Al Qaeda’s latest threat of terrorist attacks is focused on operations in three areas: the continental United States, the Persian Gulf region or Southeast Asia, according to intelligence officials.
Intelligence from both the FBI and CIA indicates that al Qaeda is preparing to conduct a major attack that will cause mass casualties, like the September 11 attacks, according to officials.
The CIA is worried that the new attack will be al Qaeda’s first attempt to carry out a terror strike using deadly chemical, biological or radiological weapons, said officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Federal officials raised the national terrorism alert status Friday from code yellow, or “elevated” threat, to code orange, or “high” threat a change expected to last at least 45 days, which could overlap U.S. military action against Iraq.
Attorney General John Ashcroft said last week, when asked whether the new alert was related to the buildup of American forces in the Middle East, that they were “very clearly unrelated.”
Former CIA counterterrorism official Vincent Cannistraro, however, said the warning is related to the buildup near Iraq.
“It is specifically related to the impending hostilities with Iraq,” Mr. Cannistraro said in an interview. “Al Qaeda plans to take advantage of an attack to enlist the support of radical Muslims and foster anti-American hostilities.”
U.S. intelligence agencies believe al Qaeda is “planning to do something and they would like to do something spectacular,” Mr. Cannistraro said.
Intelligence officials said there are also reports that al Qaeda’s latest threat to attack Americans is related to the Hajj, the Muslim religious observation in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, honoring the religion’s founder and prophet Muhammad. The annual observance began Sunday with up to 2 million people attending.
Southeast Asia also remains a focus of concern over al Qaeda attacks in the wake of the bombing in Bali, Indonesia, in October that killed about 200 people in a nightclub.
The London-based Arabic-language newspaper Al-Majallah reported last week that al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden plans to appear on audiotapes and videotapes after the start of U.S. military operations against Iraq.
The Saudi-owned weekly stated Feb. 2 that Abd al-Rahman al-Rashid, who operates a pro-al Qaeda Internet site, said bin Laden will surface to “incite the Arab and Muslim nations to strike at U.S. interests and repulse the U.S. military presence in the Gulf.”
The bin Laden statement will include “surprises” that Al-Rashid declined to specify, according to the newspaper, which noted that information about the bin Laden response to a U.S. attack was provided by al Qaeda officials.
Officials familiar with intelligence reports said the FBI for weeks has had reports that al Qaeda is planning to attack so-called “soft” targets in the United States, such as hotels and apartments that do not have the same level of protection as government buildings.
The overseas intelligence of an attack is based primarily on recent information collected by British authorities.
British police last month arrested six men who intelligence officials say are linked to al Qaeda. Evidence seized at the time of the arrests indicates the group was handling ricin, a toxin derived from the castor bean that is deadly when ingested.
Mr. Ashcroft noted that “there are also indications, bolstered by the recent arrests in London, where chemical ricin was discovered, [of] … al Qaeda’s interest in carrying out chemical, biological and radiological attacks.”