeles, San Francisco and other cities, counterterrorism agents fanned out Monday for hundreds of interviews with individuals -- including longtime FBI or CIA informants -- who may know about Middle East extremists.
“We have had other alerts,” said San Francisco FBI spokeswoman LaRae Quy.
“But this time, we are reaching out more to human sources to glean whatever information we can about this threat.
“We are asking them if anything doesn’t feel right or sound right, if they are noticing any unusual travel by persons they have been watching. We are just trying to be more proactive than usual.”
Roger Cressey, a former senior Bush administration counter-terrorism official, said the current intercepts have officials so concerned because they so closely mirror the conversations picked up before the Sept. 11 attacks.
“It is known bad guys talking in that expectant chatter, saying things like we’re finally going to respond to Iraq, Afghanistan and strike down the infidels ... that something big is going to happen,” he said.
“It’s the volume and the quality of the intelligence that is wigging everybody out and the fact that they just don’t know” where or when an attack may occur.
Meyer reported from Washington and Krikorian from Los Angeles. Times staff writers Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar, Maggie Farley and Edwin Chen contributed to this report.