Fresh Details Back Threats
Some of the surveillance files that triggered the nation’s latest terrorism alert were reviewed and updated by Al Qaeda just months ago and dovetail with other, fresh intelligence that indicates the terrorism network remains intent on launching a major U.S. attack during the presidential election campaign, U.S. authorities said Monday.
Despite the elaborate details about five financial institutions in New York; Newark, N.J.; and Washington that are contained in the files, officials said they had been unable to learn whether Al Qaeda had agents in this country preparing for attacks.
But several senior U.S. counterterrorism officials said that the surveillance, obtained in Pakistan and reviewed late last week by authorities in Washington, came amid a continuing stream of intelligence corroborating Al Qaeda’s determination to launch strikes in the U.S.
“It’s like you have this blank piece of paper and it’s filling up with more and more dots. It all points to an attack,” said one senior Department of Homeland Security official.
After reviewing the new intelligence, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge disclosed the threats Sunday and raised the terrorism threat level for financial institutions in the three cities to code orange, or “high,” saying Al Qaeda had been scoping out ways to detonate car or truck bombs at the facilities. The heightened alert -- the first time it had been applied on a localized basis rather than nationwide -- prompted stepped-up security measures in the three cities.
On Monday, Ridge told NBC’s “Today” show that on a scale of 1 to 10, the quality of the intelligence prompting the alert was “a 10".
Unlike previous Homeland Security alerts, this one specifically mentioned buildings housing the World Bank and International Monetary Fund in Washington, Citigroup Inc. and the New York Stock Exchange in New York and Prudential Financial Inc. in Newark, N.J., as being at risk. The surveillance began before the Sept. 11 attacks, a senior law enforcement official said.
Sunday’s disclosure of the surveillance, one FBI official said, had almost certainly scuttled any plan to attack the financial institutions anytime soon. But he added that Al Qaeda had a history of patiently planning attacks rather than risking that they might fail. “Now they can sit back and wait,” the official said.
On Monday, U.S. officials said that the Al Qaeda surveillance files were found in the possession of Mohammed Naeem Noor Khan, 25, an Al Qaeda computer expert who was arrested in Pakistan in mid-July.
But in a briefing, White House homeland security advisor Frances Townsend described the intelligence as coming not just from Khan but from “multiple reporting streams that came together in such a way to give us real grave concern.”
Intelligence officials said Khan oversaw an extensive Al Qaeda computer network that had been used by the group’s operatives to communicate with each other and to plot attacks.
One senior U.S. defense official said Monday that Khan also was caught with sketches, maps and about 500 diagrams of buildings in New York, New Jersey and Washington. “More than 10" buildings in New York had been sketched and diagramed many times, he said. He said there also was a diagram of the 52-story Bank of America Center in San Francisco.
In San Francisco, FBI spokeswoman LaRae Quy confirmed that the Bank of America building was apparently a “location of interest” for Al Qaeda, based on the intelligence collected from the computer in Pakistan.
Although Quy declined to elaborate, one high-ranking U.S. law enforcement official said that authorities had reached that conclusion after discovering a photograph of the bank building among the volumes of material retrieved with the arrest in Pakistan.
Another U.S. intelligence official confirmed that Khan’s capture by Pakistani authorities had provided investigators with a trove of information. “What you’re talking about is hundreds of documents, drawings and photographs,” the intelligence official said.
The senior Homeland Security official said, however, that the Al Qaeda files disclosed elaborate surveillance of only the five buildings identified by Ridge and that the file contained cursory information on about a dozen other buildings.
A second U.S. intelligence official said that although much of the intelligence was gathered several years ago, “it appears the information was updated as late as 2004.”
The official said that indicated that sometime this year, information had been added to the computer files containing the surveillance information.
“It was difficult to tell whether it was [information collected by] someone on the ground, someone pasting in photos” or some other method of updating the files, the official said.
The files included details about when and how to attack the buildings to inflict the most casualties.
Several officials said that they had gleaned no hard leads on whether Al Qaeda had operatives in place who could carry out such attacks.
Authorities in Washington, New York and New Jersey said they had not identified any suspects or conducted any raids or searches.
Two senior counterterrorism officials said they were not surprised at the lack of information about plotters, describing Al Qaeda’s penchant for compartmentalizing operations. But both said the surveillance files offered strong evidence that Al Qaeda had been plotting attacks over a period of years that could be launched at any time.
“They have the information, they have the data, they have a library of this stuff and they can just pull it out and use it,” one said. “When you combine that with the [recent intelligence], it shows there is a concerted effort at the highest levels of Al Qaeda to do something devastating to us, in the U.S., before or during the election.”
Terrorism experts said the evidence that prompted the threat alert also demonstrated that Al Qaeda’s central leadership was still functioning at some level, and continued to communicate via the Internet from hiding posts in Pakistan.
“There’s still some central planning capability, which is disquieting, because whatever progress we’ve made in the wake of Sept. 11, it’s business as usual” for Al Qaeda, said Bruce Hoffman, a Washington-based terrorism expert at Rand Corp. “Despite all the punishment meted out to them, their method of operations has not changed -- they keep returning to the same targets.”
U.S. officials said Khan appears to have functioned as a communications technician for Al Qaeda, helping to code messages and send them across the Internet to e-mail addresses or jihadist websites that frequently shut down and resurface at new Internet addresses.
In that capacity, Khan may have been the conduit for messages carried on computer disc by couriers traveling down from tribal badlands in Pakistan, where Osama bin Laden and other Al Qaeda leaders are believed to be hiding.
Khan would then encrypt the messages and transmit them by Internet.
Khan was captured July 13 in a joint operation involving Pakistani security forces and the CIA, the U.S. official said, confirming information first reported in the New York Times on Monday.
Staff writers John Hendren in Washington and Greg Krikorian in Los Angeles also contributed.