- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 21, 2003

The Bush administration yesterday raised the nation’s terror alert level to high, or Code Orange, and closed the U.S. Embassy and two consulate offices in Saudi Arabia in response to suicide bombings last week in Saudi Arabia and Morocco.

Separate reports by the FBI and the State Department said al Qaeda terrorists remain active and highly capable of striking U.S. targets in the United States and abroad. The Code Orange alert denotes a high threat of terrorist attacks, the second-highest level on a five-color scale.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said President Bush’s Homeland Security Advisory Council decided to raise the alert level from Code Yellow, or elevated status, to Code Orange during a White House meeting. Top administration and counterterrorism officials had reviewed intelligence data indicating a threat of domestic terrorism.

The U.S. Embassy in Riyadh and the consulate offices in Jidda and Dhahran will be “closed for several days” as a precautionary measure. Britain also temporarily closed its embassy and consulates in Saudi Arabia, while Germany said its embassy in Riyadh and its mission in Jidda would be closed until Friday.

In an advisory yesterday to state and local law-enforcement agencies nationwide, the FBI said the bombings in Riyadh and Casablanca, which killed 75, including eight Americans, meant that terrorists could strike in the United States. However, the warning noted no specific information about any pending threat.

“Recent intelligence suggests that the attacks may be a prelude to an attack on the United States,” said the FBI alert, which noted an elevated level of intercepted “chatter.”

Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge said in a statement that the alert level was raised in response to concerns by the U.S. intelligence community that al Qaeda had entered an operational period worldwide that could include attacks in the United States. The last time the alert level was raised to Code Orange was March 17, on the eve of the war with Iraq.

“In the wake of terrorist bombings in Saudi Arabia and Morocco, al Qaeda and those sympathetic to their cause are still a principal threat, but threats may also emanate from other anti-U.S. terrorist groups, regional extremist organizations and ad hoc groups or disgruntled individuals not connected to existing terrorist organizations or state sponsors of terrorism,” Mr. Ridge said.

“While there is not credible, specific information with respect to targets or method of attack, the use of tactics similar to those seen in recent terrorist attacks overseas include small-arm-equipped assault teams, large vehicle-borne explosive devices and suicide bombers,” he said.

Mr. Ridge did not elaborate but said the use of weapons of mass destruction, including those containing chemical, biological or radiological agents or materials, “cannot be discounted.”

He said he had spoken with the nation’s governors through their homeland security advisers and other state and local officials to ask them to review security measures and deploy additional measures, particularly going into a Memorial Day weekend filled with large public gatherings.

“For all Americans, we recommend you continue with your plans for work or leisure. However, your vigilance at large public events or other locations where crowds gather can help us disrupt terrorists’ plans,” he said. “If you see anything suspicious, do not hesitate to contact your local FBI office.

“A visible increase in security as well as the vigilance of homeland security professionals at all levels of government and the private sector and the general public can make a difference and prevent potential terrorist attacks,” Mr. Ridge said.

Earlier in the day, Democrats on the House Select Committee on Homeland Security questioned whether the United States was any more secure than before terrorists struck the World Trade Center and Pentagon. Mr. Ridge, in his first appearance before the panel, said challenges remain but that America is “much safer” than before September 11, 2001.

“We are not more vulnerable, just more aware of our vulnerabilities,” said Mr. Ridge, who left the committee hearing at noon to meet with Mr. Bush’s Homeland Security Advisory Council about raising the alert status.

At the U.S. Capitol, Homeland Security Undersecretary Asa Hutchinson said the department was taking seriously its concerns that terrorists were capable of conducting suicide bombings in the United States.

“The use of tactics similar to those we have seen in recent terrorist attacks have to be considered; they cannot be discounted,” Mr. Hutchinson said. “When we see a pattern of activity overseas directed at U.S. targets, we certainly have to be aware there remains that potential of use of those type of tactics here in the U.S.”

The administration declares Code Orange when it determines that the risk of terror attacks is high.

In response, federal authorities coordinate necessary security efforts with state and local law-enforcement agencies, the National Guard or other appropriate armed forces organizations; take additional precautions at public events and consider alternative venues or cancellation; prepare to disperse their work force; and restrict threatened facility access to essential personnel only.

In Maryland yesterday, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. also elevated the state’s threat alert from yellow to orange and called on citizens to report suspicious activity at 800/492-TIPS. He said no specific threats had been made against locations in Maryland but that the state would remain at the high alert status “until further notice.”

With the nation at the orange level, Washington’s Metropolitan Police Department has gone to Level Two alert, the middle of the scale. Police have activated their Joint Operations Command Center and turned on security cameras downtown. They have also stepped up security around D.C. government buildings.

In a separate advisory issued Friday, the FBI said the May 12 attacks in Riyadh had the “traditional hallmarks” of an al Qaeda operation, including precise planning, surveillance and coordination. The bureau said the attacks suggested that al Qaeda had adapted its target list to “soft targets” — those more lightly guarded than government or military installations.

That FBI warning was similar to an alert issued Friday by the State Department, through its Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC), that asked the public and American businesses to be on the lookout for attacks by suicide truck bombers.

Saying it had no specific information that a truck bombing of any kind was being planned in the United States, the department said the alert was designed to pre-empt any such attack by advising the public as well as owners and operators of businesses on how such a terrorist event might take place.

The State Department alert outlined what it called general information to assist in recognizing potential truck bombers or other threats based on the bombings in Riyadh.

It also warned that soft targets could include residences, recreational sites, shopping venues and business buildings and complexes.

Audrey Hudson contributed to this report.

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