Federal authorities, concerned about al Qaeda terrorist attacks on U.S. targets here and abroad, raised the countrys security alert yesterday to the second-highest level as hundreds of thousands of Muslims prepare for a religious pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia.
“Recent reporting indicates an increased likelihood that al Qaeda may attempt to attack Americans in the United States or abroad in or around the end of the Hajj, a Muslim religious period ending mid-February,” Attorney General John Ashcroft said during a Justice Department press conference.
The high risk, or “level orange,” security designation was approved at a meeting of the Homeland Security Council. It was based on specific intelligence received and analyzed by the law enforcement and intelligence communities, corroborated by multiple sources.
“Recent intelligence reports suggest that al Qaeda leaders have emphasized planning for attacks on apartment buildings, hotels and other soft or lightly secured targets in the United States,” he said.
He noted that the recent bombings of a nightclub in Indonesia and a hotel in Kenya “demonstrate the continued willingness of al Qaeda to strike at peaceful, innocent civilians.”
Mr. Ashcroft said there were “indications” of al Qaedas interest in carrying out chemical, biological and radiological attacks, including “dirty bombs,” and to strike at economic targets, including the transportation and energy sectors, as well as symbols of American power.
The Bush administration has blamed al Qaeda for the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon that killed more than 3,000 people.
The Department of Homeland Security has established five color-coded threat-assessment levels: green for a low risk of attacks; blue for a general risk; yellow for a significant risk; orange for a high risk; and red for a severe risk.
Under the orange level, federal agencies coordinate security efforts with federal, state and local law enforcement and with various military entities; take additional precautions at public events and consider alternative venues or cancellations; prepare contingency plans, such as moving to an alternate site or dispersing the work force; and restrict threatened-facility access to essential personnel.
In the District, Mayor Anthony A. Williams said no specific threat had targeted the city, but that precautions were being taken. Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey said street cameras had been turned on and that the citys Joint Operations Command Center would be running around the clock.
In Maryland, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. also said no specific threat had been identified for the state, but he ordered authorities to the orange level designation based on reports by federal officials of “credible threats against the continental United States as a result of potential actions abroad.”
In Virginia, Gov. Mark R. Warner said the commonwealth was taking the warning seriously, working closely with federal and local law enforcement, as well as other first responders. He called on Virginians to help authorities by maintaining a heightened sense of awareness.
The religious observation known as the Hajj is the once-in-a-lifetime obligatory pilgrimage of Muslims to Mecca in Saudi Arabia. About 2 million Muslims from around the world are expected to attend the weeklong event honoring Muhammad, the founder and prophet of Islam.
Mr. Ashcroft said that since September 11, 2001, federal authorities have “substantially improved” their ability to disrupt, deter and prevent terrorist attacks against U.S. targets. He said the FBI has investigated more than 3,000 terrorist threats in this country, issued 103 warnings to state and local law enforcement, and announced three major nationwide terrorist alerts.
“We are not recommending that events be canceled, nor do we recommend that individuals change domestic or work or travel plans,” he said.
“As we have in the past, we ask that Americans continue their daily work and leisure activities, with a heightened awareness of their environment and the activities occurring around them.”
Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, who joined Mr. Ashcroft and FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III at the press conference, said the increased threat level dictated that specific protective measures be taken by federal agencies to reduce vulnerabilities and serve as a deterrent.
“The call we give today, which Americans have certainly heard before, is based on our knowledge and our conviction that heightened awareness and readiness deters terrorism and saves lives,” Mr. Ridge said.
“Today, we call on Americans to continue to persevere in the face of this evil, in the face of this terror, because we understand that by working together, not only will we persevere, but we will prevail.”
Mr. Mueller said the FBI is “fully mobilized” to respond to any terrorist threat, along with state and local authorities, and added that “an alert public is our strongest asset.” He encouraged citizens to “contact your local FBI office or your local police” to report suspicious activity.
Mr. Ashcroft said he did not know when the threat level might be reduced, adding that the designation is “driven by intelligence-information analysis.”
He said a September 2002 decision moving the level from yellow to orange was based in part on terrorist-related activity in upstate New York and that when that activity was “neutralized,” the threat level was reduced.
“We hope to reduce the level of the threat by our activities,” he said.