The Pentagon has deployed air defense missiles around Washington as the CIA warned yesterday that Osama bin Laden’s latest audio message could presage a major attack.
Defense officials said vehicle-mounted Avenger anti-aircraft missiles were deployed after the Bush administration elevated the national terrorism alert last week.
“As we increase force protection concerns, we are increasing air defense concerns in a similar way,” a defense official said. “And that means a much more robust air defense package in the national capital area.”
The vehicles have been moved to several military bases and locations around the city, including near the Pentagon.
The Avenger is a jeep-mounted version of the shoulder-fired Stinger anti-aircraft missile. The deployment is a sign that U.S. security officials anticipate that a future al Qaeda terrorist attack could involve hijacked airliners or other aircraft.
CIA Director George J. Tenet told Congress yesterday that a major al Qaeda attack could be carried out in the United States or the Middle East as early as this week.
Mr. Tenet said during testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee that “multiple sources” of intelligence reported that al Qaeda is planning an attack on the United States or the Arabian Peninsula.
“It points to plots timed to occur as early as the end of the hajj, which occurs late this week, and it points to plots that could include the use of radiological dispersion devices as well as poisons and chemicals,” Mr. Tenet said. The hajj is the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca.
The Arabic language Al Jazeera satellite television network broadcast an audio message it said was from bin Laden.
Mr. Tenet said the tape could signal that an attack is imminent. Earlier bin Laden messages were followed by terror attacks in October and November, he said.
“I believe the tape represents an exhortation to his followers,” Mr. Tenet said. “I believe he is trying to raise their confidence and we know from previous tapes that previous tapes occurred roughly prior to previous attacks that have occurred, so the surface is very concerning to us.”
This is the second time air defense missiles have been deployed. The last time Avengers were posted around the city was September, when the national terrorism alert also was raised.
The Pentagon said in a statement at the time of the first Avenger deployments that the missiles were not fielded in response to any specific threat.
This time, however, defense officials said the missile deployments are related to the danger of a major terrorist attack.
The missiles are linked to warning radar used by the North American Aerospace Defense Command, or Norad, in Colorado, which tracks aircraft in and around the United States.
Officials did not say how many of the Avengers were deployed or to what locations.
The Pentagon last weekend ordered all military forces to increase their security status. The threat level for military forces was raised over the weekend from a status known as “force protection condition alpha” to “bravo,” the next highest level, a defense official said.
Some defense facilities are on an even higher alert status as a result of terrorist threats.
The increase coincided with the raising of the national terrorism alert status Friday.
The U.S. Northern Command also has stepped up combat air patrols over major cities, including Washington. The patrols include F-16 jets from Andrews Air Force Base that are patrolling the skies over Washington. Helicopters also are being used in security patrols.
Other nations were doing the same yesterday, with the British government deploying 1,500 police and troops with armored vehicles around London Heathrow Airport. The Ministry of Defense did not deny reports that jets were guarding the skies over London.
The government had considered closing Heathrow in response to security concerns but rejected the plan for fear of inflicting “catastrophic” damage on the economy, the London Daily Telegraph said in today’s editions.
Asked about increased domestic defenses in the United States, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said yesterday that taking steps to defend against attack is “the prudent thing to do.”
“To the extent those steps are described in great detail, it advantages nobody other than the terrorists,” Mr. Rumsfeld told reporters at the Pentagon.
Mr. Tenet repeated earlier warnings about an impending attack he said was based on intelligence from multiple sources close to the al Qaeda terrorist network.
Mr. Tenet said the intelligence is not “idle chatter” and is “the most specific we have seen.”