`Very specific' terror threats to N.Y., D.C.

U.S. warns al-Qaida may be planning attacks

`Chilling in scope, detail'

Financial sector is focus of raised terror alert

August 02, 2004|By Laura Sullivan and Tom Bowman | Laura Sullivan and Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - U.S. officials raised the terror alert level in Washington and called for heightened security in New York yesterday after "very specific" and "alarming" intelligence revealed that al-Qaida may be planning an attack on the headquarters of the International Monetary Fund or the World Bank here or buildings in New York and northern New Jersey.

Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge said intelligence gathered from "multiple reporting streams in multiple locations" suggests the terror network wants to attack the nation's "iconic" financial sector by striking buildings in the nation's capital, the Prudential Financial building in Newark, N.J., the Citigroup building in New York or the New York Stock Exchange.

Ridge said the intelligence shows al-Qaida could be planning to strike the structures using car or truck bombs. The information does not provide a specific time or date for such an attack, he said.

A senior intelligence official called the information "chilling in its scope, detail and breadth" and said reporting suggests al-Qaida has been keeping watch on the buildings and questioning whether certain explosives would be powerful enough to melt metal frameworks.

Washington's alert level was raised from yellow, or "elevated," to orange, or "high." New York City's alert level has been at orange since the Sept. 11 attacks.

"Al-Qaida wants to intimidate us and prevent us from enjoying our lives and exercising our freedoms," Ridge said. "The terrorists should know in this country this kind of information, while startling, is not stifling."

He said that enhanced security measures were either planned or under way, including increased patrols, identification checks, explosive detection devices and security perimeters.

Homeland Security officials called company executives at all the affected buildings yesterday to warn them of the threat and to urge them to increase security. Ridge said employees should ask their bosses if they should report to work today.

Ridge declined to discuss details of the new information. But the senior intelligence official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the reporting is some of the most specific he has seen in 24 years of intelligence work.

The intelligence, which came to light over the past 48 hours, indicates that al-Qaida has been reconnoitering the buildings. In one instance the reporting says al-Qaida operatives counted how many pedestrians passed the buildings at different times of day - 28 people per minute in the case of one building - in order to maximize the casualties from an explosion.

The al-Qaida operatives also appear to have noted details about security checkpoints, the proximity of parking garages to the buildings and discussed whether explosive materials would be powerful enough to bring down the structures.

In one case, another senior official said, the intelligence shows that operatives singled out a coffee shop across the street from one of the buildings as a good vantage point for surveillance.

A senior official at a separate briefing said one terrorist wrote, "You can sit in any one of three coffee shops and not raise any attention at all."

In other correspondence obtained by U.S. officials, terrorists write about escape routes and the proximity of police and fire stations. In one instance, the writer notes that operatives can gain easy access to one of the buildings: "Getting up to the higher floors is not very difficult if you go there midweek."

The intelligence also shows al-Qaida displayed interest in whether guards patrolling the buildings are armed and the level of incline into parking garages, and discussed where best to meet employees.

Intelligence officials stressed yesterday that information is still coming in.

While officials declined to identify the source of the intelligence, they hinted that recent unspecified interrogations and evidence collected during raids played a role.

Pakistani officials announced Friday that on July 25 they arrested Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, an al-Qaida suspect on the FBI's list of wanted terrorists and the alleged conspirator in the 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa. Ten terrorist suspects also were arrested in mid-June in Pakistan.

The senior official, though, noted that some details al-Qaida appears to have collected about the buildings could have been gathered before the 2001 attacks even though U.S. intelligence just learned about it.

Ridge said the arrest last week of a South African woman of Pakistani descent, Farida Goolam Mohamed Ahmed, who raised suspicions after she illegally entered the United States across the Rio Grande and tried to board a flight to New York from a Southwest airport, does not appear to be related.

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