Terrorists said to case U.S. sites

Disneyland, Sears Tower, Mall of America evaluated as targets, reports say

War On Terrorism

The Nation

October 14, 2001|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

WASHINGTON - Terrorist groups have cased at least five sites for possible attacks in the United States, including Walt Disney World, Disneyland and the Sears Tower in Chicago, three internal government reports said.

Terrorists linked to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network also evaluated the sprawling Mall of America near Minneapolis and unspecified sports facilities, said two senior Bush administration officials familiar with the reports, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

No evidence has come to light suggesting that attacks are - or ever were - planned on any of those buildings or theme parks.

The surveillance information gathered by authorities investigating the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks stopped short of suggesting that the sites the terrorists cased were chosen as targets by them.

The warning of possible new terrorist attacks that the FBI issued Thursday was not based on the reports that terrorists had been evaluating specific targets, but on a message to al-Qaida operatives to launch attacks in the United States and perhaps elsewhere.

Intelligence officials learned of the order Wednesday, a senior intelligence officer said yesterday.

But the FBI took the al-Qaida order to attack - at unknown locations and possibly this weekend - seriously enough to issue its warning. The FBI also issued an urgent request Thursday "to immediately notify the FBI and local law enforcement of any unusual or suspicious activity."

Terrorists are known to carefully check out buildings or other locations that will be involved in an attack. Some of the suicide hijackers who crashed the four jetliners Sept. 11 were seen on similar planes in the weeks before the attacks.

Asked to comment on the reports that the sites had been cased by terrorists, but not necessarily targeted or threatened by them, FBI spokesman John Collingwood said, "The FBI has no information about these specific threats. If we or any other agency had specific threat information, we would have immediately notified the intended targets and the affected public as well. The government agencies involved in this investigation are sharing all threat information."

Asked to respond only to the evidence of terrorist surveillance, apart from the question of threats, Collingwood stuck to his answer.

Attorney General John Ashcroft's office did not respond to requests for comment.

Representatives of the buildings and theme parks said they had no reason to think their facilities were targeted, but they said they have joined the national effort to tighten security wherever large numbers of people gather.

At the Sears Tower - at 1,454 feet, the world's second-tallest building - security has doubled since Sept. 11, and the 110th-floor observation deck has been closed, pending installation of new security devices, a spokesman said.

Employees and visitors must show identification, and packages are searched, he said. Armed off-duty Chicago police officers joined the building's security detail Thursday and have the power to make arrests, the spokesman said.

According to the internal government reports, investigators found among the possessions of the suicide hijackers and their alleged colleagues sketches or reports describing the Sears Tower, the theme parks, the Mall of America and unknown sports facilities.

News reports this month said the Sears Tower had been targeted by terrorists. The FBI denied those reports, which went beyond assertions that terrorists had merely assessed the building.

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