Terror alert lowered from orange `high' back to yellow

Reduced fighting lessens attack threat, officials say

April 17, 2003|By Laura Sullivan | Laura Sullivan,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The Bush administration lowered the nation's terrorist alert level one notch yesterday, saying the threat of an attack has declined now that major combat in Iraq has ended.

With the threat level reduced from orange, signifying "high" risk, to yellow, or "elevated" risk, some security measures around the nation will be eased. Still, federal officials warned that substantial risks remain.

"We must be vigilant and alert to the possibility that al-Qaida and those sympathetic to their cause, as well as former Iraqi-regime state agents and affiliated organizations, may attempt to conduct attacks against the U.S. or our interests abroad," Tom Ridge, secretary of homeland security, said in a statement.

The administration had raised the level from yellow to orange March 17, two days before the United States attacked Iraq. At the time, officials said the looming war, intelligence related to al-Qaida and information about solo terrorists warranted the increase. Yesterday, the terror alert was returned to the third-highest level out of five.

Besides relaxing many of the tighter security rules at government facilities, airports and power plants, officials will ease many separate security actions that were taken specifically because of the war.

However, the New York City Police Department said that the city would remain on orange alert status and that the tighter security at bridges and tunnels would continue.

Officials at the Homeland Security Department said it was not clear whether the "high" risk threat level during the war had helped uncover any terrorist plots.

The lowering of the alert status, after the fall of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's regime and after the Pentagon said major combat operations had ended, suggested that America might be safer from terrorists. But some analysts warned against assuming that the two were necessarily linked.

"The war in Iraq has been a distraction," said Stansfield Turner, a former CIA director who teaches at the School of Public Affairs at the University of Maryland.

"Certainly it shows American resolve," he said. "But if they are counting on American resolve to deter countries from harboring al-Qaida, I think that's a stretch. Many of these countries don't have enough control over their own countries to know whether al-Qaida is operating there and wouldn't be able to control them if they were."

Counterterrorism officials at several intelligence agencies said yesterday that although few reports have emerged lately about the whereabouts of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, they have been working hard to try to find him or his associates.

The FBI and CIA cautioned against any notion that they had redirected resources away from terrorism to aid the war effort.

One official said the bureau called on additional personnel, instead of using its counterterrorism unit, to interview hundreds of Iraqi exiles. Some of the exiles, this official said, provided details about Hussein's bunkers and tunnels.

The war in Iraq and the war against terrorism have become the top priorities of U.S. intelligence analysts.

"It's true that the threat level has been lowered, and the intelligence community is comfortable with that," said one counterterrorism official. "But that doesn't mean we're sitting here letting out a big sigh of relief. We're not out of the woods yet."

The connection, if any, between Iraq and al-Qaida remains ambiguous. U.S. forces in Baghdad succeeded this week in capturing Abu Abbas, leader of the violent Palestinian group responsible for the attack on the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro in 1985 that killed an American.

Counterterrorism officials said they believe Abbas might be helpful in providing information about Hussein and his regime. At the same time, senior counterterrorism officials said Abbas probably knows little of value about al-Qaida.

Some counterterrorism analysts have speculated that al-Qaida would use the war in Iraq as a cover to launch new operations. It's unclear whether that is true, but reports surfaced this month suggesting that portions of the Taliban were reorganizing in southern Afghanistan

U.S. success in Iraq, they say, could also backfire and ignite more anti-American unrest in the Middle East, provoking sympathy for terrorists and inspiring lone-wolf suicide bombers.

Some FBI counterterrorism officials said they were surprised that there had been no terrorist attacks in the past few weeks but were concerned that a major one might be coming.

"This is the longest we've seen al-Qaida go without undertaking an operation," one FBI official said. "The fact that we didn't see something reflects well on the government's efforts to prevent an attack, but it's hard to quantify."

In a recent interview, Gordon England, deputy secretary of the Homeland Security Department, said the war in Iraq was a sideshow to the main event - "a battle in a much larger war against terrorism."

"We fought communism for 40 years," he said. "We've been at this now for 18 months. People keep asking me how long is this going to take. Well, it ain't going to be four months, and it ain't going to be four years. ... It's going to be a long struggle."

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