Al-Qaida wants to outdo 9/11, U.S. says

Pre-election attack `certainly their intent,' Bush official claims

August 09, 2004|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Recent arrests and intelligence discoveries by the United States and its allies have helped disrupt a possible pre-election attack in the United States by the al-Qaida network, which aims for a "catastrophic" act of terror surpassing that of Sept. 11, 2001, a senior White House official said yesterday.

Frances Fragos Townsend, a top homeland security adviser to President Bush, said that recently disclosed al-Qaida surveillance of a number of financial institutions revealed at least "a piece" of a major attack plot, but not necessarily the full scope of the group's plans.

A pre-election attack is "certainly their intent," Townsend said of al-Qaida during an interview on Fox News Sunday. "I certainly think by our actions now that we have disrupted it. The question is, have we disrupted all of it or a part of it?"

Townsend said that one reason the United States has not seen an attack since al-Qaida suicide terrorists attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon is that the network is trying to plan "something bigger than 9/11. They want a catastrophic attack."

The adviser's comments came a week after Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge raised the terror-alert level for New York, northern New Jersey and Washington as a result of new evidence that al-Qaida had conducted detailed surveillance of financial institutions. Those included the New York Stock Exchange and the Citigroup Center in New York; Prudential Financial Inc. headquarters in Newark, N.J.; and the World Bank and International Monetary Fund buildings in Washington.

The heightened alert has coincided with a series of arrests and the interrogation of al-Qaida suspects in Pakistan, Britain and elsewhere that have added to officials' understanding of the plot.

Over the weekend, Pakistani officials disclosed that a key figure with close al-Qaida ties, Qari Saifullah Akhtar, had been arrested in the United Arab Emirates and turned over to Pakistan. Akhtar is believed to have been a leader of Harakat-ul-Jehad-e-Islami, which trained militants in Afghanistan and, more recently, to have been involved in assassination plots against Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf.

Pakistani officials said his case was not linked with the al-Qaida suspects involved in the surveillance of the financial institutions in the United States. But Townsend suggested that further investigation might produce a link, and may also turn up more American targets.

"We may see additional U.S. targets," Townsend said in a separate interview on CBS' Face the Nation. "It's hard to judge that now until we have a better sense of what we see out of Great Britain, Pakistan and this arrest over the weekend in the UAE."

Although most of the surveillance was conducted in 2000 and 2001, officials have said the evidence was supplemented by intelligence indicating a continuing plot. Some of the surveillance is believed to have been conducted by an al-Qaida operative arrested last week in Britain, Abu Eisa al-Hindi, also known as Abu Musa al-Hindi, with observations stored on computer disks found during the arrest in Pakistan of another operative, Mohammed Naeem Noor Khan.

Townsend said the evidence of the surveillance obtained from the computer files was "incredibly detailed, incredibly chilling" - so much so that it might have been conducted by a group of people instead of just one person. In one aspect of the plot reported by Time magazine, al-Qaida operatives apparently considered using an explosives-laden limousine to attack Prudential's headquarters.

But in an ominous acknowledgment of how much remains unknown about the terror plot, Townsend said on CBS that it was "hard to say" whether al-Qaida still has cells operating inside the United States. "I think, for the sake of the country, we've got to assume they are," she said.

The newly disclosed intelligence has given the Bush administration an opportunity to highlight its anti-terrorism cooperation with allies - chiefly Britain, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf states - and blunt criticism from Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry that the president's policies have alienated foreign governments and thus undermined the war on terrorism.

But the timing of Ridge's terror alert - coming as it did when Kerry sought to capitalize on the attention he and running mate John Edwards gained during the Democratic National Convention - continued to raise questions yesterday of political motivation on the part of the White House.

Condoleezza Rice, Bush's national security adviser, defended the decision on NBC's Meet the Press, saying, "The idea that you would somehow play politics with the security of the American people - that you would not go out and warn if you have casing reports on buildings that are highly specific. ... Are you really supposed to not tell?"

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