Ashcroft, FBI seek help to stop al-Qaida attack

Sources point to strike inside U.S. this summer

threat level is unchanged

May 27, 2004|By Laura Sullivan | Laura Sullivan,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Federal officials sought public help yesterday in finding seven people associated with al-Qaida and warned that terrorists are plotting an attack inside the United States this summer.

Credible information from multiple sources indicates that al-Qaida plans to strike the United States within the next few months, Attorney General John Ashcroft and FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III said at a news conference.

The officials acknowledged that they lack any specific information on the site or timing of a possible attack. They have decided, for now, not to raise the nation's terrorism alert level from yellow or elevated, the midpoint on the scale.

Nor does the law enforcement community appear to be in complete agreement on the gravity and magnitude of the threat. Ashcroft warned that "this disturbing intelligence indicates al-Qaida's specific intention to hit the U.S. hard."

But in television interviews yesterday, Tom Ridge, the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, who did not attend the news conference, was more cautious. Ridge would say only that the United States remains a top target of al-Qaida and that major public events in coming months, starting with the dedication of the World War II memorial in Washington this weekend, are obvious targets.

Asked whether Ridge agreed with Ashcroft's assertion that a stream of credible intelligence indicates al-Qaida plans to attack soon, Ridge's spokeswoman, Katy Mynster said, "I think we agree there has been a continued threat to the United States, but there is no new, specific information."

The seven wanted people who were identified yesterday - one of them an American - are not believed to be working together and are not known to be in the United States.

But officials say one or more could be part of a terrorist plot. Most of them could easily blend into their U.S. surroundings, having spent years in the country, fluent in the English language and American customs.

"We ask you to be on the lookout for each of these individuals associated with al-Qaida," Ashcroft said. "They all pose a clear and present danger to America. They all should be considered armed and dangerous."

Ashcroft said there were no plans to raise the terrorism threat alert because the information they have is not specific enough or targeted to a precise time period. But he said that potential targets would include the G-8 meeting of industrial powers in Georgia next month and the political conventions in Boston and New York this summer.

Some of the threat information, the attorney general said, has come from al-Qaida's own public statements. Without elaborating, he said al-Qaida announced early this year that plans to attack the United States were 70 percent complete.

Some representatives of law enforcement officers and emergency personnel questioned the timing of yesterday's announcement, suggesting that President Bush, saddled by record-low approval ratings and a bloody war in Iraq, might be trying to divert public attention.

David Holway, president of the International Brotherhood of Police Officers, and Harold Schaitberger, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters, both of whose organizations back John Kerry for president, said they were skeptical about the latest warning.

"It's very suspect," Holway said. "I'm concerned they are sitting on these types of alerts and playing political games with them."

"I find these reports and this press conference politically convenient at best," Schaitberger said. "The chatter, the substance of the threat has been known for a number of weeks."

Law enforcement officials acknowledged that much of the information on a plot has been known. But they said it had been evolving, reaching a critical juncture in recent days.

Ashcroft disputed there was anything questionable about the timing of the news conference.

"We plan to make announcements whenever they would be in the national interest to make announcements," he said. "One of the reasons we make announcements is that the American people can help us reduce the risk by participating in an aggressive approach to disruption."

Ashcroft warned that al-Qaida might seek recruits who can portray themselves as Europeans or can travel easily with families to lower their profile.

The seven people being sought vary by age and ethnicity, but several seem able to adapt to U.S. culture. They include one woman, Aafia Siddiqui, a 32-year-old Pakistani who attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology until January of last year. Before that she studied at Brandeis University.

Authorities say they think she may have spent time living in the Maryland suburbs of Washington. FBI officials say they believe she has returned to Pakistan.

The American, Adam Yahiye Gadahn, a 25-year-old who converted to Islam in his teens, is not believed to have been in the United States since at least before the Sept. 11 attacks. It is unclear whether Gadahn is his birth name or if he changed it when he converted to Islam.

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