3rd source confirmed terror plot, U.S. says

Man in British custody `gave some real urgency' to warnings on Sunday

August 05, 2004|By Laura Sullivan and Mark Matthews | Laura Sullivan and Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - U.S. authorities made the decision to raise the terrorism alert level after a third al-Qaida figure alluded to an active plot to strike the U.S. financial sector, U.S. officials said yesterday.

Officials would not disclose his identity or whether he is a terrorist suspect or an informant. But officials said his information corroborated details about a possible strike and "gave some real urgency" to the decision to issue a warning, one senior official said.

Knight Ridder News Service reported last night that the person, who is in British custody, said the terrorist network was continuing with plans to attack and intended to strike possibly around the time of the Republican National Convention, which begins Aug. 30 in New York.

The information he provided, which came to the attention of Homeland Security and intelligence officials late last week, added to reporting that authorities had received from two suspects captured last month - computer engineer Muhammad Naeem Noor Khan, whose computer yielded hundreds of photos and Web site images of potential targets, and to a lesser extent, Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, indicted in the 1998 East Africa embassy bombings.

Old information

Administration officials sought yesterday to bolster their reasoning for raising the alert amid criticism that the warning was overblown and based on information that in some cases was four years old.

"There is another new stream of intelligence reporting that has come to our attention - came to our attention on Friday," said White House spokesman Scott McClellan. "And I think when you connect all these streams of intelligence, it paints an alarming picture."

Khan and his computer provided the bulk of the information leading to the specific warnings issued Sunday against five buildings in New York, Washington and Newark, N.J. But he did not provide any intelligence that a plot was active or when such an attack might take place.

Intelligence officials have long known that al-Qaida spends years preparing for an attack. Preparations for the embassy bombings, including on-site surveillance, began in 1993, according to the report by the Sept. 11 commission.

It was the third man, the one being held by the British, one official said, who made them believe a plot against the financial sector could be under way.

`Active' operative

While not naming Khan specifically, McClellan said an "al-Qaida operative had computer files with very detailed and specific information about some of al-Qaida's intentions.

"This is an active al-Qaida operative who we know has ties to other al-Qaida operatives who are involved in plotting to carry out attacks."

U.S. officials studying Khan's computer have determined that the data he amassed on the buildings had been "accessed and used" as recently as January, one senior intelligence official said.

Some U.S. officials played down the value of information Ghailani provided after his arrest in late July. Ghailani corroborated that al-Qaida was looking to attack the U.S. financial sector and specific landmark buildings, one U.S. official said, but he was not aware of any plans to attack the five buildings named Sunday by Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge.

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