- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 23, 2003

Continuing “chatter” between al Qaeda members about efforts to hijack passenger or cargo jetliners from less-secure airports outside the United States is of significant concern to federal law-enforcement officials, authorities said yesterday.

Terrorists threatening to repeat the September 11 attacks are looking to crack increased security procedures in the United States and abroad, a factor in raising the national terror threat level to high on Sunday.

Since September 11, the U.S. military has scrambled fighters or diverted aircraft over specific target areas on more than 1,600 occasions, and Americans might see similar security precautions during the holidays, Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said yesterday.

“They may see additional air patrols over select cities and facilities, an increase in the air-defense posture here in Washington, D.C., and combat aircraft could be put on a higher alert at different air bases throughout the country,” Gen. Myers said.

“We’re taking this threat very seriously and have put in place several added security measures,” he said.

Asked at the same Pentagon press briefing whether the terror threat alert was “truly serious,” Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said, “Yes, you bet your life.

“People don’t do that unless it’s a serious situation,” Mr. Rumsfeld said.

A Homeland Security Department official said hijacking a plane en route from a foreign country “remains a serious concern.”

“That’s why we have, at the highest level of government, reminded all international partners of their need to ensure and enhance levels of security, where passengers are thoroughly screened and that secure areas of the airport cannot be accessed,” the official said.

Billie H. Vincent, chief executive officer of Aerospace Services International and former head of security for the Federal Aviation Administration, said passenger screening in Europe and Southeast Asia is stronger than security in the United States, although security in the United States has improved since the September 11 attacks.

“It is not always correct to think the weakness is all outside the U.S.,” Mr. Vincent said.

The Transportation Security Administration has done “a pretty good job getting their act together, but there are still holes,” Mr. Vincent said.

Federal law-enforcement authorities yesterday said intercepted communications between known terrorist groups documented ongoing efforts by al Qaeda and others to attempt a series of coordinated strikes against U.S. targets.

The intercepts, the authorities said, listed several potential targets, mostly in urban areas of the East and West coasts, although it was not clear whether the terrorists had established the capability to carry out the attacks — including the potential planting of explosives at chemical facilities, nuclear-power plants, major dams, seaports and domestic U.S. airports.

Several chemical plants and other facilities in California have been identified by federal officials as potential targets, the authorities said, although their identities are a closely guarded secret. The FBI in Los Angeles has reopened its counterterrorism command center to guard against attacks.

End-of-the year football bowl games throughout the country are thought to be targets, although no specific scenario or event has been identified.

“The public needs to know that those who need the threat information to do the job have received it to put in place specific protective measures,” the Homeland Security official said.

The FBI has warned law-enforcement agencies nationwide that unconfirmed intercepted intelligence data showed that al Qaeda was preparing an imminent attack, although the alert noted that the bureau had “no information on the possible operatives, target, timing or method of a possible attack.”

Most of the intelligence data used by Homeland Security to raise the alert level came from intercepted telephone calls between al Qaeda members and others, along with intercepted e-mails, chat-room conversations and information gleaned from al Qaeda terrorists and operatives in U.S. custody, the authorities said.


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