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Police and FBI downplay L.A. terrorist threat

Times Staff Writer

The FBI and Los Angeles police Thursday downplayed the significance of an unsubstantiated counterterrorism warning that Al Qaeda may target shopping malls in Los Angeles and Chicago this holiday season.

The warning became public shortly after a declassified version of an intelligence report was distributed to thousands of law enforcement agencies across the country. Counterterrorism officials quickly cautioned that it was based on an uncorroborated report from a foreign intelligence source and had been known to U.S. authorities for weeks.

According to the report, Al Qaeda for two years has been planning to attack malls, with a goal of disrupting the economy during the holidays.

But FBI spokesman Richard Kolko said Thursday, “There is no information to state this is a credible threat.”

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He said the warning was distributed to ensure that state and local law enforcement officials were aware of it.

“Out of an abundance of caution, and for any number of other reasons, raw intelligence is regularly shared within the intelligence and law enforcement communities -- even when the value of the information is unknown,” Kolko said, adding that information-sharing has become a crucial component of national security efforts since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Kolko added that Al Qaeda had repeatedly made clear its intention to again attack the United States or its interests.

“As always, we remind people to remain vigilant and report suspicious activity to authorities,” he said.

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While the law enforcement bulletins are important in sharing information, the FBI said, the warning issued Thursday was among thousands sent every year to local police agencies.

LAPD Deputy Chief Michael P. Downing, who heads the department’s counterterrorism and criminal intelligence bureau division, also minimized the importance of the threat.

“First of all, this type of threat has happened every year since 2001,” Downing said. “This is information from a foreign source whose credibility is seriously in question, and I underline the word ‘seriously.’ ”

The deputy chief, however, said the law enforcement bulletin was a “good opportunity to bring home the message that we need the public to be ever vigilant about threats, and we need to share information” with other public and private agencies to be on guard about security.

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In Chicago, Cynthia Yates, spokeswoman for the local FBI office, said that although the threat came from “uncorroborated information,” it was important that the public be made aware of it.

Chicago police officials said they first learned of the threat about two weeks ago.

But the department was not making any extra preparations and no additional resources were being deployed because “the information was not specific, and there were no specific threats to any mall or area of Chicago,” said police spokeswoman Monique Bond.

Since the 9/11 attacks, some security experts have raised concerns about the vulnerability of shopping centers and their attractiveness to extremists as a target.

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In a report this year, the Rand Corp. outlined a series of measures that it said could greatly reduce the risk of attacks at enclosed shopping centers, including public information campaigns alerting people to report suspicious packages, placement of vehicle barriers at pedestrian entrances and clearly identified exits so shoppers can leave malls quickly in an emergency.

“In the past these sort of [law enforcement warnings] have caused a lot of anxiety and consternation for shopping mall operators because they haven’t been sure about how to respond,” Tom LaTourrette, lead researcher on the Rand project, said Thursday.

greg.krikorian@latimes.com


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