Banks in East of possible terrorist threat

Alert, which includes Md., D.C., doesn't specify place, kind of attack

April 20, 2002|By Laura Sullivan | Laura Sullivan,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The FBI warned banks and financial institutions in Maryland and 11 other Eastern states yesterday that terrorists might be plotting to attack them, based in part on information one official said was gleaned from the highest-ranking al-Qaida leader in U.S. custody.

FBI officials were quick to say that the information on which they based the warning was "unsubstantiated" and that they had no specific information about what kind of attack, where an attack might take place or whether there will be one.

They said they decided to issue the alert to banks and local law enforcement "out of an abundance of caution."

Part of the information that led to the alert came from Abu Zubaydah, the most senior al-Qaida leader captured, said an official who declined to be identified and provided no details.

Zubaydah was taken into custody March 28 while hiding in a house outside Faisalabad, Pakistan, and has since been held at an unspecified location while being interrogated by U.S. officials.

Government officials think Zubaydah was the operations director for Osama bin Laden's terrorist network, possibly helping to plan the attacks of Sept. 11 and others. He was shot three times in the raid on his hideout and has received good medical care, military officials said.

The warning went to banks in Maryland, Virginia, Delaware, Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire and the District of Columbia.

Another government official, without mentioning Zubaydah, said the warning stemmed from information gathered from questioning captured al-Qaida suspects from Afghanistan.

The warning was the fourth alert the FBI has issued publicly since the September attacks. But aside from a warning issued to nuclear power plants this year, yesterday's was the first to focus on a specific area of the country or a specific business.

FBI officials said they decided to warn banks after discussions with the Justice Department, the Office of Homeland Security and the Treasury Department. The threat level for the United States remained at yellow yesterday, indicating an "elevated" level of risk, the third-highest of the five levels.

Attorney General John Ashcroft said in Pittsburgh yesterday that the information "may or may not be reliable" and that no specific financial institutions were named.

"We believe that this information-sharing disrupts and prevents terrorist activity," Ashcroft said. "We have learned from our reporting that when we elevate security precautions, we help disrupt potential terrorist activity."

Banks responded to the warning yesterday by disseminating the alert to branch offices, but some officials said there was little else they could do without more specific information. No banks closed, and many said they had no plans to.

Philip Hosmer, spokesman for Allfirst Bank in Baltimore, said officials sent e-mails to employees and are using the alert as a way to "re-emphasize safety and security."

Terri Bolling, spokeswoman for Bank of America in Maryland, said branches had been contacted and employees told to be vigilant.

"At this point, the FBI and law enforcement have not suggested any evacuation or escalation of the warning," Bolling said, "so we're doing business as usual."

Many banks in downtown Washington closed Monday after a bomb threat that was later found to have been delivered in a prank phone call from a 13-year-old boy in the Netherlands.

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