Al-Qaida said to be planning strike

`Credible' intelligence shows possible attack on U.S. this year, Ridge says

July 09, 2004|By Laura Sullivan | Laura Sullivan,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - U.S. intelligence officials have "credible" information that al-Qaida is planning to attack the United States in coming months, possibly to disrupt and influence this year's presidential election, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge said yesterday.

Officials have no specific reports about the timing or target of such an attack and are not planning to raise the terror alert level, he said. But Ridge said terrorism officials believe that the national political conventions in Boston and New York and other events leading up to the election remain likely targets.

"Credible reporting now indicates that al-Qaida is moving forward with its plans to carry out a large-scale attack in the United States in an effort to disrupt our democratic process," Ridge said. "Based on the attack in Madrid and recent interdictions in England, Jordan and Italy, we know that they have the capability to succeed and hold the mistaken belief that their attacks will have an impact on America's resolve."

Train bombings in March, three days before Spain's national elections, left 190 dead in Madrid and resulted in the ouster of the pro-American government that had dispatched Spanish troops to Iraq.

Ridge reiterated much of the same information that he and Attorney General John Ashcroft laid out in May when they warned that al-Qaida was planning an attack on the United States. Ridge said yesterday's announcement was the first of what he said will be periodic updates to tell the public "where we are and what we are doing."

Several senior intelligence officials said yesterday that the intelligence does not suggest any new or greater threat since the May warning. Also, department officials could not point to any specific increased security beyond the measures already in place or planned for the conventions and the pre-election period.

The officials said, however, that they have gleaned from public sources such as radical Islamic Web sites and covert intelligence that al-Qaida was encouraged by the results of the Madrid attacks, and that they believe the terrorist organization maintains high interest in launching an attack this summer or fall.

Ridge said his department is examining every option available to increase security and protect the United States from an attack in the coming months.

Critics were quick to deride yesterday's announcement as overly vague and alarmist, saying the Bush administration was playing politics with possible al-Qaida threats.

"As with a slew of previous warnings, this latest announcement demonstrates that the warnings and alert level have little value other than for the federal government to claim it was not asleep at the wheel," said Charles V. Pena, director of defense policy studies at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank.

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